The Bloomington City Council narrowly passed a higher local motor fuel tax Monday night.
Aldermen voted 5-4 to raise the tax from 4 to 8 cents per gallon beginning May 1. Aldermen Kim Bray, Amelia Buragas, Joni Painter, Jamie Mathy and Diana Hauman voted for the measure, while Aldermen Karen Schmidt, Mboka Mwilambwe, Scott Black and David Sage voted no.
“The No. 1 request that I get from community members and constituents is good roads and good sidewalks,” said Bray. “This is what the community demands, and it costs money.”
Voting against other funding sources in the past has left fewer and fewer options to pay for the work, she said.
“We said no to a utility tax. We said no to an increase in property tax. We said no to an increase in sales tax. So where would we identify the revenue?”
City staff say Bloomington’s roads are underfunded by about $2 million.
While residents, aldermen and city staff agree Bloomington's roads need repairs, there’s been little public support from residents for the tax hike.
Bloomington resident Bruce Meeks said he's collected signatures for a petition against raising the tax and for greater transparency in spending, among other changes. Meeks said he’s collected 569 signatures on the petition to date.
“I think you have a responsibility to stand up for what you (council members) said you wanted to do: priority budgeting,” he said.
And although he voted to support the increase, Alderman Jamie Mathy agreed.
“We did not do a good job of prioritizing our budget this year,” he said. And with increases in public pension obligations coming down the pike, “We’re going to have to cut a lot of stuff, and it’s going to get really messy,” he said. “It seems like roads have been the last thing to get funded."
That means the council can’t continue to leave roads as “the last thing to get funded” as part of the budget process, he said.
City Manager Tim Gleason said the local motor fuel tax revenue is already restricted to fund asphalt and concrete projects. Gleason said the council will consider a plan at its April 8 meeting to further restrict the now 8-cent tax—including $2.3 million in additional revenue—as a line item in the budget, providing an additional level of spending transparency.
Mathy said with the additional revenue and increased restrictions, “We can say we know that at least the roads are going to get done.”
But for Alderman Karen Schmidt, prioritizing the budget means prioritizing “the money that we already have in our budget, rather than asking for more.”
Of the feedback she’s received on the issue, “100 percent of the people want the roads fixed—they don’t want to see an additional tax,” she said. Schimdt also said the city’s transportation commission had asked for more time for public discussions on the proposal.
Sage agreed the council could’ve looked to the city’s general fund to reallocate dollars for roads. He described a conversation with a constituent who said the tax would be a burden for people already living paycheck to paycheck.
“And then they said, ‘Does anyone on the council even understand anymore what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck?’ The best I could come up with was, ‘We’ll find out Monday,’” he said.
Gleason said the city has already taken steps to give residents a clearer picture of the work that’s being done and how it’s funded.
He said the city bought a domain name, bloomingtonstreets.com, in anticipation of creating a standalone website for residents to view that data.
Mathy said he also wants the city’s forthcoming technology commission to help create an online open data portal to bring additional transparency to the city’s spending.
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.