Category Archives: Town Council

So what happened Monday night at City Hall?

The Normal Town Council spent another evening discussing how to deal with a revenue shortfall.  Unchecked it would mean going from a surplus in the general fund to a deficit in two years.

The Town is not currently in a deficit situation.  In fact, the town will end the current 2009-10 budget year with a surplus in its main operating fund.   But due to reduced state income tax collections and state and local sales tax receipts, the anticipated eight percent cushion will  fall to 2.5 percent of total general fund expenditures.   Our finance department recommends an end of year balance of eight to ten percent of general fund expenditures.

2009 Election

In this year's council campaign, we were well into the deepest recession in my lifetime. My top priority had to be maintaining the fiscal integrity of the town. And I remain committed to that goal. We will get through this without experiencing the kind of budget crises have enveloped cities unwilling to make difficult decisions.

The council’s goal is to avoid a deficit and to shore up the general fund reserves through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.

While it’s tempting to simply cut your way out of your predicament,  we discovered that you have cut far too deeply into the basic services that define Normal town government.   That was not an option.

 Two employees signed up for the early retirement incentive.   Understandably, many employees close to retirement considered taking the benefit, but concluded that they would rather work, a typical response in an uncertain economy.

Still, staff identified several areas that could be cut without impacting services too much.  

  • Shiny cars and trucks take a back seat to programs.  At this time, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to have enough vehicle reserves on hand to replace every police car, garbage truck, or mower at once.     $1 million from this fund will be transferred to the general fund over the next two years.   As far as I’m concerned, excessive vehicle replacement reserves are a good place to start.
  • Program cuts that are significant but are manageable.   The Harmon Arts Grants are a great gesture, and we are able to help several arts programs in the community, but we can eliminate those dollars while funds are tight.  The same holds true for Normal Newsline, half of the town annual tree planting budget, City Vision, and the parks and recreation program brochures.     Eliminating electronic recycling will save $175, 000 over five years.   Turning over operations of the Activity Center to Normal Township will save $323,000 over five years.   We need to develop a cost sharing arrangement with Unit 5 on crossing guards.
  • The 1/4 cent sales tax adds a quarter to the purchase of $100.  While I don’t relish it, imposing the quarter cent sales tax is the most painless way to collect $1.3 million per year.    We have done our best to delay matching Bloomington’s rate.   I had hoped we could hold out.   We no longer have that luxury.
  • A temporary property tax hike.  The 4.3 cent per hundred dollar rate increase would allow the Town to cover more of the cost of state-mandated employee retirement benefits with the property tax.  It would boost the tax bill of the owner of a $200,000 home about $30 per year.   We resisted a proposal to boost the property tax another 6 cents for operations.   In my mind, when the economy recovers, this tax hike goes away before the Harmon Arts Grants or the parks and recreation brochures return.
  • Other revenues include increasing the parking fines for the first time in 20 years to $20, boosting summer camp fees, imposing towing fees for cars involved in alleged crimes, and new technical rescue and auto extrication fees (usually born by insurance companies).

We said no to moving up the second half of the planned garbage fee increase.   The water/garbage bill has provided too much sticker shock as it is this year.  There was no reason to provide another premature shock.

I said no to a “convenience fee” for paying your bills on-line.  That’s my definition of an “inconvenience fee.” 

If we follow this plan, we will build up the Town’s general fund reserves to near $3 million by March 31, 2011 and $3.8 million the following year.

After the work session, the council met in executive session  for about an hour to receive information about the potential for involuntary job cuts.  At this time, there does not appear to be any council appetite for layoffs.  

 Hopefully, that relieves some of anxiety that I sensed in the city council chambers Monday night.

This is an unhappy but necessary part of the job.   During my re-election campaign, I pledged that the financial integrity of Normal Town Government would be my top priority.   It will remain my top priority for the rest of my term.

Program cuts and tax and fee increases are necessary at this time to prevent a budget crisis.  The economy will turn around, and these actions will help the Town rebound quicker than other communities.  

Our employees are doing a super job working through this time of reduced revenues and providing the kinds of services that make us all proud to live here.

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Filed under Budget, Taxes, Town Council, Uncategorized

What’s behind the big pile of dirt on Raab Road?

Dozens of times over the past several months, I have driven past the CornBelters stadium site on Raab Road wondering just what was going on behind the big pile of dirt.

This photo taken from the pressbox, directly behind home plate, shows the seating bowl behind home plate and down the first base line, the outline of the first base dugout, and the rightfield berm in the distance.  At the top of the seating area will be a wide concourse that will wrap around the stadium.

