Monthly Archives: January 2009

“The ordeal is over”

When you think about it, the process moved quickly.    When the FBI led Rod R. Blagojevich away from his home in handcuffs early Dec. 9, I would never have predicted that he’d be impeached and removed from office before Super Bowl Sunday.

Buh-bye

Buh-bye

Surely, the thing would drag out for months.   In the end, it only seemed like months.  

Like Pat Quinn said, “the ordeal is over.”    Amen.

Spending a long day in the car, I managed to catch all of  Blago’s closing argument, the vote, Quinn’s swearing in, and hopefully the last of the former governor’s front porch chats.   

In his fiery closing, at least Blago came up with some new material.  “I never, ever, ever intended to violate any law.”

If I were a resident of another state, I might have been entertained by Blago’s stemwinder.    Instead, I was sickened.  

A few observations:

  • If you read the U.S. Attorney’s transcripts, Blago feared he would be impeached.   On those taped calls he recognized it was a political, not a legal process.    So this bunk about due process was ridiculous.  

 

  • I was waiting for some Senator to say that it really didn’t matter what was alleged in the articles of impeachment, Blago was an embarassment who caused immeasurable damage to the State of Illinois and could no longer function as governor.    To me, that’s enough.

 

  • Blago loved being Governor, but the “people” were a always a cynical prop for what really mattered most to him — the shakedown.

 

  • His illegal, coersive “pay to play” campaign fundraising allowed him to build an enormous campaign war chest which distorted the political process in this state and made it impossible for anyone to mount a serious challenge to him. 

    

  • Ethics laws work.   The ethics law that sent Blago into his year end “pay for play” frenzy proved to be his undoing.   The law, Blago’s rush to bank contributions before Jan. 1, and the U.S. attorney’s willingness make an arrest saved the citizens of this state from being held hostage any longer by this buffoon.
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Marriott Hotel and Conference Center progressing

It was nearly two years ago — Feb. 6, 2007 — when legendary hotel developer John Q. Hammons, Normal Town Councilmembers, and Illinois State University  President Al Bowman participated in a ceremonial ground breaking at the Normal Theater for the Uptown Normal Marriott Hotel and Conference Center at 201 Broadway.grand-staircase1

After foundation issues were resolved, the hotel began to rise out of the ground in September of 2007 and construction on the nine-story tower, 23,000-square foot conference center, and 500-space parking deck has been progressing ever since.

The latest estimate I’ve heard for the opening of the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Uptown Normal is late July or early August of this year.

Dry wallers are at work inside the hotel and the conference center, and a couple of rooms have been completed.    They’re not allowing any photos of rooms yet, but Mayor Chris Koos snapped a few photos when he toured the Marriott Tuesday afternoon.   

When the council took a hard hat tour last fall, the contractor had yet to dig the pool which is
The first floor swimming pool at the Marriott Hotel overlooks Broadway St.

The first floor swimming pool at the Marriott Hotel overlooks Broadway St.

located on the south end of the first floor.

At next Monday’s Normal Town Council meeting, a hotel representative will make a presentation and seek council approval of the  hotel’s interior color scheme.
In the very near future, the Uptown Parking Management Committee will reconvene to begin discussing  how the attached parking deck will operate. 
Mayor Chris Koos took this picture from an upper floor of the nine-story, 229-room Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

A Room with a View: Mayor Chris Koos took this picture from an upper floor of the nine-story, 229-room Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

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Filed under Illinois State University, Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, Town Council, Uptown Normal

News 25 apologizes for incorrect Normal budget story

Waking this morning to News 25 Today, I was a little startled when I heard the “news” that the Town of Normal had a $16 million dollar budget deficit.  

Perhaps I had only dreamed that we had a balanced budget in each of the next five years.

Turns out the reporter who attended the budget hearing got her facts mixed up.     

Anyway, thankfully News 25 acknowledged the mistake and featured a retraction of sorts in Monday’s 6 p.m. newscast.

“In a story reported this weekend on News 25 we erroneously reported the Town of Normal faced a $16 million budget deficit.   In our error, that number is quite inaccurate.  .   . we regret the error and any confusion it may have caused.”

