The Normal Town Council voted overwhelmingly Monday night to waive next year’s liquor license fees for certain businesses negatively affected by Restore Illinois’ pandemic closures and restrictions.
Restaurants and bars, in particular, have suffered losses after bans on indoor dining.
But businesses that violate such pandemic restrictions in the upcoming year will be required to pay the license fee renewal.
The waiver OK'd Monday complements federal and state relief, said council member Karyn Smith.
She said eliminating the liquor license fee for 2021 allowed Normal, “at the local level, to provide some specific relief to an industry sector that has been hard hit as we attempt to battle this pandemic,” said council member Karyn Smith.
The town estimates the fee waivers will result in a $95,000 revenue loss. About 55 establishments are eligible, including universities and movie theaters that permit on-site alcohol consumption.
Fees will not be waived for all liquor license holders, including businesses that sell packaged alcohol -- such as grocery, convenience, or liquor stores.
Not everyone supported Monday’s decision. Councilman Stan Nord voted “no,” saying he disagreed the ordinance was simply acknowledging hard times.
“This is beyond just giving them a break because of an expense that they had last year, or in 2020, because the government came in and closed them down,” said Nord.
He criticized the ordinance's wording, saying it proved punitive. The ordinance specifically requires a business owner to pay a 2021 renewal fee if “the licensee is found in any court or state or local administrative hearing or proceeding to have violated a COVID-19 regulation.”
“We’re now compelling them going forward to blindly follow whatever regulation the state puts out,” or the mayor’s office declares, said Nord, who also continued to question the legality of Gov. JB Pritzer’s Restore Illinois restrictions, and whether Normal has the right to enforce those rules.
But Mayor Chris Koos said creating the local ordinance is part of the council’s duties: “We are a home-rule form of government, and we can pass laws as we choose to for the town of Normal,” he said.
Koos described the fee waivers as something similar to assistance grants, with criteria required to qualify for relief. He said he didn’t see the waivers as rewards or punishments. “The intent of this is to relieve the struggles businesses in our community have had,” he said.
City attorney Brian Day added, “This is an incentive that we are giving to businesses. Part of that incentive is they have to continue to comply with all the applicable regulations related to COVID."
Nord decried the noncompliance fee, saying it forced Normal business owners to choose sides in the "partisan debate" over Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan. But Day disagreed. "Following the law is not a partisan issue,” he responded.
Nord said the fee waiver amounts to the town bribing liquor license holders to follow Pritzker’s rules. But Day said the Restore Illinois regulations are law, “and all of our liquor licensees are going to be required to follow the law.”
City Manager Pam Reece took issue with Nord's characterization: “That is not the first time Mr. Nord has implied, and even come right out and stated, that we are bribing and doing things that would be completely unethical,” she said, calling for the council to acknowledge the error of his statement.
“That is absolutely not the case, not happening, and not OK to imply that you as a body, or town staff would do that,” she said.
Despite Nord’s strong opposition, the majority of the council supported the idea: council members Kevin McCarthy, Chemberly Cummings, and Scott Preston all praised the waivers as a creative way to help support local businesses.
Community Improvement Plan
Also Monday, the council approved its 6-year Community Investment Plan. The reference document is an outline prioritizing the town’s upcoming capital projects. It lists 130 projects, with a cost totalling about $100 million.
The plan is prepared ahead of March, at which time the projects’ cost will be incorporated into the budget, said Andrew Huhn, Normal finance chief.
Categories of the capital plan include development areas of transportation, utility services, capital assets (vehicle and equipment), and parks and town facilities. Nearly half the spending is tagged for utilities development, said Huhn.
The plan also has an additional list of unfunded projects slated for more than $106 million. The full report is on the town’s website www.normal.org, under the government heading’s finance tab.
In other business, the council:
- OK’d distributing a total of $450,000 from its general fund to nearly 60 Normal businesses, as part of the town’s Small Business Relief Program. The state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) will reimburse that money from the federal CURES pandemic relief program, said Eric Hanson, assistant city manager. He told the council local grant recipients will be notified this week. They could apply for up to $15,000. Checks should arrive around Jan. 1, he said, noting some funds remain available.
- Doubled spending for an infrastructure project at Sugar Creek’s Gregory Street culvert, off Main Street. With Monday’s amended resolution, $926,000--not the $407,500 originally approved in February---will be released from the Motor Fuel Tax Fund to complete the project this summer. That tax fund is state money. The extent of the work required was greater than initially known, according to council materials.
The money comes from nearly $1.2 million the state is providing Normal for capital projects.
- Heard a presentation from Beth Whisman, director of Normal’s Cultural Arts Department and the Children’s Discovery Museum. She discussed some of the adjustments the staff has made during the pandemic closures, such as educational outreach, creative online fundraising, and socially distant holiday programs.
- Approved the appointments of Michael Pettorini to the McLean County Regional Planning Commission; Mandava Rao, to the Connect Transit Board; and Rachael Lund, to the Normal Planning Commission.
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