By Steve Robinson | December 22, 2020 - 10:37 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – The Town of Normal has always taken pride in the fact that, even when there were daunting construction projects such as the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel and the Hyatt Hotel in progress, the Town’s bond rating remained at a high level for creditors to make note of and residents to have some pride in. Toward the end of Dec. 21’s Normal Town Council session, City Manager Pam Reece let Council members know the Town was notified by Fitch Ratings, a top credit rating company with offices worldwide, has reaffirmed the Town’s triple-A bond rating.

“I cannot tell you how excited we are to hear that news,” Reece told Council members during the Council session held remotely as a result of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. “We did not ask them to do a review. It was just one of their standard reviews.” She thanked Town Finance Director Andrew Huhn and the Town Finance staff for their efforts. She also thanked “all the Town departments who worked very hard to be fiscally responsible, also to the elected officials.”

Reece said receiving the Triple-A bond rating “is an affirmation that supports that we have ample reserves, and what the credit bureau calls superior budgetary flexibility.” She said the credit bureau noted “the Town takes an active role in economic development.” She thanked all those involved in helping to achieve the rating.

All Council members offered Reece and the staff congratulations on the achievement. Fitch first assigned a Triple-A rating to the Town in April 2010.

Capital Investment Plan Presented: Huhn presented Council members with the Town’s annual report concerning its Capital Investment Plan (CIP) for Fiscal Years 2021 through 2025. Huhn explained to Council members the Town has about 130 projects the Town would like to see addressed totaling $100,008,233 in cost. The largest item to be addressed with those funds, roughly 47 percent, will address needs concerning water and sewer utility service. Council members voted 6-1 to approve the plan with Council Member Stan Nord casting the lone opposing vote.

The second biggest concern which will be addressed, taking up roughly 30 percent of the funds is transportation development. Huhn said that will include maintaining roads, bridges, sidewalks, and curbs. The next category of items to be addressed using 18 percent of funds is capital assets which primarily includes all types of vehicles used by varying Town departments including police, fire, and facilities management. Parks and open space development will receive 3 percent of the funding, while public facilities will be addressed using 2 percent of the money.

Children’s Museum Update: Council members heard from Beth Whisman, Town Cultural Director and director of Children’s Discovery Museum concerning what CDM and the Normal Theater, both of which have been shuttered since the pandemic began in March have been doing despite those closings. Whisman said CDM has given away 8,000 Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math – or STEAM – activity kits to keep students engaged.

She said STEAM kits have been provided to a number of local agencies which children benefit from including: Unit 5 and Bloomington School District 87; Unity Community Center; Bloomington Day Care; YWCA; Bloomington-Normal Boys & Girls Club; Heartland Head Start; and Scott Early Learning Center.

Whisman said the closure has given CDM staff time to work on protocols necessary for when the Museum can open its doors again to visitors per Restore Illinois guidelines. She said CDM has received over $28,000 in grants for education outreach. She added that “when you have 140,000 visitors on a regular basis coming through your building, it’s rare that you have a few months to do big projects all at once.”

She informed Council members CDM staffers have used time while the museum was closed to the public to making improvements to both exhibits and to the building itself. She added the Museum store “has been vital to the Museum, keep a front door the public, providing access to our take-home kits and curbside service as well as our in-store sales opportunities.”

CDM has managed to maintain their revenue streams through its annual Halloween event and sales of its “Camp In A Box” kits, Whisman added. She said CDM will continue to offer its “Daily Dose Of Play” online as a means of keeping kids active once the weather gets colder once playtime is forced indoors.

One Committee Appointment, Two Committee Reappointments Announced: Before the Council session closed, Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McCarthy announced the names of new members to two separate public boards and the reappointment of another individual to the McLean County Regional Planning Commission.

Michael Pettorini has been reappointed to the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. He was originally appointed to the Commission to fill a vacancy in March and as a result of this reappointment will now be serving a full term which expires Dec. 31, 2023. A 30-year resident of McLean County now residing in Normal, Pettorini is employed by State Farm with expertise in matters centering on facilities management, project management, and property management.

Rachel Lund has been appointed to serve on the Normal Planning Commission. Lund will fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Dave Shields, who resigned from the Commission due to relocating out of Normal. Lund’s term on NPC expires March 31, 2023.

Through her employment at State Farm Insurance, Lund is involved with the Women’s Networking Group as well as the User Experience Research Group. She has previously worked as an Engineer of Human Systems Integration at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, VA. Her accomplishments while at NSWC Dahlgren included serving as Department Chair of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Social Media Manager of the Human Factors Engineering Technical Advisory Group.