The explanation is a little confusing, but apology accepted.

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Is it time to reconfigure the recycling bin?

You finally get all of the recyclable materials out of your garage into the trunk of your vehicle and head over to the nearest recycling bin (or the one you can always count on being empty).jan-2009-just-about-normal-014

When you open the black door, the bottles and cans come rushing out at you and inevitably start rolling around the parking lot.  

Meanwhile,  there’s no room in the corrugated cardboard bin (because few people seem to want to take time to break down their boxes).

But wouldn’t you know it, there’s plenty of room in the two compartments for mixed paper.

During Saturday’s Town Council budget session, public works director Mike Hall noted that crews are beginning to see fewer quantities of mixed paper in the bins.

Over the past few years, the local newspaper has shrunk.    Clearly, there’s less of the Pantagraph now than there has been in years, so it only makes sense that the quantity of recycled newsprint is down.

Apparently not as much junk mail either,  Hall added.

Council member and recycler Jeff Fritzen suggested that it might be time to change the configuration of the bins.  

 I agree.    

What do you think?   Is it time to take one of the mixed paper compartments and make it a second compartment for containers?

What’s your biggest pet peeve at the recyling bin?   Is the nearest one always full?   Tired of the people who put a plastic bag full of cans or bottles into the bin?

Despite the program’s slight imperfections, it seems to be working extremely well.  Thanks to your efforts, the volume of materials continues to increase every year.

In fact, Hall said we are now keeping nearly half  (47.7%) of the community’s waste stream out of the landfill.   That compares to about a third (34.8%) of the waste stream three years ago.

We recycled 8,865,781 pounds of materials last year.

Only a ton of that came out of the back of my garage.

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Council says “no” to vehicle unlocking, business registration fees

The Normal Town Council agreed not to impose a $20 fee when police are called to unlock a vehicle.    It takes only a few minutes, and our officers enjoy providing this service.   Either you do it and don’t charge for it, or don’t provide the service.  

Our police will continue to unlock (or try to unlock) 2,000 car doors a year as a community service.   

That’s a lot of doors and a lot of goodwill. 

We agreed that a $25 business registration fee smells too much like a tax, and we ought not go down that road.

But we tentatively agreed to add a couple of new fees and increase a couple of others which would raise an estimated $650,000 per year.

Why?

Just like anything else, the costs of government operations are rising.  Material costs, fuel costs, equipment costs, pension costs, you name it.  They’re going up and in many cases at a double digit rate of increase.

If we were talking about a single year, this might not pose much of a problem.  However, operating costs have been escalating for the past few years, and revenue growth –while strong — has begun to slow a bit.

One possible response would be to simply impose some sort of a broad based general tax increase.

The council could raise more than $1 million per year with a quarter-percent sales tax.  It could bump up the property tax rate a dime and raise almost as much.

In this economy, with the present level of uncertainty, I would argue that any general tax increase in the coming year is an absolute non-starter.  We said as much at our last council retreat.

Instead, like the citizens of this community, it’s time to carefully examine where we can save.  Many residents are refinancing their mortgages, clipping coupons, and shopping for bargains.   They’re asking themselves whether they can get several more months or perhaps another year out of the old car.

The Town is freezing new positions, and delaying filling job openings.   We’re cutting back on out-of-state travel and paring back in a few other areas.

The list of capital projects is shorter this coming year.   That’s okay. 

While no one welcomes tough economic times, this coming fiscal year will give the Town a chance to get creative.  It forces staff to figure out how to do more with less.   Sometimes, that’s a good exercise.   Frustrating but ultimately productive.

I’ll argue the fee increases help offset the costs of providing essential services like law enforcement and emergency response.  They also help us  balance the budget.

