Candidates competing for three open seats on the Normal Town Council sparred Thursday over how best to handle town finances and infrastructure, future development, and whether divisive politics is tainting town governance.
Pantagraph Media hosted the forum, moderated by Central Illinois Editor Chris Coates. He asked candidates what they viewed as Normal’s recent successes, what policy ideas they’d bring to the table if elected, and how they’d prioritize infrastructure funding, among other questions.
The hour-long debate was livestreamed, due to pandemic restrictions. Eight of the nine candidates took part, including incumbents Chemberly Cummings, Kevin McCarthy and Scott Preston, along with challengers David Paul Blumenshine, Steve Harsh, Brad McMillan, Karl Sila and AJ Zimmerman.
Candidate Donna Toney did not attend.
Normal’s successes, missed opportunities
Coates asked candidates to consider Normal leadership’s biggest successes the past few years, and conversely its key missed opportunities.
Recruiting electric carmaker Rivian to Normal was the top answer -- for all at the forum except Harsh. A local businessman and financial services professional, Harsh said Unit 5 schools and Illinois State University were the town’s biggest success.
The other seven candidates pointed to the thousands of jobs Rivian will bring, as well as growing economic development that spills over from its presence.
McMillan, who heads Bradley University’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, also pointed out the urban renewal of Uptown Normal, adding it is partially responsible for winning over Rivian’s leadership. He wasn't the only one praising the town's center. In the past 15 years, the Uptown area's tax revenue has increased from $45,000 to $2.5 million, noted Zimmerman, who is Normal Planning Commission chairman.
Preston, a council member since 2013 and small business owner, was born and raised in Normal. An ISU graduate, he said the next four years will be a time of great economic opportunity for the town, launched by Rivian’s move to the community.
For Normal leadership’s missed opportunities, answers differed:
Cummings, a State Farm technology analyst on the council since 2012, lamented a growing divisiveness in the community that she partially blamed on the pandemic. She said the town needs to re-engage with residents.
Throughout the debate, several candidates talked about these polarizations and false equivalancies plaguing today’s political landscape, including Preston, Zimmerman, and McMillan.
Preston said while sharing different opinions is healthy, he sees harm in the growing division. “Some of the tone issues that we’re seeing -- that may have started at the national level, permeating into our local city hall -- at the end of the day is not productive,” he said.
Harsh said town leadership needs to work better to retain ISU graduates to stay in Normal. He also decried an increase in taxes and crumbling infrastructure.
An Illinois Wesleyan University graduate who once served as district chief of staff to former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, McMillan said Normal leadership needs to fill empty spots in Uptown -- both apartments and storefronts. Revenue from that will pay for needed infrastructure improvements, he said.
McCarthy, a small business owner on the council since 2012, said while he wouldn't call it a missed opportunity, he does see a lesson from the pandemic. With more people using technology to work from anywhere in the world, he said Normal leaders can recruit people to the community for it's low-cost living and great quality of life, compared to big cities where they'd face high rent in small living spaces.
Zimmerman thinks the town should continue addressing a lack of affordable housing and senior housing. With the pandemic driving construction costs higher, he figures that now will have to wait a bit.
Preston said he voted against increasing the Local Motor Fuel Tax from 4 cents per gallon, to 8 cents per gallon. “It wasn’t the right move, or the right time,” he said, citing the pandemic.
Also a McLean County native, Sila, a systems analyst at ISU, said Normal leaders haven't tackled debt, and continue increasing taxes.
Blumenshine, a local real estate broker who hosts a local radio show, agreed, adding Normal should have fixed more roads during the past few years.
Infrastructure, prioritizing and funding
Coates asked the eight council candidates about infrastructure funding, and how, if elected, they’d work to balance and prioritize projects.
McMillan said raising the gas tax was a poor decision, especially during the pandemic. However, he said he definitely would make infrastructure spending a priority, and devote more of the town’s budget toward that. He reiterated his call to increase revenue by adding Uptown businesses.
“We did increase the gas tax, but we also increased the capital projects budget,” said Cummings. “So, we do have our roads and streets projects as priorities, she said, noting the town also pursues grant funding to make those dollars go further.
“Streets, like laundry, are never fully done,” said Preston, adding that managing garbage, sewer, and water services, as well as street repairs was a priority for local government. He said he supports more money going toward roads, but he noted balancing street improvement with other categories is necessary. “Normal’s streets are certainly better than a lot of other communities,” he said.
Zimmerman noted the increase was during the pandemic, but people need to think about the nuance of the gas tax. That tax revenue helps pay for road repairs. With gas stations located near Interstate 55 and along Veterans Parkway, money comes from more than just Normal residents. “The tax that's coming in is going to be substantially higher -- because other people that live in other communities are paying that tax, to help you fix your roads,” he said.
Sila, who ran unsucessfully for town council in 2019, said he’d divert money from what he called “ego projects” such as biking and walking trails, into more road repairs. “They’ve been under maintained, and are getting worse,” he said.
Throughout the night, Blumenshine, Harsh and Sila repeatedly criticized Normal’s tax increases, and it's debt of more than $81 million in general obligation bonds.
“We’re not going to fix it, going in the direction we’re going,” said Blumenshine, saying the two approaches were free market economy vs. government-as-solution, and represent a chasm of difference.
Harsh said 20 years ago, the town didn’t have special taxes. Before, roads were being taken care of with property taxes. Despite the increases, property tax revenue can't cover the road repairs. “Where is all this money going?” said Harsh.
But the other five candidates took a more measured approach in support of the government's role.
McCarthy said he’s been a strong advocate for prioritizing Normal’s infrastructure. “I’ve supported over $93 million in infrastructure projects,” in eight years on the council, he said.
Last month, the council passed $11 million in infrastructure and road projects, he added, as part of its multiyear community investment plan. McCarthy said Normal's investments are backed by Moody's issuing the town a AAA financial rating.
The incumbent criticized the trio of candidates who call for a different approach to town leadership, questioning how they'd accomplish their goals.
“Where have you ever seen a community increase spending by hundreds of millions of dollars, yet cut taxes? Because that’s what some of these guys are promising you. And that math just doesn’t add up,” he said.
McCarthy said programs would have to be cut, or taxes would have to be raised.
“We can call it debt, or we can call it investment,” said Zimmerman, arguing without the annual payments on the managed debt, the town would have no Children’s Discovery Museum, no transportation center, nor adequate parking decks. “You can look out there and see what that investment has done. Look at what you gained,” he said.
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