A surprise addition to Indiana’s biennial budget bill means the city of Bloomington’s plans to expand are on hold for at least the next five years. The language appears to apply only to Bloomington’s proposed annexation.
But some say the issue is much bigger than that. They’re questioning the way the legislature went about making the rule. And others are questioning how Bloomington’s mayor handled his annexation plans.
Bloomington Mayor Calls Legislature’s Actions Government Overreach
Mayor John Hamilton (D-Bloomington) announced in February his plans to annex nearly 15,000 new residents to the city as part of Bloomington’s first expansion in nearly two decades.
“It’s very frustrating, it’s probably unconstitutional, but the impact of it is real.”
The move would have provided the city with a larger tax base in exchange for extending city services to those areas.
But as Bloomington was preparing for the next step, the legislature stopped the process in its tracks.
“It’s very frustrating, it’s probably unconstitutional, but the impact of it is real,” Hamilton says.
Language in the biennial budget bill passed last week prohibits annexation of all properties proposed after December 31, 2016 and before July of this year.
That stopped Bloomington about halfway through the annexation process laid out in state statute.
“The fact that it was done in the dark of the night, with no public hearing, with no public testimony from anybody is terrible,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton says the state legislature isn’t allowed to single out one community when it passes legislation. So the city is considering taking legal action.
And Director of Indiana University’s Civics Leader Center Paul Helmke says they should.
“It really goes, in my mind, against the rule of law,” Helmke says. “It really is sort of a basically a denial of this whole concept that we should make decisions at the local level.”
Helmke says communities across the state should be alarmed because legislators could use a similar strategy to stop other local proposals in the future.
“This is a recipe for disaster down the road in terms of all sorts of policies,” he says.
Those Opposed To Bloomington Annexation Applaud Legislature’s Actions
But, Bloomington’s annexation plan wasn’t popular with all of the people it could have affected.
The city council voted to remove one of the zones considered for annexation after 93 percent of residents there signed a petition opposing the annexation.
And the area’s largest manufacturer, Cook Medical, wanted to renew an agreement with the city that would have prevented it from being annexed. Chairman of the Board for Cook Group Steve Ferguson says they already receive the services they need from the county. So, under annexation, they’d be paying more for what they already have.
“If you don’t receive any more services and the additional cost might be $500,000 a year, then it’s significant,” Ferguson says.
Some state and local leaders suspect Cook was behind the last-minute change that stopped the annexation, but Ferguson says anytime 15,000 people are impacted there will be some sort of legislative result.
He says putting the plan on hold for five years gives the county and city time to design a more efficient government.
“The message is, go solve your problem,” Ferguson says. “Don’t be coming up here and doing things to stimulate people to come for us for relief.”
Representative Jeff Ellington (R-Bloomington) says he hopes Bloomington leaders will reach out to politicians and constituents from both parties while it figures out what to do next. He says the language in the budget was the result of several taxpayers and businesses speaking out against the plan.
“We want consistency in planning and zoning and taxation to grow our economy,” Ellington says. “This plan, this bill, had more input than the mayor’s administration had prior to initiating his annexation.”
But Hamilton says it’s wrong for the state to interfere when the local government is following the law in trying to expand its boundaries. And he’s worried about the potential implications for other communities.