Normal Town Council candidates turn the question of pandemic recovery efforts into a litmus test on the past response to the pandemic, but don't say much about what should come next.
The town already has done some things to aid in pandemic recovery. It has used federal community development block grant money for two rounds of housing assistance grants. It has given $500,000 in forgivable loans and grants to small businesses, again as a federal pass-through.
Incumbent council member Kevin McCarthy said that shows positive attention to the issue.
"The town has been very successful at going out and bringing tax dollars back to help our local residents," said McCarthy.
All the candidates are notably silent about what new steps the town can take moving forward to help the community recover. Indeed, incumbent Chemberly Cummings said there are fiscal limits.
"To be honest, I don't think there really is (much more that is local to do). We are already working on kind of a tight budget due to our losses because of pandemic, so I do think we will end up having to rely on federal and state-level assistance," said Cummings.
As with most issues this election cycle, there are two well-defined blocks of candidates when it comes to how the town should shape pandemic relief going forward.
The group consisting of Donna Toney, Steve Harsh, and Karl Sila criticize the response to the pandemic so far, and characterize future efforts as what not to do rather than specific action that should be taken.
"The main thing the town needs to do is get out of the way. Kind of like the Hippocratic oath, first do no harm," said Sila.
Sila and the others think the town should not have cracked down on certain businesses that made a point of disobeying the governor's executive order banning indoor restaurant service during COVID case surges.
"The town going in and shutting them down without input from the health department. The town fining them for political reasons, all of that is getting in the way as opposed to facilitating recovery," said Sila.
Supporters of indoor dining bans when they were in place have characterized enforcement actions as ways to control the spread of the coronavirus -- and not political.
Sila said people should be able to and make their own decisions.
Harsh also disagreed with town action to support state action to preserve public health.
"Allow every business to be open and operate under their own control," said Harsh. "If the governor wants every business shut down, then let the governor come shut down every business."
The fourth candidate in that group, David Paul Blumenshine, has not responded to WGLT requests for interviews, though he is known to be a government minimalist.
The other block of candidates tend to emphasize actions such as suspending liquor license fees for a year. Among them is Planning Commission chair and council candidate AJ Zimmerman.
"Allowing to-go liquor sales or to increase outdoor seating so we can get to some level of capacity," said Zimmerman.
Incumbent Scott Preston acknowledged the liquor license fee waiver is a small bite move, but said it should not be discounted.
"We are providing some kind of relief and some kind of acknowlegement that hey, at least we hope this helps you guys as you guys go through a tough year, recognizing that they had already paid those fees for 2020 before the pandemic came about," said Preston.
He and fellow incumbent Kevin McCarthy said the liquor license fees may only amount to about $3,000, but that's big enough to mean something right now. McCarthy said the waiver also is an example of creativity the council must have when new possibilities come.
"We don't have a ton of money to give away. OK, we can forgo some liquor license fees for a year. Maybe we can do it for two. It depends on how that goes on. But we have to be able to identify those most pressing needs and then be creative about what we can do to give them relief. And that means we have to have a good conversation going on," said McCarthy.
And candidate Brad McMillan said the conversation should include being alert and responsive to future federal pass-through opportunities as well.
"This new round of federal money from Washington, D.C. has a restaurant-bar component to it. It should help them hopefully get to the point they can survive until we finally turn the corner," said McMillan.
All candidates acknowledged the road to recovery will be long. The election is April 6.
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