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Bloomington Council Refinances Bonds, Saves $560,000 In Interest Payments

Bloomington City Council met remotely Feb. 22, 2021.

The Bloomington City Council on Monday agreed to refinance some of its general obligation bonds, a move that’s expected to save about $560,000 in interest payments. 

“We’ve done this before,” said City Manager Tim Gleason. “This is a relatively small bond refinance. But you’re going to be shocked at the amount of money we’re going to save."

Also at the virtual meeting, the council agreed to delay a decision on a Welcoming Cities ordinance draft to add clarification to the process, and heard reports on the John M. Scott Health Trust and on the upcoming budget.

Council members also reminded voters in Ward 7 that Tuesday is the primary election; five candidates are competing for two spots. The top finishers will square off April 6.

Bond refinance; 2022 budget talks

Monday’s vote on the bonds abates the levy amount of debt service of the combined refinanced issues. 

Bloomington finance chief Scott Rathbun likened the general obligation fund refund to a municipal version of an individual refinancing a home. The council unanimously approved the move.

“It’s a prudent thing to do. It saves you money in the long run,” he said.  The $3.6 million being refinanced through Busey Bank is a small fraction of Bloomington’s total general obligation (GO) bonds that total more than $48 million. 

The city’s total outstanding debt has a $77 million principal, which when compared to similar central Illinois cities, is reasonable, said Rathbun. 

The city’s 2009 GO bonds, with an outstanding principal of $2.8 million, and its 2018 GO bonds with outstanding principal of $770,000, were eligible for refunds. After that, the city combined the pair as a single $3.6 million bond. That results in about $559,000 in savings, according to council materials. 

Bloomington has a strong AA-rating that results in good interest rates being available on its bonds, he said. Not all communities watch the market in terms of their existing bonds, said Gleason, who praised Rathbun for catching the savings potential.

Following the vote, Rathbun and other city leaders spoke about infrastructure and other capital projects planned for the fiscal 2022 budget. 

The nearly $60 million set aside for infrastructure work accounts for nearly a quarter of the total proposed city budget, Rathbun told the council. Except for a $20 million increase for  capital projects, next year’s budget is essentially flat, he said. 

About half of the $20 million is tied to the O’Neil Pool and park renovation. Other big projects include subdivision and road improvements. 

The finance department has a final presentation at the council’s March 8 meeting, followed by a March 22 public hearing, and an April 12 final adoption of the fiscal 2022 budget.

Welcoming City ordinance plan slows

The agenda called for discussion on how to guide city staff in drafting a Welcoming City ordinance, with some proposed ideas from Ward 6 alderwoman Jenn Carrillo. 

However, the council agreed with her suggestion Monday to slow the process. The new plan is to revisit the issue at the March 15 committee-of-the-whole session, where stakeholders such as Bloomington police and nonprofit immigrant rights’ groups could discuss the matter with the council. Next, more community input on the ordinance will be sought.

“There is some building agreement about what is needed next,” said Carrillo, adding it's become clear more consensus is needed. Carrillo was the lead proponent of bringing the issue back to council. In January, the council voted 5-4 during committee to work with city staff to draft a proposal.  Prior to being elected to council, Carrillo had been part of the initial push for a Welcoming Cities ordinance in 2017.

“There still is a lot of misunderstanding about what this initiative is and isn’t,” she said, regarding its overall purpose and the particulars of different elements within it.

Carrillo said before moving forward, the council should understand the police department’s current policy, and how it came to be. The council also should do comparative research, looking at best practices and what other cities have done on the immigration issue. 

“It would be good to have a comprehensive discussion on the subject,” said Mboka Mwilambwe, Ward 3 alderman, noting President Biden’s administration has some different policies than the previous administration. Mwilambwe said he's heard from some people who confuse the proposed Welcoming City ordinance with the city's January vote to join the Welcoming America network. Both focus on improving community experiences for immigrants,but in different ways.

In council discussion, several members said they want to hear directly from experts on the Welcoming City proposal, including the Bloomington Police Department, and local and state nonprofits focused on the issue, such as the Immigration Project and the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. 

Originally, on Monday the council was supposed to discuss how to guide staff in drafting an ordinance proposal. That document, included in council materials, aimed to provide direction and instruction to city staff on how to interact with residents and other agencies related to immigration issues.

The draft also noted the Welcoming City ordinance would build upon the state’s 2017 TRUST Act that sets limits on state and local law enforcement's participation in federal immigration enforcement. 

John M. Scott Trust 

On Monday, the council also OK’d distributing $759,000 in Scott Health Care grant awards, and approved related program agreements for fiscal 2022. No city money was used; the council acts as trustee for the John M. Scott Health Care Trust.

The council voted 8-0 to handle the Scott awards, with council member Jamie Mathy abstaining because he sits on the Community Heath Care Clinic board, one of the agencies that receives grant funding.

Holly Ambuehl, Scott’s chairwoman, told the council the private trust is worth about $16 million.

In the past, the trust directly distributed aid to individuals in need. However, under a 2018 reorganization, the organization now works through a grant model, giving money to local nonprofits that then provide services to underprivileged and others in need. 

Ambuehl said during the past year, the trust has consciously worked to address systemic racism, as well as to focus on COVID-19 special needs, and broadening access to dental health.  

Miller Park Zoo’s $1 million project

In another matter, the council officially OK’d a partnership to bring a $1 million South American project to Miller Park Zoo. 

The council approved the agreement with Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with the state agency’s $750,000 grant covering most of Phase 1 for the project, and Miller Park Zoological Society paying the remaining quarter, or $250,000. 

Bids are expected this spring. The new project will add several animal species to the zoo, including the Giant Anteater, Galapagos Tortoise and Bush Dog exhibits. 

The zoo project was just one of the city's major wins during the past year, according to Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus.

At the meeting, Tyus spent time detailing how the city thrived in 2020 while working through a year of pandemic. Most notable was $260 million worth of construction projects taking place within city limits, including $80 million in new construction, he said.

“During a year when there was so much uncertainty, that says a lot about Bloomington,” said Tyus.

The city also landed the $75 million Ferrero chocolate factory, and saw the beginning of the $23 million YMCA building on the OSF St. Joseph Medical Center campus. 

The city added 12 businesses to the downtown, said Tyus; his presentation will be available on the city’s website, he told the council.

In other business, the council:

  • Issued three proclamations:  One set aside March 1, 2021, as COVID-19 Victims’ and Survivors’ Memorial Day. A second honored Bloomington’s first female mayor, Judy Markowitz, who died last week. Another celebrated Feb. 22, 2021 as Supermarket Employee Day.
  • Approved a two-year, $967,000 contract for solid waste disposal with Republic Services. 
  • Gave the go-ahead to a $275,000 ambulance purchase for the Bloomington Fire Department.
  • Approved spending $290,000 in Motor Fuel Tax funds on engineering services for a proposed Hamilton Road railroad crossing near Commerce Parkway.
  • OK’d a three-year intergovernmental agreement with Normal and McLean County to cover the cost of a Midwest Fiber dropbox recycling program in Normal, with the caveat that one site be located in Bloomington. Each entity pays about a third of the cost, with Bloomington’s share being about $65,000 annually. In the 8-1 vote, Carrillo voted “no.”
  • Appointed Ashley Farmer to the public safety board, and Brady Sant Amour to the city’s planning commission.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct the reason why council member Jamie Mathy abstained from the vote.

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