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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton On Annexation And Police, Kirkwood Flooding

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Unknown Speaker
Hello, everybody. Joe Hren here from WFIU news. We are on Facebook Live with Bloomington Mayor john Hamilton. We do this once a month. It's our Ask the mayor program. Mayor Hamilton, thank you so much for being with us today. Of course, Joe, good to be with you again. As always, there's just so much to get to in about 2025 minutes. So let's get going. COVID update, Friday's weekly press conference officials worried the spreading Delta variant stagnating vaccination rates 56% Monroe County residents are fully vaccinated. More data 20% of positive cases are that delta variant, a little concerning, especially when the state was going from about you know, 100 to 200 new cases a day and then shot up to 560 a day. Are you concerned?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, I am. Joe, it's, it's really frustrating. I mean, here we are in July, I think you probably remember we thought maybe July last year, there was some hope that that would really be climbing out of this thing. And of course, we didn't. And we're still not there. These are really disturbing and concerning trends in the state and in the country. And locally, we haven't seen the same real doubling or tripling of hospitalizations or deaths yet, which is great and important. But we know how to fix this. And it's just really frustrating that we can't get our vaccination numbers up higher. You know, we're working with our own employees. We're working with the community, I want to applaud again, institutions that mandate it, require it seriously incentivize it. It really does concern me that over the next two, two months, we could we could see serious backsliding, and there are people in the hospital and dying, who who shouldn't be

Unknown Speaker
any threshold for mandatory masks or any type of shutdowns, again, is that is that being talked about at all?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, we meet weekly as a group that's been meeting for over a year, year and a half almost now. And we follow the health we have great fortune here of having an IU and their extraordinary health and medical expertise, as well as IU health here, as well as our health department. And it's really that trio that can be so helpful to people like me, who's not an epidemiologist, or a medical expert, or a school system or county government to help give us guidance. I know we're all working very closely. I know we're open to continuing to do whatever we need to do to protect our public and protect our economy and recovery. So it's frustrating. I mean, you know, you're Dr. Fauci safe. This is how we had approached smallpox or polio, we'd still have them. And what a tragedy that would would be, but we need to get rid of this disease. So I just sure hope people will talk to their loved ones talk to their physicians and their health care advisors, their spiritual advisors, whoever takes to remind us this is how we get out of this is is is through vaccinations, they're safe, they're effective. Most of the world is desperate to get these vaccines and we have them free and available here. So let's use them.

Unknown Speaker
Something else I think came out of that press conference 12 to 15 year olds, the lowest rate of vaccinations so in schools are going to open soon. Is there a type of strategy to get children vaccinated?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we're meeting with the school superintendent. So that group I've mentioned of health and local experts to do those conversations as well. You know, these are tough decisions. You're always get second guessed and what you do, but all we can ask is that everybody base it on Science, base it on public health, and do all the all that we can to keep everybody safe as much as possible and move us forward as we all want to move forward. But we just got to rely on the science and the health experts.

Unknown Speaker
Quick question on the 900 bedroom apartment complex and got final approval former Kmart site over there on the east side by the mall. Right now a huge parking lot vacant building will all go away more housing, no retail, but a big park. It was not what was envisioned there, pre COVID. Is this this development good for Bloomington?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I think it is. And you know, the one of the steps is a plan commission, which is made up of residents of Bloomington, representing all kinds of different interests. And they voted unanimously, I believe, to to support going forward with this development. Everybody can see things they might do differently. But look, we know we need more housing. This includes both student housing and workforce oriented housing. We know having a great big 95% hardscape unused place is not a good thing for the city. There's tons of retail around there, of course, very close. So it's on a bus line, it's a major transit line. So there's a lot of really good positive things about it. The fact that we have people who want to invest in Bloomington is also a good signal that they think the community is continuing to thrive and do well. And that that's a good signal. And, you know, we're going to continue to work to to have strong good developments of all kinds of housing and all kinds of other buildings all across the city. But this is a this is a positive step forward for sure.

