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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton on annexation numbers, food and beverage tax, mask mandate

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Unknown Speaker
Okay we are back on Facebook Live on WFIU I'm Joe Hren with Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton we do this every month it's Ask The Mayor on WFIU - some of you who tune into WFIU during morning edition will hear some of this on Wednesday morning. But we always do our interviews on Tuesday. And this week Bloomington, John Hamilton of Bloomington is with us, thank you so much for joining us.

Unknown Speaker
Great to be with you again. Joe. Nice to see you.

Unknown Speaker
Don't forget you can submit your questions to news at Indiana public media.org. Or you can tweet us at Ask the mayor. Let's get going well, we start with COVID numbers. This is the first month though we've seen county statewide cases decreasing, maybe part of that projected post holiday winter wave starting to descend. Are you hearing any other factors are what's the current conditions right now the COVID situation?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, I think we're all relieved that the that the explosion we had with Omicron, which really blew up our healthcare system and our numbers, our own workforce is is seems directly to be diminishing pretty substantially. We don't know four out of the woods, you know, we got to be humble, we got to stay weary. But the numbers are going down in terms of us numbers and our county numbers. We're still not nearly as low as we were pre Omicron. So we got to remember, there's still people getting very sick, they're still people dying in the hospital from this disease. But it's definitely moving in the right direction and our fingers are crossed that will keep keep moving this way.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, at first numbers for plateauing. And I think we're just all looking for some good news. Finally, we had a little bit of good news, but still have to remember that the the cases are still pretty high and the county mask mandate only county in the state with the mandate, hearing new information that that could expire in March when the governor seizes the state of emergency. Is that what you're hearing to?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we've always followed the science and our Board of Health, our local County Board of Health has been the entity that's put that into place. We've had it for quite a long time. And I think most of us involved in watching this feel it's been very helpful to our community, we've had really good experience compared to a lot of our neighbors and other Indiana counties. I do think you know, it is our hope that these numbers will continue to come down the Omicron surge will will really dissipate such that that could be lifted, it'll be up to the Board of Health, which I think we'll meet very early in march right before the governor's order extends. We do have authority we could to keep that in place. But I I would if the trends continue. My expectation is that that that masked mandate may go away.

Unknown Speaker
Let's move on to an email we got from Anne a couple of days ago and wanted to see if you could address this she wrote in at the city of spending $800,000 to provide a more equitable tree canopy areas for trees at no cost to homeowners were chosen based on median income percentage of non white residents. So she wanted to know how did whose your acres one of the wealthiest Vitus neighborhoods get included.

Unknown Speaker
So the thanks for asking about that tree program that's part of our Bicentennial bond program that back in 2018. We financed and the city council supported what we called trees and trails, I think was was a big part of that. And one of the things we wanted to do was look at the public tree plots that is places where The public owns the usually the strip between the sidewalk in the street, and where we need trees and where they can go. And it is a we did a real push this time to look hard at places that were under lower tree canopy. But we also do have to look at where you actually can plant trees. There's a lot of things that go into it, including infrastructure or utilities beneath the tree plot. So there's a committee and I have to tell you, I didn't I didn't decide it. But the committee that looked at how do we maximize the equitable justice as well as getting tree canopy just built because it planted because we want that. So it was a range of neighborhoods, I'm really proud and pleased. And I think our community should be that we're investing a vast majority in areas that were kind of under invested before. And trees are really important for social equity and neighborhood equity. And we're putting a lot of new trees in neighborhoods that hadn't didn't have enough before.

Unknown Speaker
Just a quick follow up Green Acres, was that chosen based on the median income of the landlords or the student renters in that neighborhood?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, if we'd look at the median income of the of the residents, is what we would look at, I think that's how median income is generally calculated. So we look at the median income of friends but but it's I don't want to there's a it's kind of a form a mix. It's not a mathematical formula, but it's trying to measure different factors. It is trying to remedy what I think was a problem in the past, which is, there was maybe a tendency to put public trees in areas of neighborhoods that were the most active or are loud about asking for them. And we've tried to remedy that with a more systematic look at where the tree canopy should go.

Unknown Speaker
Let's jump over to the Bloomington crime rates that were released for 2021. You had a press conference presentation this past week and had some statistics that crime dropped 9% in 2021, though gun violence increased, there's also a 6% increase in rape. So there is some good news, but some areas that still need work.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, well, Joe, since I came in as mayor, we've done this annually, just to share the public data about crimes, I think it's really important. You know, we all, of course, pay attention to individual stories through the year and, and have concerns or good stories or challenging stories. But this was a way each year to in February, kind of share the statistics. We're very pleased. Contrary to a lot of places in the country where we've seen serious rises in in violent crime, we actually had a modest reduction in violent crime overall, in the city. So that was important, as you said, I think six out of seven violent crime report numbers went down, one went up. And we always pay attention to that that's really important. But I'm very pleased are, you know, we have a terrific police force. We have a terrific community collaborating on this, and sometimes these factors, I know, you know, a lot of cities around the country, my heart goes out to they're just struggling to figure out what's going on. And I'm pleased that we've been able to, at least in Bloomington see a continued election in crime. We'll continue to work on it. We're continuing to invest in our public safety. Overall, it's one of the most important things that administration does. So we like reporting that if people want more data, it's online at be clear, or you can check out that presentation that was made last week.

