The Bloomington City Council learned during its meeting Monday that $3.2 million in COVID-19 relief has arrived to help the city’s battered budget, via the federally-funded CURES program.
“This is great news for the city, related to our revenue issues” that continue to be a challenge, said Bloomington finance chief Scott Rathbun.
CURES is a local government assistance program, distributed through the state but funded via the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.
Rathbun announced the check’s arrival during a report on the pandemic’s impact on the fiscal 2021 budget. With about half the fiscal year completed, he said the city is seeing about a $2.7 million COVID impact.
“In general, we’re doing better than our original projections,” said Rathbun. The changes since March have been softened by a combination of the CURES assistance, delays in capital projects, spending cuts, and putting nearly $25 million in reserves in place, he said.
Several general fund categories are offsetting each other, added Rathbun, helping the city show, as of Nov. 1, a $246,000 surplus. For example, while the local hotel tax revenue is down about 43%, local use tax that which includes online spending, is up roughly 41%, he said.
Rathbun cautioned, however, calling the surplus a false indicator, and noting the city could take another hit in its food and beverage tax revenue, as indoor dining and other pandemic mitigations have been put in place.
The city also has received a second round of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, said City Manager Tim Gleason. The council is expected to OK a distribution plan next month for the $546,000. Gleason said Bloomington businesses will be able to apply for $5,000 grants, and some local individuals also will be eligible for aid.
Also at Monday’s remote meeting, live streamed on YouTube, the council authorized $4.3 million in capital equipment financing, and OK’d a new electronic payment system that should increase staff efficiency and ease customer interface when paying utilities.
The council voted unanimously to approve the $4.3 million with Clayton Holdings LLC, an equity subsidiary of Commerce Bank. The funds cover police and other city equipment leasing for fiscal 2020.
For nearly a decade, Bloomington has been working to transition from leasing to paying in cash, according to Rathbun. He said $500,000 was set aside for equipment purchase in 2020, and $650,000 in 2021, for example. However, the challenges of budgeting during COVID means this direction has slowed.
A silver lining is low interest rates, he said, with five-year leases coming at less than 1%, and 10-year leases at 1.25%.
New electronic payment system
The council also unanimously OK’d a plan to modernize it's billing and payment system, shifting to an e-payment model to be used mainly by its utilities customers.
Rathbun described the move as a win all around. The city will realize cost-savings from going paperless and cutting down on staffing phone calls and in-person payments. Meanwhile, customers will have the ability to access paperless billing, and receipts, as well as use pay-by-text and customer alerts.
Currently, Bloomington spends about $305,000 per year to mail monthly bills and process utility payments, he said. But during the three-year conversion period, the city expects to annually save about $35,000.
The InvoiceCloud Inc. system will launch this March, at an initial cost of $105,000, according to council materials. That funding will come from four funds: water, storm water, sewer, and solid waste.
The city is budgeting $85,000 in fiscal 2022 to cover the transaction-based model's expected cost of between $75,000 and $90,000 for that first full year. In the second year, Bloomington projects the conversion costing between $35,000 and $50,000; and in the third year, less than $35,000.
Using the e-payments system will be voluntary. People still can receive paper bills, and make in-person payments, said Rathbun. But the city expects the majority of its 32,000 account holders to switch. He predicts the new electronic system will save money in labor, too.
“If we aren’t taking a lot of calls, we can utilize the staff in other ways,” for additional cost savings, said Rathbun.
Craig McBeath, Bloomington’s information technology director, told the council the conversion also will help Bloomington move toward its goal to consolidate its many merchant accounts to one provider, another cost-saving and efficiency measure.
Indoor dining ban
Related to Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement of COVID-related mitigations, including preventing indoor dining, Gleason has changed closing times to 11 p.m., and extended outdoor dining to Dec. 31.
Unlike two weeks ago, he said this past weekend was quieter in terms of complaints against businesses violating the state’s prohibition on indoor dining. The Bloomington Police Department had only five calls, none in the downtown area, he said. And BPD only forwarded one noncompliance report to the McLean County Health Department, he said.
Last week, as numbers of COVID cases in the area surged, reports of several downtown bars welcoming crowds led to outcry about an uneven enforcement of the policy, and confusion about which government entity had charge of enforcement.
At Monday's meeting, Mayor Tari Renner again lamented miscommunication and misunderstandings about the policy and the McLean County Health Department’s role in enforcement.
Renner said if the public’s health is in danger by businesses violating safety measures, and he--as mayor and liquor commissioner--and the council have an obligation to address it.
“We are going to act. We have to act. We will act,” he said.
If people have concerns, they can contact the city's legal department or the county health department. But, Renner and the city is limited to address establishments with liquor licenses, he said.
Several other council members also talked about the issue, and encouraged citizens to step up vigilance--social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing. Several also encouraged residents to stay home, rather than travel on Thanksgiving.
Ward 6 Alderwoman Jenn Carrillo said people, in general, were much more cautious at the pandemic’s start in March and April. But now complacency has led to dangerous behavior, she said.
“It’s much worse now. Just because we are sick of being at home doesn’t mean we are safer,” said Carrillo, who criticized businesses disobeying the indoor dining ban, noting other businesses followed the public health crisis rules at their own financial detriment.
Ward 7 council member Mollie Ward shared a pandemic calculation before asking for a moment of silence. Ward said that during the less than two hours of the meeting, nearly 80 people in the U.S. had perished from COVID.
In other business, the council:
- Pushed back a vote on zoning changes for the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown. Several council members said constituents still had concerns about proposed special-use rules in the neighborhoods of single-family and multi-family housing.
- Learned the Miller Park Zoo will develop a $1 million South American exhibit, funded mainly by a $750,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The zoo’s foundation plans to cover the remaining costs.
- Approved the next step in plans for Aldi Foods to construct a store on the corner of Ireland Grove Road, near Mercer Avenue. The council OK’d the final site plan for the 20,000-square-foot facility, on a 2.5-acre site.
- OK’d spending up to $371,820 this year for road salt from Morton Salt Inc., at a cost of about $62 per ton.
- Approved a three-year contract with Dell, for a total of about $610,000. The contract renewal is about $81,750 higher than the previous three-year period. The increase is mostly due to additional email licensing, and Microsoft advanced threat protection, according to council materials.
- Approved the appointments of Dawn Peters to the Historic Preservation Commission, and Nibandhini Kinikar to the Human Relations Commission.
- Heard from several callers during public comment, again urging the council to adopt a Welcoming City ordinance. Supporters of the idea aim to limit local law enforcement's interactions with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement staff.
A few callers also criticized Ward 2 alderwoman Donna Boelen and Ward 9 alderwoman Kim Bray for supporting an alternative proposal connected with the nonprofit Welcoming America. The callers said the Boelen proposal, discussed last week during a council committee meeting, was a facade of nice words, but lacked protections for immigrants outlined in the 2018 welcoming city proposal.
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