Unknown Speaker
Some question that there was no requirement for affordable housing like other projects? What's the requirement for that?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, let me first say, I'm really frustrated again, that the state legislature prohibited us from having requirements for affordable housing inclusionary zoning is popular around the country, it's effective, it's the best way to get affordable housing in this kind of development and state legislature, in a very ill advised move from my perspective outlawed cities all across the state from from using that. So we have to do other things, we have to use our zoning code, we have to use revenues that we can generate from other places, we have to use incentives, which we do all of those. And we're actually continuing to talk to the developers of that site about potential incentives for for Workforce affordability, which I hope may come to pass. But the simple answer is is legislature done, let us do what we ought to do. So we work very hard to increase affordability. It's built into the new unified development ordinance. And we're going to continue to tweak that another development on 14th Street will have affordable housing, and we're going to continue to grow the 1000 new units that we have, over the last few years, a step at a time.

Unknown Speaker
I think we need to hear a little bit more about that great flood 2021. June, you know, some areas had up to eight inches of rain. It was similar flooding to what happened in 2008. A lot of people wondering, you know, why did this happen again?

Unknown Speaker
Well, the short answer is it happened again, because we had the once in a century rain, as you said of six to eight inches in one hour, not just even over 48 hours, but basically six inches in one hour. And there is no infrastructure system that we have that can handle six inches in one hour, we are expanding the downtown stormwater system, and we're going to double it in size over the next year or so. That's going on now. But even if it were doubled today, and that rain happened again, we would have serious flooding expected downtown if we got six inches in one hour. So there's lots of things to be done. You know, we have to look at building resilience. This is this is probably climate change related, we're going to see more severe events like this. I saw I was reading about Evansville and other places that have you know, they see these things happening with more intense rainstorms even while the the West is drier and suffering terribly from fires. It's so we're gonna have to work on resilience in our buildings. We're looking at that in our fire headquarters and our police headquarters, but we may have to rethink how they're structured, where they're located. We have to look at Green solutions as well more green roofs more creating inside our watersheds, ways to manage rain as it falls to hold it where it is right now. You know the Kmart parking lot is a great example when rain falls on that It rushes off immediately and having more green space will help us we're continuing to look at that. But look, this is you know, this is climate change and, and and trying to develop ways to manage it are gonna we're all gonna have to be working together and creative I will think we have a very collaborative and cooperative and resilient community. We had a celebration last week of downtown fact we upgraded some some lights and some other things to celebrate that and I know merchants who had took it in the midsection the couple of weeks before we're back out and ready to come back and do what they can to, to restore the downtown.

Unknown Speaker
The hidden River Project, I think that's like about $30 million undertaking will help with some of that water. And that's a part what a connector in the middle of the city.

Unknown Speaker
That's the doubling in size that I've mentioned, Joe, this is the the river that runs through campus and most of this watershed is on IU campus, literally goes underground under the downtown right there at sixth in Indiana and comes out at at first and walnut in college and in between it runs underneath our downtown and we're we're doubling the size of that people who remember the Big Dig from 20, about 2000. And we're now completing that finally. And that will help but again, that will not stop a six inch in array in and our rainfall from overwhelming the stormwater system.

Unknown Speaker
Well, then something else I I've learned to in some of our reporting, that double intake will will help Of course, downtown but that's being dispersed into Clear Creek, which then that can't necessarily handle all the water and some apartments down at that end are getting flooded. So it's I mean, this is something that's a long, long term solution. Right?

Unknown Speaker
It is and look, you know, we have places like the environmental resilience instituted Indiana University that help municipalities like us and others. Look at that. I know our city utilities met with the Corps of Engineers as well in the last week or two to identify any steps we can take this as a problem all around the country. It may be should remind us how important it is to take steps on climate change and to try to not only prepare for these rainstorms, but take the steps today that we need to to reduce the impact of climate change in the decades ahead.

