As he readies to take his seat in the Bloomington mayor’s office, Tari Renner said he wants the larger of the Twin Cities to be more like it’s neighbor to the north — at least when it comes to working in a cooperative spirit.
“Twelve years on the County Board, it was always easy to deal with Normal. If we had problems, Bloomington tended to be the obstinate, 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Renner, who was elected in Tuesday’s consolidated election. “We just needed to check our egos at the door.”
Renner will be sworn in on May 1 while his Normal counterpart, Mayor Chris Koos, is sworn in May 6. Intergovernmental cooperation was a theme during the campaigns of both men and they repeated the theme during a joint interview with The Pantagraph late last week.
Renner said his eyes were opened to Bloomington’s “ego” problem in 2003, when he was serving on the McLean County Board and Bloomington declined to join other law enforcement agencies in switching to a digital communication system.
Instead, the city, then under a different administration, chose to go it alone — only to make the digital conversion later at a cost of $885,000 after experiencing major emergency communication problems when working with other jurisdictions. “Maybe Bloomington didn’t want to talk to anybody else,” Renner said.
Koos, elected to his third term, said Normal at one point offered to loan Bloomington a few digital radios in order to ease efforts of a joint drug task force, but Bloomington declined and officers instead used cellphones to communicate.
Renner said Bloomington also walked away from talks about creating a regional water supply — talks he’d like to reignite.
The city’s drinking water supply is in the form of two lakes that, as surface water supplies, are at risk for shortage during an extended drought. For years, the city’s been interested in tapping into the Mahomet Aquifer on the county’s western edge to supplement its current supply to meet the demands of future growth.
Normal gets its water from wells and doesn’t face shortage issues, but Koos said the town always has cooperated and did join previous regional water talks.
Renner and Koos agreed a joint meeting is in order to get those talks back on track, but Koos said, “Bloomington should take the lead on this because they have the need.”
Previous joint discussions to address far east-side fire department needs also have been less than productive. Koos said Bloomington’s solution was for one community to build and man a new fire station on the east side and for the other to just contribute. The departments use different protocols, Koos said, so a joint command is not an option.
Koos said current Bloomington Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling and Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer “really work well together” and recently started that conversation again. Both municipalities have completed fire station studies that outline needs. Bloomington’s report has been made public; the Normal City Council is expected to review that town’s study in the near future.
Koos said the town is willing to look at the issue again, but Normal council members carry the “baggage” from Bloomington’s failure to follow through on previous ventures — including its participation with Metcom, the emergency services dispatch center. Metcom started as a joint venture with Bloomington, Normal and McLean County. Each contributed cost based on population. In 2005, Bloomington announced it was leaving the system and would start its own dispatch center.
While Koos said the change in Bloomington’s mayor and council “does cause a reset in how we talk to each other,” the question remains, “How firm will this be when it comes time to make a decision on cooperation? I think our council is always open to this, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
Added Renner: “We need to try to provide that proof in the pudding. I know the baggage Bloomington carries, so I would want to do everything in talking with Chris in dealing with Normal town council to solidify trust and you have to earn trust.”
The two share similar philosophies when it comes to economic development — if both communities work at it, “both boats will float,” said Renner, adding he’s looking forward to working with Koos.
“Any economic development effort that is getting footholds and being successful is regional based,” said Koos. “That’s the way you have to approach it because the town of Normal is an island with 53,000 people … trying to raise awareness of itself, you don’t have a big story to tell.
“Bloomington, Normal, McLean County with 150,000 people, you have a little bit better story to tell, a bigger engine. When you pool your resources as part of your story of who you are as a community, you’re going to be more successful.”