Normal City Council approves underpass design contract

Normal City Council has taken the next step towards construction of the estimated $ 23 million underpass project connecting Uptown and Uptown South via an underpass on the Amtrak and Union Pacific tracks.

The contract approved Monday evening is for Phases II and III of engineering and design which will cost up to just under $ 3.3 million.

The city’s obligation was offset by a myriad of funding sources. Design is a bigger number than the city‘s overall commitment, but “we’ll get them back through grants,” said board member Karyn Smith, adding, “I’m very happy to see this project go from now on. one day to another “.

Such a project comes up once every decade, added Kathleen Lorenz, a board member, who pushed for public awareness in the early stages of the project. Even though the design company is required to consult with the public, Lorenz reiterated the call on Monday evening.

“I think the staff should even improve on that,” she said.

Mayor Chris Koos rebuffed the need for this concern.

“It’s important to reiterate that the staff always did what you asked. There has been a plethora of public hearings on major projects, ”Koos said.

City staff said the box culvert skeleton under the tracks is fairly well defined, but they want public input on the design and landscaping.

Council member Stan Nord, a long-time opponent of the project, voted against approving the contract, saying he was concerned the city could bear any increases in construction costs from the initial pre-pandemic estimates of the increases. material prices due to supply chain shortages.

“Construction costs have increased by 50% in some cases, so we are making the decision based on old data,” said Nord.

Nord has been ruled out of order on several occasions, as Koos noted that the issue was not the broader context of the underpass project, but the specific engineering design contract. North’s motion to drop the contract failed for a second.

“Going forward when we don’t have information is an ignorant vote,” Nord said.

Other board members noted that the process is the same as for many other large projects.

“You never get to the cost until you make an offer. This is a standard approach. These are very big dollars and we will be watching carefully, but this is the normal and orderly process of moving a project forward, ”said Kevin McCarthy, Board Member.

City engineer Ryan Otto also said the city has planned for such contingencies with budgetary flexibility, that it will ensure that the estimates are changed during the design phase and may change the design to stay within planned costs.

“We are past the issue of clearance at this point, but we will keep this train on track and on budget,” Lorenz said.

Construction could start next spring.

Tax levy

The council also authorized city staff to prepare a 2021 property tax ordinance of $ 13.381 million. Assuming about 2.5% growth in property values, this increase of $ 326,000 over the previous year would leave the tax rate at the same level as last year.

North was, again, the only dissenting vote.

“I wish we weren’t asking for more money than we asked for last year,” he said, saying that with the money from the US bailout, the tax revenues on marijuana , the increase in fuel tax money and the growth of Rivian, the city has a surplus.

But Rivian’s tax breaks remain in effect for at least next year, fuel tax money is to be used for transportation projects, and as city manager Pam Reece noted, the federal government specifically prohibits municipalities from using this money to reduce property taxes.

The city intends to use the new funds generated by the increase in property values ​​to support increased and mandatory contributions from police and firefighters.

In 2019, Lorenz voted with Nord at this point in the annual process to request the preparation of a levy of the same amount as the previous year.

She retracted on Monday.

“Two years ago it was a bad idea to just flatten the levy unilaterally without fully understanding what you’re doing with that suggestion and it’s a bad idea today,” Lorenz said. “Two years ago, I got screwed… and accepted your idea, a three-minute decision that I still regret today.”

State law requires municipalities to approve tax levies in a two-step process, with permission to write a levy ordinance, and then a separate decision to approve the levy itself.

In other matters, counsel:

– Unanimously and without discussion, approved the latest amended plan for Rivian which contemplates a 600,000 square foot expansion of the production facility of the electric vehicle plant.
– Heard a presentation on a revised Americans with Disabilities Act compliance plan for the city.

Previously, the Liquor Commission had approved alcohol licenses for the Normal Theater and for the Fiala Brothers micro-brewery and pub in Uptown.

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