Mandava Rao has been appointed to serve on the Board of The Twin Cities’ public transit system, Connect Transit. Rao will fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Mike McCurdy, who resigned from the Board due to a job-created relocation out of Normal. Rao’s term on the Board expires June 30.

Rao was named Normal’s Citizen Of The Year in 2016, and a year later, was also recognized by Telugu Association of North America (TANA) with a prestigious service award at their 21st national convention for rendering services at national level.

Rao has numerous civic activities to his credit including being a founding member of the Minority and Police Partnership, an active leader within Not In Our Town, past president of the McLean County Indian Association, and has served as chairperson of the Town of Normal’s Human Relation’s Commission.

NORMAL – In this day and age, working for one company or organization in one’s career could be considered rare, possibly even unheard of. But the Town of Normal has a number of employees who achieved reaching milestones in terms of length of time employed. Prior to Monday’s regularly-scheduled Normal Town Council session, held remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Chris Koos recognized those persons who have worked for the Town and achieved such milestones.

Koos said such recognition for employees reaching job milestones or publicly reaching retirement has usually taken place during the Town’s annual Mayor’s Appreciation Reception, generally held in mid-summer. But the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the event from taking place this year.

Employees With 35 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Greg Troemel (Inspections Dept.), and Brenda Peden (Normal Public Library).

Employee With 30 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Mari McKeeth (Normal Library).

Employees With 25 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Scott Danielson, John McMann, Greg Mohr, and Bob Shumaker (Fire Department); Ron Stoll (Police Department); Eric Ashenbremer, and Ed Thomas (Public Works Dept.).

Employees With 20 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Terry Whalen (Engineering Dept.).

Employees With 15 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Jenny Raisbeck (Cultural Arts); Andrew Huhn (Finance); Amy Couillard (Normal Library); Chris Kelley, Chris Onsrud (Parks and Recreation); Shane Bachman, Warren Dobson, Jim Ferguson, Jeremy Flood, and Todd VanHovein (Normal Police Department); Andrew Casali, Cody Friedlein, and Chris Pipp (Public Works); Troy Knollenberg, and Chris McCammon (Water Dept.).

Employees With 10 Years Of Service (And Town Department): Chad Phillippe (Facilities Management); Carlos Aguilar, Matthew Johann, Matt Swaney, and Jared Zobrist (Normal Fire Department); Jon McCauley, Eric Sage, and Mindy Vaughn (Normal Police Department); and Dallas Woodworth (Public Works).

Retirees Recognized, Too: Employees who have decided to retire were also recognized by Mayor Koos. That list of retirees, (the department they worked in), and their years on the job are: Ed Collins 30 years, Kevin Henderson 26 years, and Darrell Reeps 25 years (Normal Fire Dept.); Mindy Dance 22 years (Innovation and Technology); Sheila Elgin 29 years (Inspections Dept.); Craig Humphrey 31 years, and Helen “Jeanne” Moonan 36 years (Normal Public Library); Brian Quinn 25 years, and Michael “Paul” Smith 26 years (Normal Police Dept.); and Tom Butler 32 years (Parks and Recreation Dept.).

The person who was recognized as having the longest tenure of all of those retiring this year is Paul Filter, who is retiring after 44 years as part of the Town’s Public Works Department.

Koos said the list was “pretty impressive,” and closed the announcement by saying, “Thank you all for your time with the Town of Normal. I hope you stay connected to Normal.”

NORMAL – By a 6-1 count, Normal Town Council members approved an ordinance concerning liquor license fees due to the Town by license holders which would be due to the Town in 2021. Typically, the renewals for license holders takes place in mid-March. Council Member Stan Nord cast the lone opposing vote on the ordinance.

Understanding that the pandemic the country has experienced since March has presented a financial burden to these businesses, the ordinance passed waives 2021 liquor license fees for 55 businesses seeking to renew the following licenses: Class B – Beer only – Off-Premises Consumption; Class C — Beer and Wine – Off-Premises Consumption; Class D – All Liquor On-Premises Consumption; Class E – Hotels; Class H – Outdoor Premises for Existing On-Premises Licensees; Class M – Brewpub; Class N – Stadium; Class O – Limited Hours On Premises Consumption; Class P – Taproom; Class Q – College/University; and Class R – Movie Theater.