Unknown Speaker
Let's dig in to annexation. I know we've been talking about this the last few months and then a lot of reporting on it. One area we really haven't talked much about is the police protection. And this really came up in I saw in May, Bloomington police detective Jeff Rogers on Facebook publicly posted a letter to you on how the plan to add more police officers won't work. And I wanted to get your your comment on that because, you know, he mentioned how the city has hired 65 offers 65 officers since you took over the January 2016. But 67 have resigned and I think his point being that with 92 officers hired budgeted to have 100 How do you expect to hire that many more officers by January 1 2025 for annexation?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I appreciate that question. Joan. I've met with detective riders and the head of the police union Fraternal Order police as well and of course meet regularly with the police chief. I don't think it's a secret to note that being a police officer has been a challenging job over the last several years and that police departments and their relationship to the communities they serve has been evolving and sometimes stressful. We're not immune to that. Every city in Indiana and basically every city in America is kind of struggling to hire officers. We have very high standards in Bloomington. We have not lowered them in terms of the kind of officers that we want. well educated well trained, the right personality and judgments and experience that we want to build. So we're going to work really hard. I've got a budget coming up. We have negotiations with the police union next year. I'm confident that we have four years to develop this force to cover whatever annexation is approved by the City Council. And once that approval is done, which we expect in September, we'll be implementing a four year plan to move forward. Part of what we do is enhance our ability to attract and retain police officers with we have some take home car programs and housing programs to help people deal with expensive housing. We're also expanding the Kind of the range of the police department, as we've talked about before, we have social workers. Now we have three social workers, we have community service specialists, these are non sworn members, non armed members of the police department who can help do some of the work of the police department and keep public safety. So it's a whole mix and wide range of approaches. I'm confident we can move forward well and provide the services our public wants, if and when we annex will be ready when those you know that that's why you have a two or three or four years to get your annexation effective so that you can ramp up the services that are needed.

Unknown Speaker
But you know, it's been shown and you said twice that, you know, you're you said that you're confident, but it's just been shown the city can't keep a full police staff. So what would be maybe more detail of how that would be done? If, of course, we should say we don't know, the whole scope of what annexation will end up being to right. So that that number can change. But, but but how Why are you confident that the city can keep a full staff?

Unknown Speaker
Our Annex A Sure, absolutely. I mean, look, there are some times what should we say there's sometimes dueling facts or data's or statistics that are that are used by different folks. We it is not unusual for any departments, police, fire parks, or anybody to have not every position filled at any time we typically fund. There's transitions and stuff, but But look, it's it's been challenging to to hire sworn officers, there are fewer people applying to be sworn officers. And cities are kind of competing in some ways for those officers like we are we, for example, when you ask calm, confident, um, I just sworn a new officer the other day, and I think for officers a couple weeks ago, the new housing allowance that we have helps attract officers, we offer up to about $500 a month for rentals, or up to $12,000, for a down payment for a house in the city to encourage our police officers we allow take home cars now in the city and some limited for special officer uses out who don't live in the city. But that obviously served the city, we're continuing to evaluate what the market is like. And we will continue to do so I think in the budget that you'll see next month, we're going to be presenting a public safety budget that will reflect that, look, the world is evolving, and we got to evolve with it, both on the sworn officer side, but also, as I said, on the non sworn officer side, because it's not clear that we have the same challenge on the non sworn officer side in terms of hiring and perception and such and all of this to Joe, as you remember a year ago, you know think about the context of policing and, and community relationships with police. So we have a future policing taskforce that's going to be helping us advise from the community how we move forward. So I'm very confident this city, and this community, as we always have will protect public safety. We may be we may evolve over the next several years to do that. But I'm very confident it will do so that's the first job of a mayor and I'm fully committed to make sure we get that done.