This photo taken from the pressbox, directly behind home plate, shows the seating bowl behind home plate and down the first base line, the outline of the first base dugout, and the rightfield berm in the distance. At the top of the seating area will be a wide concourse that will wrap around the stadium.

Monday night, the Normal Town Council got a first hand look at the excellent construction progress being made on the stadium that will be home to the Frontier League baseball team and Heartland Community College baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s soccer.

By the way, that big pile of dirt is actually a seating berm.

A worker lays sod on the left field seating berm Monday evening at the stadium under construction at the east end of the Heartland Community Colege campus on West Raab Road.

A worker lays sod on the left field seating berm Monday evening at the stadium under construction at the east end of the Heartland Community Colege campus on West Raab Road.

Perhaps anticipating Tuesday’s rains, crews were laying down sod on the twin berms which will provide outfield seating for baseball fans and spectators of other events held in the stadium.

On the other side of the berm, you get a true sense of what it will be like inside the stadium.

Inside, the concrete retaining wall has been poured and the dugouts are clearly visible down each line.   You also get a sense of the amount of permanent seating, about ten rows of seats between the press box and the box seats behind home plate and extending down the left field and right field lines to about the far side of each dugout. 

You also can see evidence of concession stands, luxury suites, and restrooms along a very wide concourse that will completely circle the stadium.

Club officials say that if all goes well the field turf will be installed around Nov. 1.

Already, 10 of the 12 suites have been sold, along with hundreds of season tickets.   

A-maizing progress, indeed.

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Filed under Baseball, Heartland Community College, Town Council

The unwanted water feature tells me it’s time to redefine a major Uptown project

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building.   I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community to the business owners who have invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building. I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community and to the business owners who are invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

 

My immediate concern is that pumps be installed to rid this nearly two-year old foundation of water from the recent heavy rains.

Then,  real soon, we’ve got to sit down and discuss what we want to see here and what we want to see develop along Constitution Blvd.

Because two years of inactivity can’t be allowed to turn into a third or a fourth year.    

There is so much positive happening in Normal.   And I’m proud of the tremendous progress we’re making.   With every passing week, we are seeing more and more life in Uptown.   The trees that were planted this past week beautify the street scape.   People attending the Sweet Corn Festival could tell the plan is coming together.

But we can’t stand still.   This flooded foundation can not be allowed to be a millstone around the neck of Uptown.

We got to figure out what we want here.  Because the economy has changed commercial real estate lending, not just for the near term, but arguably for the foreseeable future.   The project the council and community envisioned here —  a six-story, LEEDs certified,  mixed use building with restaurants, retailers, offices, and owner-occupied condos is questionable.  

Fortunately, there is some genuine interest in a scaled down project that keeps Commerce Bank as a major tenant.   It’ is a very exciting possibility and one that the majority of the residents of this community would support.   Instead of six stories, it might be four.   

I believe we need to address the future of this project sometime this year.   The clock on the TIF district is ticking, and if we are going to continue to pay back the Uptown bonds in a comfortable fashion, we do not have the luxury of waiting indefinitely.

We need development that generates economic activity, not an empty foundation on taxpayer-owned property collecting water.

In the days following the 2003 election, the Normal Town Council demonstrated leadership to sit down and redefine the most significant project in the redevelopment of our community’s central business district.   The privately-owned Marriott Hotel and Conference center will be an economic engine for decades to come.   

No question, Uptown Normal is changing the definition.

To me, two years of inactivity with the potential for a third or fourth year of inactivity on an important and visible location represents another urgent situation that requires leadership and immediate attention.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on the council to help redefine a major project.

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Filed under Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, One Main, TIF, Town Council, Uptown Normal

Bike ped plan gives Normal Town Council room to manuver

Despite our  best intentions, some planning documents seem destined to be filed away or placed on a shelf to collect dust from the moment they are published and publicly presented.

Others seem to beg to be implemented in some way, almost immediately after the ink is dry.  IMG_1661

Two weeks ago, the Normal Town Council received the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan from Portland, Oregon-based Alta Planning and Design.   It checks in at more than 200 pages and is filled with excellent information and maps.   It is chocked full of recommendations.  

But most importantly, Alta clearly spent the time here needed to get a great feel for the community.  They make some intuitive recommendations about how we can make Normal more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. 

After spending time here walking, riding, and talking to people who do it every day, they recognized it’s next to impossible to walk or bike ride across Veteran’s Parkway. 

They discovered the  places where the trail crosses busy streets leaving walkers, runners, and cyclists waiting for breaks in traffic.