Seven other kinds of liquor licenses, including Class A – Off-Premises Consumption and Class K – One-Day Event were not considered for this measure.

The reason these specific venues are able to benefit from this ordinance is because the State’s Restore Illinois program sought to help businesses which sell liquor but would not affect the sale of packaged liquor, according to the memo to Council members written by City Manager Pam Reece.

The waiver was also a means to recognize the challenges businesses which belong in these categories have had as a result of the pandemic which began affecting businesses in March. Businesses benefitting from the waiver would be expected to continue to follow State and local liquor laws as they have done when they paid the fee, Reece explained.

Reece told Council members, “The driving factor for waiving these is to recognize the impact that the pandemic and Restore Illinois mitigations have had on these particular license holders this year.”

Council Member Karyn Smith expressed support for the measure, adding she believed roughly 55 businesses will benefit from it. “This is something we can do to compliment what the State is trying to do.”

Nord said he would rather see the fees prorated for 2021 rather than waived, and have the Town refund liquor license fees to businesses who paid for them for

2020. Town Corporation Counsel Brian Day said in order for businesses to take advantage of the waiver, they must remain in compliance with Town ordinances for the next year. He added an appeals process is in place so the Town and any business can settle any difficulties after the fact.

But Nord seemed to register an objection to the waiver, saying the Town “is now compelling businesses going forward to blindly follow whatever regulation the State puts out even if our State legislators do not make it a law.” Day told Nord his statement was incorrect.

Mayor Chris Koos reminded Nord the Town, being a Home Rule form of government, can choose to pass laws as needed for the Town. He told Nord the waiver “is not a reward” for those affected businesses. “The intent of this to relieve struggles that businesses in our community have had,” he explained. “All we’re doing is offering assistance to businesses that struggle.” Koos admitted there will be some people who think “the struggles of some businesses struggled unfairly and with more difficulty than other businesses.”

Day, responding to a question from Council Member Scott Preston, said no liquor license holders have violated any of Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s executive orders relating to COVID-19. Preston called waiving the fees “a creative way” to help struggling business owners.

Before passing the original measure, Nord offered an amendment which would remove any language requiring any future compliance or action needed by business owners to benefit from the waiver. That amendment failed by a 6-1 count, with Nord being the only Council member in support of it.

Former Write-In Council Candidate Sila Makes Public Comment: Karl Sila, a former write-in Council candidate in 2019, told Council members in a public comment, in regard to the decision concerning the waivers, said, “This is not a vote about whether to put teeth behind the Town’s bullying of our local businesses, or just a modification to our liquor code. But it’s vote to whether the Council actually cares about the actual lives of the townspeople.

“I know a lot of the Council members have little regard for the little people of our community,” Sila added.

He disagreed with the Council’s decision in October to approve an updated bicycle/pedestrian master plan created for the Town by St. Louis-based Alta Planning and Design.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included

• Approval of minutes of the work session held Dec. 7, 2020.

• Approval of minutes of the regular Council session held Dec.7, 2020.

• Report to receive and file Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Dec. 16, 2020.

• A resolution approving the allocation of $450,000 from the general fund to support the Town of Normal Small Business Relief Program reimbursable by the State Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity CURE ES Grant Program.

• An amended resolution to appropriate $926,000 of Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) funds for the Gregory Street culvert rehabilitation project (over Sugar Creek).

By Steve Robinson | December 13, 2020 - 10:26 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Anybody into high school sports will tell you this has been a very bizarre situation to be living in during the fall months: No football and no basketball early on due to the pandemic we have been existing through (to say living through would seem like we were getting along just fine, but probably, many of us, find it difficult).

And now that we are halfway through December, many of us – players, parents, friends, fans, and media types like me) ought to be into the high school basketball season, with upcoming tournaments on our calendars. Yet, we aren’t because of the need to stay apart because of COVID-19 for everyone’s safety, and maintain social distancing.

While the local event usually associated with being sandwiched between Christmas and New Year’s, the four-day, 128-team State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Classic, won’t be held as a result of the pandemic this year, the organizers of the event have found a way for fans to still do some good for the community during one of the days it would have been taking place. The cancellation also prevented the Ron Knisley Special Olympics Basketball Tournament, which takes place in the midst of the Holiday Tournament from taking place, as well.

On Tuesday, Dec. 29, in what would have been the midst of the 42nd annual event, Holiday Tournament organizers will hold a canned food drive to benefit Midwest Food Bank. Basketball fans and residents are encouraged to stop by and bring canned goods and non-perishable food items which will be donated to Midwest Food Bank.

