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Normal Council OKs Arts Center Plan, Police Pay Raises

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner talks during the Normal Town Council meeting Monday, Aug. 17.

The Illinois Art Station’s plan to locate near Constitution Trail took a step forward, and the Normal Police officers’ union agreement was OK’d during Monday night’s Normal Town Council virtual meeting.

The two-year-old Illinois Art Station (IAS) creates hands-on activities for youth and their families, with a special focus on underserved populations, IAS Foundation president Laura Berk told the council. 

“This project is going to be an outstanding addition to our community,” said council member Scott Preston, adding, “It is going to serve a niche and provide quite a unique and incredibly valuable quality-of-life addition to Normal” and the surrounding community on a historic piece of property.

With a 5-1 vote, the future site of IAS now is rezoned as S-2 public use, with council member Stan Nord opposing the rezoning.

The L-shaped piece of land combines property at 605-607 S. Linden St. with 101 E. Vernon Ave. The parcel sits near the intersection of those streets and goes back toward Constitution Trail. One home at the intersection corner will remain zoned for residential use. 

The site plan calls for adding a 5,000-square-foot building to the home on Vernon, using it as an educational facility, and a garage for storage. A large outdoor greenspace also is planned. On Linden Street, IAS will add a parking lot, with a connecting walkway to the center. Additional parking will be near the Vernon Avenue entrance, where a circle drive will include a handicapped parking space.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz praised the IAS vision for the Vernon/Linden site. The planned site is near Uptown and the Constitution Trail, a “very ideal location for something as special and unique as the Illinois Art Station is bringing,” she said.

Police union contract

The council also unanimously approved a four-year contract with Normal's police officer union, the Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 22.

It calls for annual raises of 2.5%, split up into two 1.25% raises spaced out in April and October each year. With the agreement, an officer who was earning $78,292 on April 20 of this year will earn $85,404 as of Oct. 23, 2023.

The agreement came after only two negotiating sessions, noted Preston -- a testament to the great working relationship between the union and city administrators, he said. 

“That speaks to a level of respect between the force and the town administration,” added council member Karyn Smith. She's been a part of union negotiations, at her own job, and knows they aren't always so collegial, she said. “The raises that are included in this collective bargaining agreement are more than earned,” added Smith.

"Actually, it's a very modest increase, given the challenge our police force faces," said council member Kevin McCarthy.

Despite Monday’s police-related agenda item pertaining specifically to the bargaining agreement, several council members said they wanted to clarify the vote did not address police funding as a broader issue.

"This has nothing to do with the politicizing of whether to defund the police or not," said council member Chemberly Cummings. She said public comments about police funding, as well as some emails council members had received, led her to clarify the issue. She called Monday's vote a routine decision on pay increases that happens at most jobs. The bigger issues of police reform, and how Normal chooses to fund its police force, "can be discussed in budget sessions later this year," she said.

Nord agreed the vote was not about police funding. But then he turned the conversation specifically to funding. 

Nord asked whether Normal officers had enough funding for tools or training. He cited the summer unrest following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. And he talked about looting later that week at Target, 301 Veterans Parkway, in Normal. Nord said the event left business owners having their confidence shaken in police protection, and whether the force had enough funding for tools or training.

A discussion followed about the issue of council members taking topics off focus. McCarthy, who acted as mayor protem in Mayor Chris Koos’ absence, reminded the council to keep conversation reasonably focused on the contract at hand. However, he did offer NPD the opportunity to respond.

NPD Chief Rick Bleichner said while the department previously talked to the council about the May 31 looting, he’d be happy to come back and discuss the matter again.

“There’s been a lot made on both sides about staff leaving the Target store,” that night, he said. Saying  NPD is adequately trained, he said Normal police quickly assessed the situation that night, and the substantial amount of force that would have been needed to overcome the situation, if they stayed.

“That action would have posed a serious risk to staff, would have posed injury or potential death, to either officers or the public,” he said. NPD consciously chose to protect lives over property, added Bleichner. He noted much of the police work associated with the May 31 incident prevented similar situations in the town, and that more than 40 arrests were made in connection with the criminal activity.

Nord then told Bleichner he intended for his comments to be in support of NPD, and not a criticism.

Also at the meeting, the council approved 

  • Exterior design plans for the future Crunch Fitness facility that is moving into the former Hobby Lobby space at the Shoppes at College Hills. The 10-year-old New York-based company will be permitted to hang a 350-square-foot sign on its orange exterior. 
  • Renewing the self-insured group plan with AD&D, for the city’s employee group health, dental, and life insurance plan. New rates that include a 3.8% premium increase for Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance, are effective January 2021, and come in under budget, saving the town about $75,000, according to council materials.  
  • A nearly $120,000 agreement with HCIactive and eHealth for city employee wellness services. The town formerly worked with Interactive Health, which went bankrupt in June.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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