Category Archives: Uncategorized

Normal Planning Commissioners earn their pay

Actually, they don’t receive any pay, but they sure deserved some Thursday evening after spending three full hours listening to Town staff, developers, and the public while weighing the pros and cons on a couple of major zoning matters.

There’s something about the atmosphere of a planning commission meeting that irresistable for a local government junkie like myself. 

It’s raw and people wear their emotions on their sleeves.   There’s always a lot at stake in any zoning hearing.   It’s democracy at its finest.

As an elected official, it’s beneficial to witness it.  

There are things I see at planning commission meetings that, well, don’t ever show up in the minutes: the strength of the arguments, the passion, and the subtleties that someone who has spent more than two decades observing and participating in local government can pick up. 

Planning Commission chair Rick Boser does an outstanding job of maintaining decorum and a sharp sense of humor throughout the proceedings.   I enjoyed watching him run the meeting from the back row of the council chambers.   Rick is an experienced hand on the planning commission and it shows.

Sometimes, it’s a challenge to get the witnesses to stay on the subject matter, or even to face the right direction.   

Planning commissioners Jeff Feid, Kathleen Lorenz, Jill Hutchison, R.C. McBride, Michael McFarland, and Bob Bradley don’t get a lot of recognition, but I appreciate the work they do.    It’s not an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it.    And our community is better off because these quality volunteers have stepped up to do a thankless job.  

Thank you Planning Commission.

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Filed under planning, Uncategorized, Zoning

Normal has plenty of company

Based on the discussion at Monday night’s Normal Town Council meeting, it appears the town will be able to address our budget situation without cutting jobs.  It would appear that our mix of budget cuts and revenue increases will leave our general fund in the black this year and allow the Town to slowly build up its reserves over the next five years, averting a projected end-of-the-year budget deficit in 2010-11 and beyond.

The main culprit has been a projected $1.3 million drop this year in state income tax receipts and flat sales tax collections.IMG_1462

You don’t have to spend much time on line to see the revenue picture impacting communities all around us.

If the snow plow breaks in Peoria, they’re not sure what they’ll be able to do with the city’s $14.5 million budget deficit.

To the south in Decatur, the city entered the current fiscal year with deficit spending in three of the past four years.  They projected a $3 million general fund defcit for the current fiscal year and planned to postpone some capital improvements and adopted a voluntary severance plan for employees.

Read about Danville $1.5 million deficit and its desire to rebuild its reserves.

It would interesting to know how Bloomington is doing.   Last we heard, they were projecting they would end the current fiscal year with a roughly $2 million deficit, after entering the current year with a roughly $5 million deficit.

 It’s not just Illinois that’s hurting.   Cities all across the country are being pinched.

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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

Celebrate ISU Homecoming by running Oct. 17 in the Town & Gown 5K Race

Registration is humming along at a record pace for the 2009 Town & Gown 5K run on the Saturday morning of ISU Homecoming.Town Gown 5K Logo

This will be the ninth year for the race that attracted more than 350 runners last year and is growing by leaps and bounds.   About that many runners (at all levels of fitness) are already pre-registered for the race which will start at  7 a.m. sharp on Oct. 17.

I’ll be back out on the course again this year with a stopwatch yelling out one-mile split times (somewhere on Mulberry around Manchester Hall) and to present awards at the conclusion of the race.

After I was first elected, I was determined to find a way to work cooperatively with the university, to find a fun activity that would mark the beginning of the downtown redevelopment ,and to celebrate our community’s strong connection with Illinois State University.    A race through campus and what is now Uptown seemed like a good fit.   

Jay Groves, my friend and co-founder of the race, came up with the idea to hold the event on the morning of ISU Homecoming and it turned out that two laps around the parade route was exactly five kilometers!   The first Town & Gown 5K Run/Walk was born. 

Over the years, hundreds of runners have participated — through rain and shine — hot and cold.

This race would not happen each without the enthusiasm and organizational skills of race director Juliana Duncan and her staff at Illinois State University or without the dedication of Sandy Fedden in the City Manager’s office who wakes up early on a Saturday to deliver the food and drink that she procures.   

We appreciate the involvement of the Normal Police who keep the runners safe and of Mitch Hobbs and his crew at Often Running, who  lend their expertise at the finish line.    These folks make it a well run event which has grown to be one of the bigger races on the local Lake Run Club circuit.

We are fortunate to have so many people pulling together to create an exciting event that has accomplished its original purpose and then some.

Thanks to all of the runners who have pre-registered for this year’s race.  

And for those of you interested in participating, there’s still time to enter.

I’ll see you out there on the course.

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Filed under Illinois State University, NPD, Uncategorized, Uptown Normal

Just About Normal’s summer vacation is over

Back in my reporter days, I called it the Summer Doldrums.  

From about the end of July to Labor Day, on many days it was a challenge to produce a real news story.   Nobody was watching TV anyway.    The end of summer was always a good time to take vacation, if you had the days.

In many respects, I’m glad that I still live in a community where it’s difficult to find hard news in the heat of summer.

Yeah, I recognize the posts have been far too infrequent. 

The Labor Day Parade was great.      As far as my eight-year old daughter is concerned, marching in parades is about the most productive thing I do as a public servant.   She passes out candy a lot better than I do.   She went through bags of it.   I talk too much.   If I saw you, I hope I gave you a Tootsie Roll pop.