Unknown Speaker
Are these statistics returning more toward the pre pandemic levels? Or is this something that the city has been always working on in combination?

Unknown Speaker
Well, generally, we've seen crime going down. As you mentioned, gun violence is an exception to that we've seen more guns, more gunshots. I will say we've been fortunate that there weren't more people hit by gunshots. It's extremely concerning. We aggressively respond to that. Any gun violence. So that's an area of real concern. But we continue to work very hard domestic violence. Almost all the violent crime we see the vast majority is people who know each other. That that works. It means we have to work hard to try to reduce tension and why we have social workers and other kinds of interventions through the community. But you know, I'm glad to see that trend. We hope that will continue. We'll do everything we can to keep it moving in the right direction.

Unknown Speaker
assume that report to staffing is still short. The department has authorized for 105 officers employs 85. We've talked about this with the end of the annexation to this past year. Are there more efforts to hire more police officers?

Unknown Speaker
Well, yes, there's a whole multitude of strategies. One of it is to hire more. We've adjusted compensation the City Council helped with that. We still are not done with that. But we just did computation. Another is to retain the people that we have. And we're doing things with take home vehicles and housing allowances and other things for that, and compensation. We're also looking, of course, to continue to innovate and find ways to improve public safety, even if it's not a sworn officer. So we've hired for more community service specialists, those are non badged non armed police employees who work to diminish conflict and improve public safety. We've hired another social worker, those slots are available now to do the same. Actually, there's some really interesting new things to stride Center, which is kind of a drop off place. For people in crisis, there's a new program going to be coming out soon, that will be focused on mental health intervention, our fire departments added positions to work on medical and health responses. So it's a whole range of those things, all of which help improve public safety. And we'll keep measuring and seeing that we're moving in the right direction.

Unknown Speaker
And then just one more quick item on this in terms of the fire department, headquarters downtown was destroyed by that flood in June, any plans or permanent locations of that fire department?

Unknown Speaker
Well, that's a Sticky, sticky problem. We're still in temporary quarters. And thanks to the department, they've done a great job, responding downtown, finding a location, a plan for a downtown headquarters, whether we rebuild where we were, without a basement, whether we look at a different facility, we're still, frankly, struggling to figure out where to how to do that. We're looking at a few options, but I don't have anything decided yet. In the meantime, our headquarters is essentially over on Fourth Street in a taking over kind of an empty office building and it's working. But it's not a long term solution. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker
Let's just move on to annexation. The city released annexation numbers about a week or so ago, I kind of see two sets of numbers, those that include all the waivers as the city sees fit. And then there are those that doesn't include those that are older than 15 years as part of that 2019 state law that we've talked about many, many times on this show. The county auditor told us that she's going to follow state law. But we also have to understand we haven't received the official results yet. So but you know, there is a big difference in counting all the waivers that would annex at least to my count, maybe you can help me out here, one, a one B, one C and two. And if you don't count all the waivers only area one B would be annexed. So those waivers do make a big difference, don't they?

Unknown Speaker
Well, yes, Joe, the waivers matter a lot. And as you indicated, if they are recognized, which we believe they should be as human indicated, the vast majority of this annexation goes through automatically, because most of the people most of the parcels in these areas agreed to be part of the city in the past years. If the waivers were not to be counted, the older waivers were not to be counted. It gets way more complicated. It's actually there's a lot of differences in the numbers. It's a one thing I'll just remind people to keep breathing is there's a legal process for all this. It's not just the waivers. There's also really detailed rules about signatures and how they get counted. And whether they're notarized or whether they're not and the timing of them. And if somebody collected the signatures was it done correctly, and the state sets up sets out a very specific way to do it and a very specific process to review it if there's if there are questions about it. So we're, you know, we're in the sixth or seventh inning, I guess, of the game, but we're not not down to the bottom of the ninth or anything. So let's just let the process run. The numbers are there kind of moving around? Because it's a very detailed review process? And we'll keep watching how that turns out.

Unknown Speaker
Sure, what's the next step or timeline into getting those official results from the auditor? Have you heard anything?

Unknown Speaker
I haven't heard anything, but we expect them pretty soon under state law. We provided the feedback to the auditor by the early part of this month and she has I think 15 business days to put a formal notice out of her review of those numbers. We will take a look at him again. And if there are areas where we agree, we'll note that if there are areas where there's differences of particulars of, hey, this, this signature shouldn't count for this reason or not, or this, this person signed twice or whatever, that kind of stuff still has to happen. Ultimately, it could go to a court, the state sets that up, if there's a still a question about it, a state court can decide it. And that's that's all separate from this overriding question of the of the validity of the waivers, which, which could also end up in court, we just don't know yet.

