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Bloomington Council To Consider 'Welcoming America' Program

Blooomington City Council meets remotely Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Next month, Bloomington City Council will hear a proposal on whether to research a national program that helps communities build an inclusive culture for immigrants and other populations. 

Ward 2 council member Donna Boelen presented the proposal to further study the Welcoming America Initiative during Monday's remote meeting. Despite passing 7-2, some on the council, as well as local immigrants-rights advocates, spoke against the idea.

Instead, they support first addressing the local push for a Welcoming City ordinance. That grassroots campaign calls for more direct city protection of Bloomington’s immigrant residents, supporting an ordinance limiting cooperation between Bloomington police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).   

Ward 6 council member Jenn Carrillo and Ward 8 council member Jeff Crabill voted against pursuing the national network. Both cited the nonprofit Immigration Project's support of first pursuing a Welcoming City ordinance. 

“We need to have our internal procedures in order, in respect to immigrants, before we talk about trying to get a Welcoming America initiative,” said Crabill. Further explaining his “no” vote, he added, “(They’re) not the same proposals, and I know council member Boelen has expressed she’s not supportive of the Welcoming City ordinance.”

The national Welcoming America program is a nonprofit founded in 2009. It helps create a framework for inclusive communities by addressing discrimination, boosting civic engagement, creating access to education and job training, and focusing on safety, said Boelen.

“It’s a roadmap,” she added. “The immigrants gain a sense of belonging.”

The national network guides local government in leadership and building broad community support, she said. “This Welcoming America is not window dressing, as some people think,” said Boelen.

In one heated exchange, while Carrillo explained her opposition to Boelen’s proposal, council member Kim Bray twice interrupted her, saying the Welcoming City proposal wasn’t to be discussed during Monday’s talk and that Carrillo was taking the proposal as a personal attack. However, Carrillo said she was explaining why she was voting “no,” and so Mayor Tari Renner allowed the discussion to continue.

“It is highly suspect that the people who have been against the Welcoming City ordinance … are the folks who are enthusiastically ushering in this process,” said Carrillo. Skipping the local campaign’s proposal was simply a way to avoid a tense, but needed, conversation about local priorities for Bloomington’s immigration communities, she said.

Council members Jamie Mathy, Julie Emig and Mollie Ward all said they did not see the two proposals as mutually exclusive, but rather as an opportunity to start the conversation.

“One does not limit the other. I think Welcoming America actually guides the Welcoming Cities in some ways,” said Mathy. “I think to say ‘no’ to this would be shortsighted."

“One does not preclude the other,” added Renner. 

Bray said she supported Welcoming America but not other initiatives, because the national program didn’t cross a municipality’s legal authority in addressing immigration issues.

At the start of the meeting, a handful of callers shared the opposition's view--noting that while the Welcoming America program wasn’t bad, they preferred the city council first adopt a Welcoming City ordinance.

A candidate for Ward 3, Willie Horton Halbert, who is a leader with the local chapter of NAACP, was among the callers, as was Robert Garcia, a Ward 2 resident and an immigrant-rights advocate. Garcia said he had concerns about Bloomington signing up for Welcoming America’s 12-month startup program, bringing thousands of dollars of administrative costs. But mostly, he said the national program doesn’t rise to the level of protection immigrants here deserve.

Don Carlson, a Ward 4 resident, told the council that as someone who has worked toward getting a Welcoming City ordinance passed, he knows that should be a priority.

“There may be benefits to joining the Welcoming America initiative. However, it doesn’t replace the need for Bloomington to clearly define how our police will interact with federal ICE agents, which is what a Welcoming City ordinance specifically does.”

Bloomington’s grassroots and faith leaders have told the council that is what is needed, he added. "Build the foundation first, and then the house,” said Carlson. 

Lori Payton, who said she spoke on behalf of several of the Friends of Quakers, agreed.

“We believe families should not live with the threat of separation,” a situation that doesn’t just occur at the border, but also in Illinois communities, she said. Payton noted the city’s current policy allows local police to share information with ICE. That puts local immigrants in danger, but the broader community as well, because immigrants are afraid to report crimes, or help with police investigations, she said. 

Earlier Monday, Not In Our Town leaders Mike Matejka and Camille Taylor released a joint statement supporting Boelen’s proposal, but with the caveat they wanted a Welcoming City ordinance to follow in the near future. 

“They are compatible; Welcoming America is an endorsement of a community wide effort. … and A Welcoming City ordinance is a specific directive to city (of Bloomington) staff and departments on how they respond to and treat immigrants.  They are not mutually exclusive, but are mutually compatible,” the statement said. 

 Eastland Mall property tax case

In another matter, the council unanimously approved the legal department’s request to intervene in a 2019 tax case, involving the Eastland Mall property’s assessed value.

The mall property owners believe its equalized assessed value (EAV) of roughly $10.7 million is too high, and seek a reduction of about $3.5 million. That could have a negative impact on other Bloomington taxpayers, as related to their share of the total levy, according to council materials.

Intervening is expected to cost the city no more than $10,000.

City annexes Timberlake subdivision

The council also unanimously OK’d the annexation of Timberlake subdivision, north of Hamilton Road, near the Sale Barn property.  

A pre-annexation agreement from 2000, between Timberlake and the city, expires this month. Residents there have 180 days to file a petition for annexation, or work out another agreement that would be valid for another two decades. 

Based on taxing data, had the subdivision been annexed in 2019, the city would have received about $22,600 in property tax revenue.

City accepts HUD grant 

The council approved accepting $2.3 million in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants to reduce the lead-based paint hazard and foster healthy homes. The grant covers homes in Bloomington wards 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7.

The city's grant application was the only one in this round awarded funds in Illinois, according to council materials.

Bloomington will pay about $392,000 in matching funds over a 4-year period, using Community Development Block grant funds. More than 90 homes, where young children live, will be tested for lead. If a problem is found, or another such as a leaky roof, the grant also covers the cost of eliminating the issue.

Bloomington will partner with Mid-Central Community Action, and several other local groups, on the grant. 

In other business, the council: 

  • Approved the city creating a waiting list for businesses that want video game licenses.
  • Learned that after the city collects fines--from liquor-license holders that violate Restore Illinois restrictions--the money will be directed to an assistance fund supporting low-income District 87 students.
  • Approved the John M. Scott Health Center’s fiscal 2020 annual court report.
  • Approved an agreement with District 87, so that it can purchase up to 250 tons of rock salt from the city this winter. The cost will be $106.57 per ton of existing supply, and then $66.97 per ton after that.
  • Approved special-use permits for two businesses:  All About Auto, a repair and detailing shop, at 604 W. Division St.; as well as a used-car dealership set to open at 2426 S. Main St.
  • Conditionally approved the final plat, and vacated easements as requested, for Parkway Village’s Phase 6 subdivision. 

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