NORMAL — Town officials aren't giving up on Bloomington contributing to some community improvements that Normal has discussed funding with increased sales tax money.
"The message I got from the people I talked to on Bloomington's council and the mayor on economic development and transit is, 'We’re not against it. We’d like to do something with it, but we can’t do it right now,'" said Mayor Chris Koos. “I think at the end of the day Bloomington will come around."
On Oct. 5, the Normal City Council is set to discuss what to do after Bloomington approved a 1 percentage point sales tax increase, but pledged 75 percent of the new revenue to road repairs and paying down its deficit.
Normal talked about using 75 percent of its share to finance a sports complex, Connect Transit improvements and economic development. Initial planning documents counted on contributions from Bloomington for all three projects.
The cities did agree on spending the remaining 25 percent on mental health services.
Bloomington will receive an estimated $9.6 million in new annual revenue from the tax increase. Normal will receive $6 million.
School officials also have sought sales tax money, asking Bloomington to raise the tax to 9 percent and allocate the extra 0.25 percent to them. That effort failed, but Mark Daniel, superintendent of Normal-based McLean County Unit 5, said he'll approach Normal's council about sales tax money regardless.
Council members reached this week said they'll talk about their priorities at the Oct. 5 meeting. Koos said he expects discussion to be deliberate because Normal won't receive any additional sales tax money until April 1.
“Bloomington might decide there are some of those things for the whole community they need to do as well,” said member Cheryl Gaines. “If not, we’ll all have to do what we believe is best for our constituents.”
"The priorities previously stated remain our priorities, and I'm also aware of the schools districts' request for funding," said councilman R.C. McBride. "It's really a matter of what's realistic at this point in light of Bloomington's direction. We'll want to get public input and, once a decision is made by council, be very specific in communicating where the money will go."
“These issues are so connected to the entire Twin Cities that it’s difficult to pull it apart,” said council member Kathleen Lorenz. “They’re all important.”
Koos acknowledged, however, "there’s clearly no support in Bloomington for doing anything with sports complexes,” so officials are onto other options.
A soccer facility needs to be up and running before the Federal Aviation Administration shuts down Community Fields near the Central Illinois Regional Airport as soon as 2017.
“We may go to the FAA and see if they’ll let us extend a while longer. We’ll need Bloomington at the table helping (to) ask,” said Koos, adding Normal could look to local soccer organizations to fill the gap between what the town can afford and the estimated $14.9 million cost of a complex.
The town would spend $470,000 per year under a plan drafted by City Manager Mark Peterson, leaving $730,000 missing.
“We hear from some people in the community, 'Let the private sector handle it.' That’s not going to happen,” Peterson said. "(Sports complexes) don’t make money. They lose money. No private investor would want to do that."
Lorenz said it's important to remember the complex could host sports other than soccer. Koos said cross country, lacrosse and cricket are possibilities.
Peterson's plan also recommended spending $1 million per year on Connect Transit, which General Manager Andrew Johnson said previously could fund Sunday service, more frequent runs and service at more times.
Normal's share alone would be $390,000 to Connect Transit. Both amounts would be increased because Connect Transit can receive state and federal grant money that it has left on the table due to a lack of matching funds.
When asked what Connect Transit could accomplish with Normal's money, Johnson said, "Connect Transit serves the entire community, and we're going to continue to promote a community-wide approach to transit funding."
For economic development, the plan specified the same annual amount as transit: $1 million total and $390,000 from Normal. Local economic development and tourism officials said a sales tax increase would improve several programs they already have in place.