Unknown Speaker
I see the city's added virtual office hours to discuss annexation one is this Thursday, noon to two. And I think there's a Facebook event a Facebook Live event on Friday at noon as well. So how does the the one Thursday? I guess that's a virtual office hours. How does that work?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, this is ongoing. Joe, since we kind of restarted the annexation, after we were so rudely interrupted four years ago by the state legislature. We've done a lot of different public outreach, both through elected officials and kind of direct folks responsible like the head of school system where they had a library or the solid waste district, etc. but also just the general public. We have active website phone lines, FAQs, that kind of thing. But we're continuing to do meetings and offerings. I think I'm on the I'm on the on the Facebook Live on Friday, just to see if there's any questions anybody wants to ask me. We also have staff as you reference doing kind of office hours. If you don't want to phone and you don't want to use the website or emails, you can come in either virtually or in person and ask a question. Of course there's a big public hearing. That's that's August 4. And all of this is just trying to make sure people get their questions answered if they have any.

Unknown Speaker
You know, I'm sure getting a lot of questions. Will some and some of these that I see. I don't want to get into the specifics but like i I saw a video with residents in a proposed area worried that they'd have to give up their cow, I guess they have a cow? Are there certain instances where things will be grandfathered into the newly annexed areas so that people don't have to give up something they already have?

Unknown Speaker
There are there are Joe? And that's that's the kind of question that's great if you want to call a specific question like that about a chicken or a cow or something like that we do a lot of there's a lot of grandfathering in if you if you have that use now if you're using your property in a certain way now, when you join the city, and of course, that doesn't happen till January 2024. So it's a ways off, whatever it does get annexed, you do get there as grandfathering in I'm not sure if that's the right term I'm supposed to use anymore grandparenting in or something but you, you get to keep doing what you're doing. Now there, you know, not everything, for example, their rules against open burning inside the city that when you become part of the city, that likely will be in effect. And the idea is, you know, you're closer your neighbors or that kind of thing. So it's good to ask if you want to there are a lot of questions under the, in the website frequently asked questions that may answer some of the basic questions that you might have.

Unknown Speaker
And we'll link to those virtual office hours. There's one August 12, August 9, August 4, that's the public hearing as as you said, but that's also it's virtual and in person, right?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, it is. Either way you can come in person starts at three o'clock. So it's earlier than usual on that Wednesday, August 4.

Unknown Speaker
I know we just have four minutes left, but I wanted to get to a couple other things before we go people might be interested in the ribbon cutting there's a new playground and Butler Park.

Unknown Speaker
Yes, you know, we always try to upgrade and freshen our playgrounds. And this is a new one in Butler Park. Everyone's welcome to come I think Thursday, at one o'clock is their kind of play time and then 130 the actual ribbon cutting of a butler Park, a great new playground. So everyone's welcome to come to that. It's always fun to to see those structures activated.

Unknown Speaker
And I just heard about a Kirkwood canopy of lights. We all know the downtown the square a canopy of lights that at Christmas, what's the Kirkwood canopy of lights?

Unknown Speaker
Well, thanks, Joe. You know, the Kirkwood, of course, is a wonderful Avenue kind of bridging between the campus in the downtown square. And during the pandemic we've explored and found ways to activate that that five block area and there's a couple two, two and a half blocks that are actually close to traffic now through October, the end of October. And there's a lot more outdoor dining and activities. And we had a group of folks who said hey, maybe we can spice this up a little bit. And I want to give a shout out and thanks to cast the electric and the downtown Bloomington Inc. and Kirkwood cooperative Association Community Association. All together they actually is kind of like a barn raising, they went out and found pieces to put together and lights and all but I think it's really beautiful. Now, there's a canopy over a one block of Kirkwood that we're experimenting with and see how people like it and feel. And it was it's kind of you know, a little bit tender and not really temporary. But it's maybe not what we would do if we decided we're going to do it full scale. But check it out if you can, I think it's the done to grant block of Kirkwood has those lights. And if you're there in the dark, you won't miss them. You'll see.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you so much. We have a minute and a half left. But I always like to leave the last word Do You Do you have any special announcements or things you'd like to say?