Here is a summary of the fee increases:

  • $500 fee to reclaim a vehicle after a DUI or other criminal arrest.  ($194,500 in estimated new revenue)  Each DUI takes the arresting officer off the street for 2-3 hours.  I would also argue that each DUI driver poses a real danger.   If you’re found not guilty, you can get a rebate.   Otherwise, I’m not sure I feel a whole lot of sympathy.    Somebody told me the other day they were outraged by this, that it amounted to a sin tax and how dare you…   (Okay, I thought, don’t drive drunk — or lend your car to a criminal — and you don’t have to worry about this one.)  By the way, Bloomington’s had this fee on the books for awhile.
  • $75 fee for repeated false alarms ($68,500 in new revenue).   This is the alarm system that cries “wolf,” a lot wasting time and resources of fire and police.   The Town has a false alarm fee structure.  This simplifies it.  Of course, if it’s weather related, they’ll give you a pass.
  • $250 fee for ordinance violations for minor arrests — FIRST offense only ($150,000 in new revenue) .   We’re not talking the major stuff.   We’re talking fighting, minor theft, criminal trespass, and criminal damage.   These are the kinds of crimes that can be best handled administratively, without sending people to jail for 12 hours.
  • 1/4 percent increase in the vehicle use tax ($144,375 in new revenue).  The state took away the ability of municipalities to charge their full local sales tax rate on vehicles purchased outside the community.  This bumps up the rate from 1/2 to 3/4 of one percent.  It represents $50 on a $20,000 vehicle. 

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Filed under Budget, Crime, NFD, NPD, Town Council

Normal Town Council Budget Hearing — LIVE

Normal Town Council budget hearings are typically all day affairs in the city council chambers and represent one of the final steps in a process that begins several months earlier.  

The tradition is sweatshirts, jeans, and coffee. 

During the hearing, the council hears from each department head, sometimes more than once.   Department heads discuss their budget highlights and answer questions.  

It’s one of the most important activities of the year, and a day I personally enjoy. 

This year, the staff is proud of the fact they were able to cut 170-some pages out of the document.   Before the hearing, I complain privately to the Mayor that they made the type too small.  He responds that the type isn’t any smaller, that  my eyesight’s  the problem.

I can’t argue with him.

This could be the first ever live blog of a Normal Town Council budget session.   We’re getting a late start due to Channel 25 interviewing the City Manager.  

 As usual, the hearing begins with an overview from the Town’s finance director.

9:10 a.m. — Finance director Ron Hill’s budget presentation is called  “Weathering the Storm.”   Hill says the budget is really an investment in the future.  “We’re plowing dollars into things today that are really going to help us in the future,” he says.   Budget is challenging because we don’t know how deep the recession will be.

9:15  a.m. — We’re anticipating an end of the year general fund balance of $4.2 million, or about 9 percent of the general fund, below the target of 10 percent but an enviable situation compared to other cities.

9:18 a.m. — Our sales taxes are coming in slightly lower ($86,000 out of $14.6 million) than projected.  The Town is projecting a 2 percent increase in sales tax in each of the next two years. 

9:22 a.m. — Vehicle replacement, heavy trucks, those costs are going up dramatically.   The recent salt purchase was an example of unbudgeted cost increases in the current fiscal year.    

9:25 a.m. — “The purpose of reserves isn’t to have a bunch of money sitting around earning interest income, its to spend down when times are tough,” Hill said.  In addition to spending down reserves, the budget strategy includes no new new positions and a delay in replacing others; postponing non-essential vehicle purchases; other cost initiatives; and some fee and tax revenue enhancements.  

9:30 a.m. — “When you look at concerns you can sum it up in two words: the economy,” Hill said.    But we have a strong local economy, excellent bond ratings (one step below AAA — all three rating agencies), conservative budget practices, good projected fund reserves. excellent health and dental fund reserves.

9:35 a.m. — We’re among the top 5% in the country in municipal bond ratings and that’s the kind of third party validation that demonstrates the Town is in excellent fiscal condition.

9:40 a.m. — Library director Brian Chase is here at his first budget session dressed in a suit.  He didn’t get the casual memo.   He is supported by five members of the library board.  It’s great to see them.

9:41 a.m. — Parking remains an issue for the library staff.  They are educating the public on the loss of 18 spots across College in the University Christian Church parking lot.   Parking validation is working, in most cases.    Chase says the library recognizes there is a lot of parking nearby and doing everything it can to encourage patrons to use the College Ave. parking deck.  Library master planning is going well and many in the community have been involved in focus groups and surveys.