There will be collection boxes for making donations where you would have seen round ball action. On Dec. 29, in addition to Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus, food donations can be dropped off at three schools where games would have been played — Normal Community High School, Normal Community West High School, and Bloomington High School. Donations will be taken between 1p.m.-6p.m. at those locations.

“We made this decision to cancel the tournament back in August because of Illinois High School Association regulations at this time,” said Dave Oloffson, vice president of the Holiday Tournament management group’s August decision to cancel this year’s event. “We knew we couldn’t put something on this big the way we would want to.”

Oloffson said this year’s tourney may have been nixed, but added organizers “are looking forward to 2021 and coming back better and stronger next year.”

“As much as we love putting on this event, it’s not worth it if one person gets sick,” Oloffson said.

On a personal level for Oloffson, seeing this year’s high school basketball season preempted is keeping him from seeing his daughter, Mallory, a senior at NCHS, play this year. He will have to wait until she attends and plays Women’s basketball for University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to watch her in action unless things improve.

Tara Ingham, executive director of Midwest Food Bank, explained the tournament, through one of its board members, Kraig Komnick, proposed the idea of a community-wide food drive to her to take place on a day when the tourney would have been in progress. “It was a way to keep the momentum going for The Classic since they can’t play basketball,” Ingham added. “We thought it was a wonderful idea and we’re happy to have that help.”

“We have all seen many challenges this year and Midwest Food Bank is honored to partner with the Holiday Classic organizers and supporters to turn an unfortunate year for sports into a way to help those in need,” Ingham concluded.

Pekin Tourney Cancellation Keeps Normal West Boys Team Home, Too: COVID-19 prompted organizers of the Pekin Holiday Tournament to cancel this year’s annual event, as well. That meant no games there for Normal Community West High School, whose boys’ team has participated there for a few years now. Normal West Athletic Director Wes Temples said, “With everything going on right now, obviously, there’s some disappointment” concerning the Pekin Tournament, but also hopeful some games can be played before the season comes to an end in March.

“Our coaches have done a good job,” Temples said, adding coaching staffs have done team building to help keep kids’ minds in the game, even if they aren’t facing opponents. Such events as open gym days have helped in that regard, he explained.

“It’s a hard scenario for anybody right now,” Temples said in framing the mindset for athletes, not just at his school, but at any high school. “It’s a hard time in general, so when you’re around them, you want to be positive for your kids. The disappointment’s there, no question. But you just hope that at some point in time, things will turn, and if not given the opportunity to play in tournaments, will be able to play in games or something close to that.”

Yes, COVID-19 has made a casualty out of the tournaments, and possibly the basketball season, but there were also stories of vaccines being shipped out for use for injection into arms everywhere, so there is hope.

Then, once we get past this medical situation, we all can hope life, and sports seasons, will return to normal. That is the hope we all have that will be the case. In the meantime, local tournament organizers have found a way to stay connected to fans while performing a good deed and being of service to others. We can’t ask for any more than that in these trying times, can we?

By Steve Robinson | December 11, 2020 - 10:32 pm
Posted in Category: News, The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Normal-based Unit 5 School Board voted unanimously approved an increase in the tax levy for 2021 at their Dec. 9 regularly-scheduled session held in the cafeteria of Normal Community West High School. The cafeteria was used to help participants maintain social distancing during the pandemic.

The levy increase would mean a tax levy of more than $130 million for taxes payable next year. That would be an increase of the levy to $121 million, or of 7.85 percent. As a result, anyone owning a $150,000 home would see their property tax bill increase by $141.

The vote was taken in time to meet the deadline for submitting it to the McLean County Clerk’s Office for filing. The County Clerk’s Office will verify the levy in March or April and begin collecting the tax in May or June.

While Board members approved the increase, it led to some audience members expressing their objections to it.

“Seriously, Unit 5, you want to raise our property taxes again in the middle of a pandemic?” parent Marc Judd inquired during the meeting’s public comment section. “Perhaps you haven’t heard businesses are closing for good numbering 12,000 plus so far in Illinois. There are people losing their jobs. Are you really that tone deaf?” Judd inquired to Board members as to whether the district had considered cutting spending rather than tax increases to solve the financial difficulty. Board members do not typically engage with public commenters during meeting, and therefore, did not respond to Judd’s question.