Unknown Speaker
Well, thanks, Joe, I always appreciate the time. There's always seems like there's too much to talk about. City Council comes back in this week. There. They've been off for a month. couple interesting things. One, this the the biannual the every other year city survey is going to be released. A city survey during a pandemic is a little different people are a little stressed. And it's it's evident and but we use that survey to try to be really transparent and scientific about what are people thinking about? What are they worried about? How do they feel about things, so that might be of interest to folks. And then that actually that same night we start the America rescue plan formal appropriations for for this year, and then will beginning next year in a month or so. But that's a really important process for the public to weigh in on as well. As we start to help make these investments to recover. I'm the the COVID increases are scary, but we know we need to make these kinds of investments to help us climb out of this and move forward in a better way recover forward, as we say. So thanks for all the public attention to that and for you helping us talk about that.

Unknown Speaker
Well thank you for joining us and We're out of time. appreciate everybody listening watching in. Don't forget, you can also ask a question, submit them news at Indiana public media.org or for Terre Haute, Columbus, Nashville, Brown County. And we'll see you again next time in August. Thank you, Mayor. Thanks a lot, Joe. We'll see you then. Okay.
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton during Tuesday's Zoom call. (Zoom)

20 percent of positive COVID cases are the delta variant, a 900 bedroom apartment complex is approved at the former K-mark location, why Kirkwood floods, and will the city be able to maintain a proper police force staff after annexation.

In this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more during a Facebook Live Zoom event Tuesday. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU. Here are some highlights.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: Let's start with a COVID update... at Friday's weekly press conference, officials are worried about the spreading delta variant, stagnating vaccination rates - 56% Monroe County residents are fully vaccinated, 20% of positive cases are the delta variant, a little concerning, especially when the state was going from about 100 to 200 new cases a day and then shot up to 560 a day. Are you concerned?

Hamilton: Yes, I am. Joe, it's really frustrating. I mean, here we are in July, I think you probably remember we thought maybe July last year, there was some hope that would really be climbing out of this thing. And of course, we didn't. And we're still not there. These are really disturbing and concerning trends in the state and in the country. And locally, we haven't seen the same real doubling or tripling of hospitalizations or deaths yet, which is great and important.

But we know how to fix this. And it's just really frustrating that we can't get our vaccination numbers up higher. You know, we're working with our own employees. We're working with the community, I want to applaud again, institutions that mandate it, require it, seriously incentivize it. It really does concern me that over the next two months, we could we could see serious backsliding, and there are people in the hospital and dying who shouldn't be.

READ MORE: State Officials Report 713 New Cases Tuesday – Highest Recorded Number of Daily Cases This Month

Hren: Any threshold for mandatory masks or any type of shutdowns if numbers keep going up?

Hamilton: We meet weekly as a group for over a year and a half almost now. And we have great fortune of having IU and their extraordinary health and medical expertise, as well as IU Health here, as well as our health department. And it's really that trio that can be so helpful to people like me, who's not an epidemiologist or a medical expert, or a school system or county government to help give us guidance.

I know we're open to continuing to do whatever we need to do to protect our public and protect our economy and recovery. So it's frustrating. I mean, you heard Dr. Fauci say if this is how we had approached smallpox or polio, we'd still have them. And what a tragedy that would be, but we need to get rid of this disease. So I just sure hope people will talk to their loved ones, talk to their physicians, their health care advisors, their spiritual advisors, whoever it takes to remind us this is how we get out of this through vaccinations, they're safe, they're effective. Most of the world is desperate to get these vaccines and we have them free and available. So let's use them.

A rendering of the new housing development at the former K-Mart site in Bloomington.
Four separate apartment buildings, two newly built parks, and two east-west streets make up the complex, leaving the Bloomingfoods store on the northeast corner of the site intact. (Courtesy: City of Bloomington)

Hren: The 900 bedroom apartment complex got final approval at the former Kmart site on the east side by the mall. Right now it's a huge parking lot and vacant building. More housing, no retail, but a big park. It was not what was envisioned there, pre COVID. Is this development good for Bloomington?

Hamilton: Well, I think it is. Everybody can see things they might do differently. But look, we know we need more housing. This includes both student housing and workforce oriented housing. We know having a great big 95% hardscape unused place is not a good thing for the city. There's tons of retail around there, of course, very close.

