Tag Archives: Normal Town Council

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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Filed under Budget, City of Bloomington, Taxes, Uncategorized

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

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

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

Discussions on future of Normal Public Library underway

A group of two Normal Public Library trustees, two staff members, and two councilmembers have begun meeting on the future facility needs of the library.

Our first meeting was a week ago in the basement of the library at 206 West College Avenue.

The goal is to come up with an action plan for the Normal Library Board and Town Council to consider.2008 Disney and other 593

We discussed the kinds of information and reports we need to review, including the recently completed space and program needs studies as well as community surveys.

I’m excited about working with Joan Steinburg, Jess Ray, Jason Chambers, Brian Chase, and Mark Peterson to map out a recommended plan of action.

In addition to reviewing the recent studies, we also discussed taking field trips to visit and experience a number of new and relatively new libraries in the state, as well as talk to community officials.

I think I can go out on a limb and say there is general agreement that maintaining the library in the Uptown area — somewhere — is preferable.

There’s no question, that the library is a popular and important Uptown anchor.

Beyond that, all options are on the table, including expansion on the current site, relocation to another Uptown site, and consideration of  a branch or other remote facilities.  

Clearly, we owe it to current and future library patrons to develop a strategy for meeting the future needs of this much beloved institution.  

We’re going to take our time and hopefully get it right.  I welcome your suggestions and will try my best to keep you informed about our progress.

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Filed under Normal Public Library, Uptown Normal