Summer’s over.  

Time to get busy.

There’s plenty to talk about.

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The case against rezoning 1010 South Main St. for serious student housing

When I heard that someone wanted to purchase the University Cinemas at 1010 South Main for redevelopment, I was intrigued.  

While the dollar theater concept seems to be working well in today’ s down economy, as evidenced by all of the cars in the parking lot Sunday night, clearly a small dollar theater could not be a viable long term economic model in today’s era of megaplex theaters, stadium seating, digital surround sound, and the like.  Evidently, the land has been on the market for awhile.  

A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street.  Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms.   Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets.   Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Serious Student Housing -- A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street. Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms. Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets. Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Given the location of the property and its Main St. frontage, surely someone would have a creative mixed-use idea for redevelopment — one that would generate economic activity, compliment the neighborhood, and be a catalyst for similar projects.

So, I attended the public hearing with fairly high expectations, listened carefully to the discussion and was underwhelmed by what was being planned. 

As usual, it was a plan designed to fit as many student apartment units onto the property as possible. 

It was not particularly creative and certainly will act as a catalyst, if approved.

What is not surprising is that residents of the surrounding single-family neighborhood also view this as a tipping point event.   Their numerous emails and phone calls have been passionate and rational.  Among other things they are concerned about what will be left if this area is rezoned, opening the door for it to become the next big place for student housing expansion.    Here is an example of the feedback we’ve received:

I have seen on a daily basis the increase of traffic when ISU is in session. I can only suppose if another high density complex were to exist in this area the amount of traffic would increase. I feel the small children living in our neighborhood are at risk already from those who do not feel the need to obey the speed limit through our neighborhood. I also feel allowing another high density complex would have a domino effect for the area immediately surrounding the area. I can forsee homeowners electing to sell and investors buying the property, tearing down homes and putting up yet more complexes. As a home owner I am also concerned with maintaining my property value. I feel that the close proximity of high density apartment will not be beneficial. I am passionate about preserving our older neighborhoods and protecting them from demolition. I am aware that there will always be issues living near campus and I am willing to accept them, but I feel strongly about this issue and felt the need to express my strong opposition.

 

I agree that this proposed rezoning and redevelopment plan represents a turning point for the fragile neighborhood to the east.   The outpouring of neighborhood opposition demonstrates to me that nearby homeowners are fully invested in maintaining what they have, a nice affordable single family area close to ISU, IWU, BroMenn, and Glenn Elementary School.   

The council has invested resources in the area south of Vernon, purchasing and tearing down a problem fraternity, promoting the development of two Habitiat developments, and insisting on quality planning and development on both sides of Vernon. 

On top of that, we have declared the neighborhood south of Vernon  be a “no new student housing zone.”  

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

I believe rezoning this land and accepting this plan would contradict our efforts to the east.
As part of our 2009 planning retreat, the Normal Town Council asked staff to develop a plan that anticipates the loss of residence halls at the University, but we have yet to see that plan and have yet to discuss in any formal way where this community wants future student housing to be located.
 
Based on the limited discussion I heard at the planning commission meeting, the Council needs to engage planning commissioners in this process as well before we move ahead with a development of this size and likely impact.
This does not have to be an involved planning process that requires outside help.  Everyone involved in Normal Town government understands the issues involved in student-oriented multiple family zoning.  There’s a myriad of informal policies out there.
Before more residence halls go down, and more student-oriented complexes are built, let’s get a formal policy on paper.
 
We want it close to campus doesn’t really capture it for me.
 
Again, my immediate concern is the expansion of the footprint of multiple family housing into new areas.

There is multiple family zoning south of University and Hovey, but no buildings of this magnitude — a proposed 550-ft. long, four-story building with 350 bedrooms inside 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom units.   Because there is no party deck, volleyball court, or balconies, the developers claim it will appeal to the “serious student,” a claim that invoked laughter in the council chambers when a resident asked how the developers plan to screen for serious students.  

There are plans for on-site security and property maintenance, which now come up so frequently as approval enticements that we ought to make them mandatory for developments over a certain number of residents.

I find it interesting how eager everyone associated with project wants to make it a Main Street Corridor project.  For those who place a very high priority on public acceptance of the stalled Main Street Corridor planning process and form-based code:   Is this what the Main Street Corridor reallyenvisions?  Is this how you want to get off the ground by expanding Normal’s already enormous footprint of student-oriented multiple family housing?

I don’t doubt the sincerity or integrity of the development team or even their desire to build a quality project.  They are attempting to jump through all of the hoops.  I recognize the limitations of the site, but jamming as many beds into one long building doesn’t seen like a proper fit for the property and defintely not for the neighborhood.   I challenge them to come up with alternative that maintains the current zoning.

I think we owe it to this neighborhood to not leap at the first high density multiple family proposal that fits on the site.  

Let’s study the market, figure out where we really want student-oriented multiple family housing, and in what densities.  

Let’s take our time and get it right.

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Filed under Development, Illinois State University, Main Street, planning, Uncategorized, Zoning

We may be Normal, but we sure aren’t Boring

This is easy.  Community pride is at stake.    Normal’s got to win the Toshiba contest.  

To cast your vote, here’s the link.    Vote Button

There are also some good videos of our creative contestants.   The winning community receives a $15,000 technology grant for their local school district.

So far, we’re ahead 55-45, but you can’t take anything for granted.

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