9:50 a.m. — The libarary board and council will meet next month to hear the preliminary results of the master planning.  It’s no surprise, the library is operating “at a space deficit” and is doing everything it can to free up space where it can.

9:51 a.m.-  Both library board chair Joan Steinberg and city manager Mark Peterson say the transition from one director to another has been smooth and that Brian Chase is “doing a super job.”

10 a.m. — Changes in the Town’s employee health insurance fund over the years have really put the fund in good position, along with recent positive claims history.   Because of the excellent performance, the council approved two monthly premium holidays over the past year, saving employees and retirees with dependent health care and dental coverage about $900 each.   That’s a pretty good local economic stimulus package!   There’s clearly a benefit to staying healthy and making preventative lifestyle changes.

10:15 a.m. — Human Resources has created a leadership development program for non supervisors, the Town’s  first significant attempt to create a foundation for stronger internal promotions.  It involves helping potential future supervisors become more familiar with the organization, get them outside of their comfort zone, and introduce them to current supervisors and what they do.

10:20 a.m. — Town made a signficant investment in an Uptown wireless broadband network.  Problem is that there’s not much traffic on it because the signal can’t be received inside buildings.  We need to do a better job of communicating what businesses can do to install repeaters and strengthen the signal for the use of customers and employees.  Glad to hear staff is working on that.  Look for me to be outside — somewhere in Uptown–with a lap top when the weather warms up.

10:25 a.m. — Code enforcement responses increased this year about 3,000.   Inspections department director Greg Troemmel says to expect another year of about 100 housing starts and a good solid year for commerical construction.   One interesting note, the department received a permit application for what will be the biggest single family home in Normal — 6,700 square feet — at the Trails at Sunset Lakes.   Lots of remodeling permits, 800 or so in the past year, demonstrating that in a down economy residents are putting money into their homes.

10:50 a.m. — Short break.

11 a.m. — Fire chief Jim Watson says this has been one of the toughest budget years for him.  The Town has bumped up the replacement cost of fire equipment.  Fire trucks and rescue vehicles are far more expensive these days.   Unbelievable committment on the part of the firefighters to transition into paramedic service.  That was a tremendous effort by all.    It also meant about $300- to $400,000 more in overtime over the past two budget years.  The overtime line will decrease significantly in the coming year.

11:15 a.m. — Proposed new revenue discussion — I’ll have more to say about these proposals in a subsequent post.

11:50 a.m. — Looks like the proposed $20 vehicle unlocking fee is dead.  It’s a public relations service of the Normal Police Department.  Officers like to do this.   Sometimes cars are running or children are inside.   Then there’s the messy problem of collection.  There’s no council appetite for this one.

11:59 a.m. — The business license fee smells like a tax.  It’s dead, too.

OKAY, here’s where I stopped live blogging.   I did take notes for the rest of the budget hearing.  Hey, at least I tried…

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Nice turnout at Eagles Landing Neighborhood Watch meeting

At least  50 people attended an organizational meeting Thursday night at Grove Elementary School for the Eagles Landing Neighborhood Watch.    

Eagles Landing residents on several streets decided to organize after experiencing a recent rash of burglaries and vandalism in the neighborhood at the northeast edge of Normal. 

 Normal police officer Brian Williams gave an excellent presentation that mixed a number of valuable crime prevention tips with helpful advice on when to call 911 and when to call the police department’s non-emergency telephone number (888-5030).

Officer Williams tells residents that posting Neighborhood Watch signs shouldn’t represent the end of the effort and  that active neighborhood watches help “broaden the range of vision” for police.

Noting that many local burglars and thiefs look for open garage and car doors, Williams urged homeowners to “take the five extra seconds” and watch their garage door go all the way down.   He says frequently an item will trigger the garage door sensors and the door won’t close leaving homes and property vulnerable.

Williams suggested that residents leaving town for awhile should sign up for vacation checks.    Homeowners sign up for the free program that features regular checks of homes by Normal police.   More than 2,700 checks were done last year.

He also encouraged residents to sign up for email public safety alerts.

For more information on Neighborhood Watch, you can contact Officer Williams at 433-3440. 

Click here if you’re are interested in checking or comparing crime statistics in your neighborhood.

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