Business development and revenue generation are big parts of city government. Candidates for Bloomington City Council offer different ideas on how to achieve that.
The consensus among candidates is clear: attracting more employers that offer jobs and income infusion to Bloomington's economy should be a priority for the city. How far the city should go in offering incentives for development is a different question.
Ward 3 candidate Willie Holton Halbert said any benefit the city gives must mean getting something in return.
“I believe that we need to buy local and we need to build local. So that means when we court other businesses from other locations, when we negotiate those contracts, then we need to make sure that we have in there that we’re going to use local unions, that we consider veterans, that we look at our whole population and everyone is brought to the table," Halbert said.
Halbert said the city needs to designate a specific amount for local school districts and require developers to use local labor.
"A lot of it has to do with being proactive, not reactive, by looking at those contracts," she said. "Yes, we’re going to court you to come to our town. This is a great town. Show you all the reasons, all the pluses, all the benefits. Yes, we can do a tax incentive, but in doing that, we need you to have a percentage of that that goes back into the community.”
Ward 3 challenger Sheila Montney said she questions the long-term benefit from such agreements. She said developers make incentives look good in presentations to the council, but those benefits might not come to fruition.
Montney said under these agreements, existing businesses are left to make up the difference, adding the city should invest in who's already here.
“Retaining customers you already have is cheaper than getting new ones. And I believe also here in Bloomington we need to create conditions that will encourage our existing businesses to stay and continue to thrive, and not disadvantage them in our quest for development," she said.
Montney said the best thing the council can do to help bring in new industry is creating an environment where businesses and families thrive: solid safety, good education, and a low tax burden.
"I think the government should be focused on creating conditions that would make it compelling for businesses to want to locate here. But in terms of their active role in recruiting and developing businesses, I think we have shared organizations here in Bloomington and Normal who we can work collaboratively ... to look at a regional growth plan there," she said.
Ward 5's Patrick Lawler agrees that creating a better climate is the best way to grow Bloomington, stressing those efforts need to extend to all residents.
"I think making sure that we address housing issues and making sure that we have plenty of low-income housing and moderate-income housing, that everyone can have safe, quality housing in our community is another really important issue that kind of plays into that as well. And things like Connect Transit—making sure that we have public transportation that works for everyone," Lawler said.
Lawler said he's willing to give development incentives, but he doesn't think tax increment financing (TIF) districts are the way to do it. Those agreements often last decades.
"I kind of prefer shorter-term tax abatements that can have certain benchmarks attached to them, so that the public can have some accountability for the incentives that are being provided, and that the developer has to meet those benchmarks," Lawler said. "It provides the school district with more flexibility in terms of having more funding available.”
Ward 5 candidate Nick Becker said he shares Lawler's concern about the burden on school districts and small businesses. Becker said these deals fall through if the business crumbles. He said the city should reward success rather than make promises up front.
“I think there are ways to write some of these incentives to say, ‘Look, if you bring in X amount of jobs and you keep those jobs for X amount of time, then you can have a rebate that allows you to have that same incentive, but it puts some of that pressure on the business coming in, as well," Becker said.
He added the city should be leery of businesses that ask for help. He said it could indicate a business is unhealthy.
“There shouldn’t be a need for a lot of incentive," he said. "Yes, getting started and a little bit to get over that barrier to entry, but I think too often, we put too much of the risk on taxpayers.”
No Bloomington council candidate in this election wants to raise taxes. But Ward 9 contender Jim Fruin said sometimes it's a necessary evil.
"Individual fees, whether it’s utilities or amusement … We’ve increased water rates, etc. We have pension responsibilities, we have labor costs. It takes money to run the city. I think we just have to be diligent about where that money comes from," Fruin said.
Fruin said Bloomington's property taxes, especially, are troublesome for residents. He said to avoid increases, city government needs to tighten the belt—but that's hard. Fruin said no one wants to give up anything.
“When we’ve had focus groups on this before and asked the public in open meetings, ‘What do you want to give up?’ Nobody wanted to give up anything," Fruin said. "We become accustomed to the services we’ve got. That’s the challenge of giving up something or perhaps modifying something.”
Fruin said one way to do this is to stick to core services. He said residents want public safety. They want water. They want parks. Everything else, he said, is a distraction.
Ward 9 Challenger Tom Crumpler agrees on residents' wants, but said most are willing to pay to make that happen.
“People in my ward that I’ve spoken to feel like they really want a city that works," Crumpler said. "They feel like they pay taxes for what I would call ‘core services’: things like snow removal, recycling, garbage pick-up, brush removal, water and sewer service and that kind of thing. I think the property taxes are pretty reasonable.”
Crumpler said one area the city could cut costs is public service service contracts that are up for review at the end of the fiscal year. He said there are decisions to be made about whether each service is necessary, or if the city could better handle those services itself.
“I want the city to act responsibly—make sure that the services that we’re contracting out or paying for are important, to save money if we can," he said.
Crumpler said he, like other candidates, supports public-private partnerships and business development incentives when they have a direct and immediate benefit to the community. He said one example of when it worked well is the Washington Senior Apartments. That property is part of the downtown TIF district.
Ward 7 candidate Kelby Cumpston agrees these are good tools to bring more affordable housing to Bloomington.
"I don't necessarily mean luxury homes with 10% of the homes being affordable housing. I mean affordable housing projects," Cumpston said.
But Cumpston said there are plenty of examples where agreements have backfired.
“I think that they're not good when it's something that is on the outskirts of town, for instance, that expands our infrastructure needs. I think it's not good when it's taking a bunch of incentives that are not necessarily needed," he said. "One prime example that I always point to is the TIF district ... where Circuit City used to be. That whole complex there, we took a bunch of TIF money to bring in multinational corporate box stores."
Cumpston said that development pitted a big box pet store against a locally-owned one that is paying more in rent and didn't get a single dollar from the agreement.
Ward 7 incumbent Mollie Ward said if the benefit to the community isn't something concrete, she's not likely to support an incentive.
"I think we also need to, you know, to be ethical about it and keep in mind what our values are as the community and and any partnerships that we we establish need to keep those principles in," Ward said.
She said when looking to build the tax base, it's important to not overburden one group or sector. She said it's all intertwined.
“I think that what we need as a city is a comprehensive look at it," Ward said. "That will allow us to to be intentional and thoughtful and deliberate rather than 'we move this one piece of the puzzle, but then we haven't thought about what impact that's going to have on the other piece of the puzzle' and so forth.”
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.