The consutlants detected there are intersections that ought to be much more pedestrian friendly than they are. 

In his presentation, Rory Renfro said repeatedly that “Constitution Trail is the backbone of a great system”  in Normal.  Who would disagree with that?  

While he seemed to be stating the obvious, what he was really saying is that we tend to focus completely on Constitution Trail and there are so many more places cyclists want to ride and lots of point A’s and B’s that aren’t necessarily along the trail.  

Renfro explained to us why Normal needs on-street connections to get to the trail.  In fact,  he pointed out that Normal has the potential of developing a network of more than 70 miles of on-street bike trails.  He also said that in Normal there is tremendous opportunity to work with the existing pavement to make our streets more friendly for cyclists.

There are plenty of diagrams showing what could be done.  What really made sense to me was that so much could be done to improve the present conditions that don’t seem to be terribly costly. 

 A lot of it simply involves designating bike routes with signs and pavement markings.   Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to add new segments to Constitution Trail, in areas that are inaccessible to most of the community, we could spend considerably less to turn existing streets into bike routes.

Past citizen surveys reveal that Constitution Trail is the community’s most used and beloved public park.   But there are challenges.

IMG_1671

Some of the questions I have:

  • Should the Normal Police Department conduct  “stings” to ticket motorists who ignore people in crosswalks, particularly children?  
  •  Is it time to focus resources on making streets –arterials and side streets — more amenable to bicycle traffic by posting signs to designate routes and creating bike lanes with pavement markings?
  • What’s a bigger priority:  more miles of Constitution Trail or making connections to the trail?
  • What more can be done to make Uptown Normal more hospitable for pedestrians?   Should the council ban bikes on sidewalks?
  • What kind of public education is required to make Normal safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

As someone who was not expecting to be overwhelmed, I admit I was both surprised by the depth of the study and impressed with the recomendations.    In the weeks following the report’s release, I have been contacted by a number of people who have expressed their expectation to see some action. 

Pedestrian and Bicycle Focus Group chair Doug Oehler told the council on July 20 that the plan provides an “opportunity to change the transportation culture of the Town forever.”   

No question.  But before any action is taken, the council must consider the path forward in the context of available resources and against a myriad of competiing priorities.

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Filed under Constitution Trail, NPD, Town Council, Transportation, Uptown Normal, Veteran's Parkway

Normal’s sign code changes stand up pretty well compared to “invisible sign” communities

It’s a good thing our family recently purchased a Garmin GPS device.   

I’ll credit my wife Dayna for the purchase.   GPS has eliminated most of the stress that comes with driving in unfamilar territory.

They help when you need to find a gas station or when you’re hungry for a donut and a cup of coffee.

In fact, if we didn’t have the device Wednesday afternoon there would be no way we would have found Tim Horton’s donut shop in New Albany, Ohio.

“Turn left and drive two-tenths of a mile, Tim Horton’s is on left,” the global positioning system device said.   Having been down the street a day earlier, Dayna defied me to find the donut shop without the assistance of GPS.

And I’ll tell you, it was pretty difficult.

GPS needed: If you blink, you'd miss it going down the road in New Albany, Ohio at 30 m.p.h.

GPS needed: If you blink, you'd miss it going down the road in New Albany, Ohio at 30 m.p.h.

 It was truly the commericial corridor with invisible signs.  There were fast food restaurants, offices, and a grocery story, but not a single sign over about four or five feet.

It’s no contest.  New Albany, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, wins the national championship for least visible signs.   If not, they’re right up there with Scottsdale and Highland Park.

About eight years ago, the Normal Town Council revisited the community’s sign ordinance.  We were looking to balance a motorist’s need to find businesses and a businesses’ need to be found with a strong desire to improve the community aesthetic.    Staff discovered the International Sign Code, and we adapted and adopted major portions of it for Normal. 

Essentially, the International code trades sign height for more square footage of sign frontage for a business and created an incentive for more sign square footage for using monument style signs.

My recollection was that it was a 5-2 vote.  

 At the time, I thought we needed different rules for Veteran’s Parkway, but that idea was voted down 4-3.  

We agreed on a “carve out” for taller signs the area along a portion of Main Street near I-55/74/39.   Non-conforming signs would be amortized.   Purple gorillas and other temporary signs are restricted to 84 days per year.

I think by and large the council got it right.  

We applied common sense and resisted the tempation to create a community with invisible signs.  As electronic signs have improved, we have not stood in the way.   Businesses have been able to live with the changes.   And I think the new rules have improved the look of the community.