It's on a major transit line. There's a lot of really good positive things about it. The fact that we have people who want to invest in Bloomington is also a good signal that they think the community is continuing to thrive and do well.

Hren: Some question that there was no requirement for affordable housing like other projects? 

Hamilton: Well, you know, let me first say, I'm really frustrated again, that the state legislature prohibited us from having requirements for affordable housing - inclusionary zoning is popular around the country, it's effective, it's the best way to get affordable housing in this kind of development. And state legislature, in a very ill advised move from my perspective outlawed cities all across the state from using that. So we have to do other things, we have to use our zoning code, we have to use revenues that we can generate from other places, we have to use incentives, which we do all of those.

We're actually continuing to talk to the developers of that site about potential incentives for workforce affordability, which I hope may come to pass. It's built into the new unified development ordinance. And we're going to continue to tweak that another development on 14th Street will have affordable housing, and we're going to continue to grow the 1000 new units that we have, over the last few years, a step at a time.

National Weather Service precip totals
National Weather Service 24-hour precip totals

Hren: I think we need to hear a little bit more about the great flood of June 2021. Some areas had up to eight inches of rain. It was similar flooding to what happened in 2008. A lot of people wondering, why did this happen again?

Hamilton: Well, the short answer is it happened again, because we had the once in a century rain, as you said of six to eight inches in one hour, not just even over 48 hours, but basically six inches in one hour. And there is no infrastructure system that we have that can handle six inches in one hour. We are expanding the downtown storm-water system, and we're going to double it in size over the next year or so. That's going on now. But even if it were doubled today, and that rain happened again, we would have serious flooding expected downtown.

So there's lots of things to be done. We have to look at building resilience. This is probably climate change related, we're going to see more severe events like this. We're looking at that in our fire headquarters and our police headquarters, but we may have to rethink how they're structured, where they're located. We have to look at green solutions as well - more green roofs, more creating inside our watersheds, ways to manage rain as it falls to hold it where it is right now. We're all gonna have to be working together.

READ MORE: City Says Hidden River Pathway Project Will Help Alleviate Flooding Issues Downtown

Map of stormwater pipe construction in Bloomington

Hren: Let's dig in to annexation. One area we really haven't talked much about is the police protection. And this really came up in May, Bloomington police detective Jeff Rogers on Facebook publicly posted a letter to you on how the plan to add more police officers won't work. And I wanted to get your your comment on that because, he mentions the city has hired 65 offers since you took over the January 2016. But 67 have resigned and I think his point is that how do you expect to hire that many more officers by January 1, 2025 for annexed areas?

Hamilton: I appreciate that question. I've met with detective Rogers and the head of the police Union Fraternal Order of Police as well and of course meet regularly with the police chief. I don't think it's a secret to note that being a police officer has been a challenging job over the last several years and that police departments and their relationship to the communities they serve has been evolving and sometimes stressful. We're not immune to that.

Every city in Indiana and basically every city in America is struggling to hire officers. We have very high standards in Bloomington. We have not lowered them in terms of the kind of officers that we want. I've got a budget coming up. We have negotiations with the police union next year. I'm confident that we have four years to develop this force to cover whatever annexation is approved by the City Council. And once that approval is done, which we expect in September, we'll be implementing a four year plan to move forward.

Part of what we do is enhance our ability to attract and retain police officers - we have some take home car programs and housing programs to help people deal with expensive housing. We're also expanding the range of the police department. Now we have three social workers, we have community service specialists, these are non-sworn members, non-armed members of the police department who can help do some of the work of the police department and keep public safety. So it's a whole mix and wide range of approaches. 

READ MORE: Bloomington's Annexation Proposal A Hard Sell For Some Non-City Residents

The city is offering virtual office hours to discuss and learn about annexation. Stop by for a virtual chat on Zoom if you have questions.

Dates:

Thursday, July 22: noon-2 p.m.

Thursday, July 29: 2-4 p.m.

Thursday, August 12: 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Thursday, August 19: 3-5 p.m.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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