Bloomington aldermen need to soak up some of the “good neighbor” culture promoted by McLean County’s largest employer.
Just last spring they slammed the door on the idea of pooling sales tax money with the town of Normal in an effort to curb opportunities for businesses to play one city against the other on tax incentives. Now they’re poised to unilaterally scuttle the longstanding Metro Zone agreement that’s benefited citizens of both communities.
Some history: Thirty-two years ago, when a certain automaker decided to set up shop on the community’s west edge, Farm & Fleet was about the only business around there, not even in city limits.
Correctly believing the auto plant could spur growth, Twin City government leaders decided to share equally the cost of installing new streets, sewers and water mains and providing services in the new “Metro Zone” — 2,300 acres, a quarter of them in Bloomington, the rest in Normal — and also to equally divide new property and sales tax and most other revenue that was sure to follow.
And it did. Auto plant suppliers and a promising new outlet mall were soon on the tax rolls. Even though most of the early Metro Zone development occurred in Normal, half of all new revenue, per the agreement, went to Bloomington.
Eventually Farm & Fleet was annexed into Bloomington and new hotels, restaurants and Aldi’s appeared. The big shift emerged when Wal-Mart came knocking.
The retail giant asked Bloomington for tax incentives, and since it would be in the Metro Zone, Bloomington logically asked Normal whether it would join Bloomington in abating half of its half of the sales taxes it would get from the new store.
Normal agreed. A leap of faith, perhaps, knowing a second Wal-Mart in town would probably slice into sales at the other Wal-Mart on Normal’s east side, where Normal keeps all the municipal sales tax. A 12 percent reduction, as it turned out. (For a little more context, let’s remember Wal-Mart No. 1 originally was in Bloomington for a decade before it relocated into a Supercenter in Normal in 1997. That put a dent in Bloomington’s sales tax receipts.)
Meanwhile, back in Bloomington’s part of the Metro Zone, development accelerated, meaning the revenue flow reversed directions, with more net dollars being sent north to Normal — a total of $1.2 million last year.
That’s a lot of money. Bloomington officials can reasonably argue the agreement is no longer in the best interest of its taxpayers, that Normal has re-focused its development efforts to uptown. But it’s destructive for Bloomington to unilaterally terminate a deal mutually agreed to that had the two cities sharing a risky investment, hoping it would pay off in the future.
And here’s the corker: In an acknowledgement that changing times may warrant revisions to the Metro Zone agreement that’s already been amended three times, Normal officials last month offered to suspend it for all of this year (meaning no payments would occur), giving officials the remainder of 2017 to negotiate a fresh deal before the existing plan would resume.
Nope, said six of the nine Bloomington aldermen in a closed-door meeting, leaving Mayor Tari Renner with the task of putting the best possible face on the autonomous decision.
There’s still time for Bloomington council members to put on their big boy and big girl pants and do what’s right. Accept Normal’s offer to suspend Metro Zone payments this year while working out a new understanding.
Maybe they could even come to accept the idea that community-wide pooling of all sales tax money would result in fewer tax dollars being surrendered to businesses, end real and perceived “poaching” of one city’s businesses by another, and improve relations between Bloomington and Normal that have become pretty frosty.