Next time someone suggests that because we have navigation devices we ought to do away with signs, I’ll suggest they visit a certain Ohio community and see if they can find a blueberry donut without GPS.

Neat, orderly, and invisible:  Is that a Kroger back there?   Get out the binoculars and see what other stores are across the street in that shopping center.

Neat, orderly, and invisible: Is that a Kroger back there? Get out the binoculars and see what other stores are across the street in that shopping center.

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Filed under Town Council, Uncategorized

Normal Marriott now shooting to open Sept. 25

If all goes according to plan, the Uptown Normal Marriott Hotel and Conference Center will open Sept. 25.Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 143

In the meantime, more than 100 construction workers are in the 229-room, nine-story tower each day working to finish the lobby, guestrooms, restaurant and bar and the conference center.

CORE Construction and Marriott managers led the Normal Town Council on our first hard hat tour of the hotel conference center since last fall.   So much has been completed.    Yet there seems to be so much to do.

Marriott is now designing hotels to have active lobbies.   Hotel guests and the public will be welcomed into the open lobby that exposes portions of the second, third, and fourth floors.   The lobby’s seating will divided into active and passive areas.  At the rear of the lobby is the hotel restaurant and bar which has been named Jesse’s Grill, in honor of Jesse Fell.

 The hotel registration desk will be on the right when you walk into the hotel’s Broadway Street entrance.

A view of the lobby:  The limestone trimmed columns rise four stories.  The spiral staircase winds up to the second floor on the Beaufort Street side of the hotel.  The gold color on the ceiling will be one of the dominant colors in the hotel.

A view of the lobby: The limestone trimmed columns rise four stories. The spiral staircase winds up to the second floor on the Beaufort Street side of the hotel. The gold color on the ceiling will be one of the dominant colors in the hotel.

A ramp leads back to the conference center and its very large pre-function area.

The Marriott has 23,000 total square feet of flexible conference space.  Remove the walls and the Ballroom opens to 100' x 200' seating nearly 1,200 people for a banquet and more than 2,200 for a reception.

The Marriott has 23,000 total square feet of flexible conference space. Remove the walls and the Ballroom opens to 100' x 200' seating nearly 1,200 people for a banquet and more than 2,200 for a reception.

Guest rooms are very nice, with rich colors and high quality fixtures.  For example, there is more than 80 tons of granite in the hotel.  

Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 172Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 173

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Filed under Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, Town Council, Uncategorized, Uptown Normal

Rating agencies keep Normal’s creditworthiness in top 3 percent nationally

The Town of Normal sold two fixed-rate bond issues this week at 3.9 percent, lower even than the projected 4.1 to 4.3 percent range our financial gurus thought we might see.

The Town's putstanding bond rating means local government can borrow money at lower rates.  The Town's bond payments are covered by a combination of a quarter cent sales tax (enacted in 2000 for the purpose of repaying redevelopment bonds), a large portion of the hotel-motel tax, and some food and beverage tax revenue.  Uptown TIF revenue also covers a portion of the bond payments.

The Town's outstanding bond rating means local government can borrow money less expensively. The Town's bond payments are covered by a combination of a quarter cent sales tax (enacted in 2000 for the purpose of repaying redevelopment bonds), a large portion of the hotel-motel tax, and some food and beverage tax revenue. Uptown TIF revenue also covers a portion of annual interest payments.

The lower rates will result in significant savings over the course of the issue which will help fund public portions of Uptown redevelopment . 

The Council voted two weeks ago to turn an older variable rate bond issue into a fixed rate, locking in more than $1 million in accumulated interest savings as a result of rates which were below 1 percent for a time.

A new 2009 issue takes the Town’s general obligation debt to about $80 million for Uptown redevelopment.

The best news was that despite the national economic slowdown, despite lower than anticipated sales and income tax receipts, and despite the less than stellar financial performance of our next door neighbor, all three major bond rating agencies (Standard and Poors, Moody’s and Fitch) left the Town of Normal’s bond rating unchanged.

At AA1, the Town’s bond rating is nearly unmatched among local governments in the United States, ranking in the top three percent of all U.S. municipalities, a testament to local economic conditions and long held conservative financial management philosophy of underestimating revenues and overestimating expenses.

The State of Illinois is borrowing billions to balance its fiscal 2010 budget.  Rating agencies are deciding whether to downgrade the state’s bond ratings, which could have a negative ripple effect throughout the state.

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Filed under Budget, City of Bloomington, Sales tax collections, TIF, Town Council, Uptown Normal