Board Votes To Fire Teacher Accused Of Abuse: Board members unanimously approved the firing of a teacher accused of sexually abusing his students. Jonathan Hovey was charged with sexually abusing two students, but those charges were later dismissed. Hovey was charged in 2019 with sexually abusing those students while employed as a first-grade teacher at Glenn Elementary School.

Hovey hasn’t been in the classroom since April of 2019. Unit 5 placed him on administrative leave one day after the district received information from a mother whose child reported being abused during the 2017-18 school year.

Broadcast radio reports indicated that during the ensuing investigation, Normal police learned of a second, similar allegation against Hovey during the 2004-05 school year. But no charges were filed in that case, and Hovey continued teaching in the district.

Superintendent Comments: District Superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle told meeting attendees the district has sent out a survey to parents to see if they wanted to change their students’ learning environment from school to home or from home to school. The change would be from the second quarter of the spring semester through the end of the 2020-21 school year in May. Dr. Weikle said the responses the district has received from parents are currently under review so that the district can plan for potential staffing changes.

Dr. Weikle also informed that the district’s pandemic advisory committee has met to look ahead toward the spring semester. But first, she said, the committee has checked to see how the second quarter of the first semester has gone to see what aspects went well and which could be improved upon. With families gathering for holiday, she said, the committee has discussed whether a short quarantining period should be employed for safety reasons after winter break concludes.

In a group call with McLean County Health Department staffers, Dr. Weikle explained, the department representatives reported they can’t explain the recent spike in COVID-19 cases which the county has experienced. She said school-aged children may not have been tested for the disease until after they returned to school for the fall.

Dr. Weikle concluded her comments with, “I know a lot of us are probably feeling that COVID fatigue, but I ask, and even plead, for everyone to take extra precautions over winter break, not only to protect yourself and your loved ones to keep them safe and healthy, but so we can get students back in the buildings.” Doing that, she said, will reduce the disease’s spread and help allow getting students and staff back in classrooms.

“Lastly, I just want to thank all of our Unit 5 families for all you are doing to support your school students this school year,” Dr. Weikle concluded. “I know the year is not what you had hoped as far as how your students might be learning and it’s definitely different than you have probably ever experienced. But I really do appreciate all that you’re doing to support your students and your teachers.”

Dr. Weikle also expressed appreciation to District teachers and staff, saying “They’re working harder than they have probably ever experienced in their careers.” She said their efforts “are recognized and noted, so thank you.”

Life Safety Recap Presented: Board members received an update from District Operations Manager Joe Adelman concerning life safety projects expected to be completed by the district in the current school year. A total of 30 projects are on tap for the school year to be completed for 10 schools and the district office. They include items such as: asbestos abatement, roof repairs, parking lot repairs, work related to energy efficiency, pool pump repairs, installation of exterior lighting, and chiller replacement.

Renewal of E-Learning Program Approved: Board members unanimously approved renewal of a researched based program for e-learning days district wide. This would allow for students to learn remotely when students are not physically present in lieu of the district using emergency days.

Students Comment On Standards Based Grading In Public Comments: In addition to Judd, Board members also heard from a couple district students concerning Standards Based Grading currently being used in the district. Conner McClelland, a senior at Normal Community High School, addressed Board members, saying he had concerns surrounding Standards Based Grading, currently being used by the district. He was one of two NCHS seniors who expressed duplicate views concerning SBG. McClelland said use of SBG was shown to have lowered ACT test scores in the subjects of Math and English when a survey was taken. “Standards Based Grading is not adequately preparing students for Standardized testing and instills the opposite work ethic needed to do well,” he said.

He added, “Being in the midst of a pandemic, we should shift our focus to the urgent issue of students’ mental health and the effects of remote learning.” He added that “myself, other students, alumni, parents, teachers, and the teachers union all have expressed our doubts about Standards Based Grading.”

Standards-Based Grading uses a system which evaluates the student using a model that evaluates the student using a scale based on proficiency, and ranges from 1-to-4. The students who spoke to Board members argue the scale does not fit for all classes and teachers do not use it consistently across the board regardless of the subject.

Insurance Renewals Approved: Board members also unanimously approved renewal of insurance policies for the district. Those include property and general liability insurance, school board liability insurance, workman’s compensation, automobile, and group medical.

Next Board Meeting Jan. 13: With the Christmas holiday coming, there will be no second Board meeting this month. The next scheduled Board meeting will be Wednesday, Jan. 13 in the cafeteria of Normal Community West High School, where social distancing can be employed, beginning at 6:30p.m. It will be the only Board meeting held that month.