Bloomington Council Candidates Talk Pandemic Recovery | WGLT

Bloomington Council Candidates Talk Pandemic Recovery

Mar 8, 2021

The candidates running for mayor and city council in Bloomington mostly praise what city government has done so far in providing relief to residents and small businesses.

But some of them diverge on what comes next—and whether the pandemic portends broader economic challenges facing Bloomington.

Ward 3 – Bloomington’s east side

NAACP leader and retired Illinois Department of Corrections worker Willie Holton Halbert will face State Farm executive and Bloomington Planning commissioner Sheila Montney in Ward 3. Incumbent Mboka Mwilambwe is not seeking another term, instead running for mayor.

Montney is running on a pledge to lower taxes by running city services more efficiently. Montney said the pandemic’s impact so far on city revenue—through lost sales, hotel and gas taxes—is “just the tip of the iceberg.” She said Bloomington must keep taxes low as part of a broader strategy to keep the city an attractive place to live, especially in a work-from-home world.

“We are at a crossroads here where we’re gonna have to change behavior, I believe,” said Montney. “We’ve benefitted from double-digit population growth over decades in the past, but we’re not going to be in that boat anymore.”

Halbert said the community has learned some “good lessons” during the pandemic, such as making public meetings accessible on Zoom and suspending fares on Connect Transit.

Halbert pointed to the city’s existing business and resident relief programs as successful. The city’s has already distributed about $186,000, or about 37%, of its direct relief program for residents, officials said. For businesses, $150,000 was distributed to 34 recipients in Round 1 of the program, with Round 2 applications now being reviewed for the next $220,000. The city anticipates about 44 businesses to receive money in Round 2.

Halbert said the city should consider directing any budget surplus it has toward even more relief.

“Sometimes it’s making sure people are aware of the funding that’s available and they make use of that,” said Halbert.

Ward 5 – Near east Bloomington

Nick Becker, a vice president for a data services firm, will face high school teacher Patrick Lawler. Ward 5 incumbent Joni Painter is not seeking re-election.

Lawler praised the city’s early relief efforts, including the direct aid program for residents. “We were ahead of the curve on that,” he said.

As the city receives more federal relief money, it should consider using those funds—and its own reserves—to expand its relief programs, Lawler said.

“If we invest now, it’ll make the recovery that much easier when we get to that point,” said Lawler, who like Halbert is part of the People First Coalition of progressive candidates.

Becker said city-level relief efforts aren’t enough. He said the best way to help people and businesses is to reopen places that he thinks were unnecessarily closed during the pandemic. He said he didn’t have the “legal chops” to weigh in on the legality of state COVID rules, such as those that stopped indoor service at bars and restaurants. But he said they did more harm than good.

“That’s the relief that’s necessary, more than a $9,000 grant that makes somebody feel like, ‘Oh, we did a lot for this business,’ when probably we’ve hurt them much more than that,” said Becker, who like Montney was endorsed by the McLean County Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee.

Becker said it’s appropriate for the city to give struggling residents relief from things like late payment fees. But he doesn’t think it’s feasible to put any more city money toward direct aid.

Ward 7 – Bloomington’s west side

Incumbent Mollie Ward, who was appointed to the seat in October, is the director of spiritual services at Carle BroMenn Medical Center and Carle Eureka Hospital. She faces challenger Kelby Cumpston, a project manager overseeing affordable housing construction and another People First Coalition candidate.

Cumpston pointed to his and his wife’s work establishing the McLean County Mutual Aid program when the pandemic first hit, helping seniors find help shopping and with other things. They didn’t wait weeks for the perfect plan to come together, he said.

“In the spirit of mutual aid, we just started,” Cumpston said. “And I think that’s something the city needs to start doing. There are a lot of incentive programs that other cities are doing out there that we could look to and start in that direction.”

Cumpston also praised the city’s direct relief program. But he said the city missed an opportunity to shine a light on those businesses that were following COVID mitigation rules. He said those defying COVID rules were the only ones getting attention. 

Ward said it’s too early to say if existing assistance programs are working. 

“Is that enough? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. We’re gonna have to be persistent about revisiting. It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Ward said. 

Ward 9 – Bloomington’s northeast side

Ward 9 council member Kim Bray is not seeking re-election. Jim Fruin, a real estate agent and State Farm retiree, is running for a city council seat he held until 2017. He’ll face Tom Crumpler, an education professor at Illinois State University. 

Fruin said the city’s existing assistance programs appear to be working. 

“I don’t have any great ideas of what should be added at this time,” Fruin said. 

Crumpler also praised the city’s existing efforts. He said he’s not sure the city needs to do more right now, although that could change if case counts—and related economic fallout—spike again. 

“It seems to me we’re doing a pretty good job right now providing relief to our businesses and citizens,” said Crumpler.

The election is April 6. Early voting in Bloomington begins March 12.

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