If Normal wants Restore Illinois restrictions enforced, it’s going to require a local ordinance, according to Normal Mayor Chris Koos.
He talked about the possibility with other town leaders during a remote work session before Monday’s regular Normal Town Council meeting. At issue is whether to penalize or incentivize compliance, or stick with the status quo of issuing warnings-only.
Later Monday during its regular meeting, also held remotely because of pandemic restrictions, the council approved a $13.1 million property tax levy for 2020; and the disbursement of $143,000 in federal grant money for local housing assistance.
Enforcing Restore Illinois violations
At its work session on how to address businesses that violate Restore Illinois' pandemic restrictions, council members didn’t come to any consensus.
However, following the 45-minute discussion, in which council members voiced concerns and asked questions of Normal’s police and legal administrators, City Manager Pam Reece said staff will draft an ordinance proposal.
The main question is whether Normal wants to hold businesses--mainly bars and restaurants--accountable for violating the safety precautions put in place by Gov. JB Pritzker. Those include prohibiting indoor restaurant dining, limiting crowds, and requiring masks and social distancing.
“Any enforcement of Restore Illinois in our community or in McLean County is going to have to be done by local ordinance,” said Koos, explaining he'd researched the matter with state, regional and local leaders. “It’s going to really come on our shoulders to do, or not do, anything.”
He said the McLean County Health Department’s hands are tied, as current law limits how the agency can respond to the executive orders. However, Normal has broader home rule powers, and can create enforcement rules.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner told the council his officers have fielded only a handful of complaints. At this point, the NPD just records the information, and forwards it to the health department, he said.
Reece told the council if proposed, the ordinance draft could have a carrot-and-stick approach, fining violators, probably after a warning; and creating financial incentives for businesses to comply with the restrictions.
“We’re not talking about shutting down a business. I just want to be clear, we would propose that if there’s a violation, it would be handled like any other ordinance violation, with a fine, a penalty--not shutting down a business,” said Reece.
While council members agreed Normal businesses face economic challenges because of the pandemic, they disagreed 0n how best to handle balancing those needs with the public crisis at hand.
Council member Kevin McCarthy said the increasing number of COVID cases locally, and nationally, mean this is no game. “Cases are skyrocketing. Hospitals are at capacity, and I’m sad to say more of our local people are dying,” he said.
“It’s true that the vast majority of our businesses are complying,” he said, adding that’s because they know its the right thing to do.
But because some businesses are violating the rules, its created an unfair playing field, as well as increased chances of virus spread, said McCarthy.
Council member Stan Nord opposed even the consideration of a proposed ordinance, saying restaurants are low on the list of sources as outbreaks. He also questioned the legality of Pritzker’s executive orders. “People aren’t breaking the law now,” he said.
However, city attorney Brian Day disagreed, saying recent cases have been settled, and show the governor does indeed have the authority to issue the executive orders.
“This ordinance would be an enforcement mechanism, not to create a new law. There’s already a legal obligation to comply with the lawful orders of the governor,” said Day.
Council member Kathleen Lorenz said her initial reaction, ideologically, would be to oppose such an ordinance. “This does feel like big government,” she said. “But these are not normal times,” she added, calling the 2020 pandemic a once-in-a-century event.
Instead, she urged the council to think about the science behind the restrictions, and why those rules need to be followed.
The $13.1 million levy, approved for the 2020 budget, is the same as last year’s. The estimated tax rate is expected to remain flat at 1.5%.
Council member Kathleen Lorenz pointed out the property tax rate is not determined by the levy’s approval. Rather, that comes in January, when the McLean County Assessor’s office sets the equalized assessed value of property (EAV).
Based on the current EAV, which is about a third of a home’s value, the owner of a $150,000 home, would pay about $750 of their total tax bill to Normal.
The town’s property tax revenue will be used in the fiscal 2021-2022 budget to fund several areas: the general operational fund, police and fire pensions, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, Social Security and Medicare, debt services, and special service area bonds. The revenue also funds the Normal Public Library.
The 2020 tax levy should remain flat despite an increase in public safety pension funding in its 2021 budget.
Separately, the council unanimously approved ordinances to abate $6.1 million in property taxes to pay bonds issued between 2004 and 2019. The approval allows the town to provide proof to the McLean County Clerk that funds are available in June and December 2021.
This step allows the town to avoid collection of property taxes for debt service.
Additional COVID-relief funds available
Also Monday, the council unanimously OK’d distributing about $143,000 to Normal residents having trouble paying housing costs during the pandemic.
The money is part of $581,000 Normal has received in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), targeting pandemic relief. The money comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Normal first was awarded $246,067 in March. The town partnered with Mid-Central Community Action to create the COVID-19-Related Housing Assistance Program, using about $3,000 to cover administration costs, and $100,000 to help residents with rent and mortgage. Monday’s vote allows the program to release the remainder of that first award.
While only $5,600 has been distributed so far, program administrators expect the coming months to see a greater need.
According to council materials, the first-stop for help, so far, has been the United Way of McLean County’s Housing Assistance Coalition, to which Normal belongs.
That group has distributed more than $1.5 million in aid since May. However, program administrators expect the COVID crisis will hit more families’ home budgets this spring. That will bring an expected backlog of unpaid housing bills coming due as the statewide eviction moratorium ends, and as utility shutoffs begin.
In January the council will consider distributing the $335,359 CDBG awarded in September.
In other business, the council:
- Approved paying about $28,000 to McLean County, for jail booking services in 2021. That's the same cost as this year. Since 1994, the intergovernmental agreement with Bloomington and Normal means the county handles the jail booking paperwork, detention, bonding and release, photographs, and fingerprinting.
- Reminded Normal business owners of the 5 p.m. Dec. 8 deadline for its Small Business Relief program. Applicants must employ 50 or fewer workers to be eligible.
- Recognized the 79th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
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