Unknown Speaker
Now, there's new state legislation. I believe it's SB 73. I think that changes the the entire annexation process that reverses the process, that cities have to get more than 50% of signatures to be annexed. And therefore, in that way, it kind of, I guess, does away with that whole demonstration process. What's your reaction to that bill?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I haven't read that bill. It's a proposal. There are always proposals every year for annexation, you know, our urge is just to one don't change the rules in midstream. That's, that's not fair. And to get people around the table to talk about it, look, cities need to grow, they should grow. rationally and appropriately. The past, we had this structure of waivers because cities would get waivers extend sewers, some of the places in the country don't do that. And they just you just don't join a city and you don't get sewers. Until you join a city. If you're not in the city, you don't get sewers. And if you want to get sewers, you join the city, we had a different approach in Indiana. But if the legislature wants to change it, let's get around the table and talk about it and try to figure out how to help cities appropriately incorporate the urban areas. I'm afraid the legislature tends to have a kind of rural bent that wants to keep urbanized areas from joining the city. But I think if rational minds prevailed, we can develop a system let's just finish what we have with this system. And then we move forward with a new one.

Unknown Speaker
Last month, we talked about the convention center expansion was put on hold to the syntenic. With no real indication of timeline, what could happen next, but I wanted to ask about the food and beverage tax. The county is collecting for the project since about 2018. I just looked at some records about $12.5 million through 2021. Of course, that money gets divvied up. But last year and 2021, the city took about 3.2 million, the county $443,000. So where's that money going? Right now? Do you have any insight information and breaking that down?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, so thank you for asking the food and beverage tax, which was put in place by the county council about four years ago or so is designed and meant to help finance a convention center primarily, as you indicated, a percent of it, maybe a 10th of it, or so goes to the county and they use that for other purposes. Of course, when the pandemic hit that really changed the food and beverage tax, and it changed the momentum toward a convention center. I will say that I know we and I believe the county to use the food and beverage tax proceeds a lot of it for helping people get through the pandemic, we ran a multi million dollar very favorable loan program to help businesses who needed to who are losing business. Because the retail establishments I know the county did some as well. So that money has been put to use some of it, not all of it. And I'm I'm a strong advocate for the convention center. I hope we can move forward with it. There's not a meeting of the minds yet on that. But I believe it's really important for the city. I think that funding mechanism is there. And that's what we should use it for. And we'll continue to urge that that be possible. But in the meantime, we have just seen the food and beverage tax rebound. So just late last year, it came back to the levels it was before. And as a practical matter, you do have to see a pretty stable revenue source B before you can use it to finance long term construction like that. So we're we're just starting to get into place where we see a stable, see it stabilize, hopefully and can be used again to to help finance a convention.

Unknown Speaker
Then that other portion that that wasn't being used for pandemic rehabilitation. Is that part just kind of being saved up for the possible expansion of the convention center?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, that that will let us just not have to borrow as much money and pay it off sooner. So that money is still dedicated to a convention center and it won't it'll it'll actually just help us borrow less money when it's time to build one.

Unknown Speaker
Quick update on the former Downtown Hospital site now called Hopewell neighborhood. It has a name a plan Is it kind of fair to say that the first phase is is underway? Yes, Joe,

Unknown Speaker
we're pleased to Hopewell is the designated name for that new neighborhood. It actually comes from what the hospital was called very early on Hopewell house, derived from the name of a resident there. And phase one, literally, phase one is in front of the Planning Commission and getting planted and designed for infrastructure that we hope will be you'll start to see action this year. There'll be some demolition first, that's the area kind of on the east end of the hospital but east of Rogers and between first and second. And then the big hospital area is going to be you'll start I think to see the deconstruction it's really more deconstruction than demolition of that major hospital even beginning this year and on into next year, too.

Unknown Speaker
I know we just have five minutes left I wanted to get really quick to Katelyn two is looking to expand in Bloomington. They're looking for tax incentives, but they're also looking elsewhere. What big employer in Bloomington Of course, they've been in the news for, I believe, part of the vaccine across the country. What are you hearing?

Unknown Speaker
So folks may remember that Katelyn bought cook Pharmacopeia, which was a spin off of Cook course our largest private employer that grew homegrown here in Bloomington and cook farmaco was sold about five years ago for a good sum of money and had about 800 employees at the time. And Katelyn a company and national company global company publicly traded bought it. They have since grown that to about 3000 employees. So they've gone up almost four fold in the number of employees, in part, driven by their really central role in the COVID-19 vaccine. They've been a producer and a packager of that vaccine. That's just of course exploded over the last year, but even before that they were growing a lot. And what we've just learned in the last few months is Katelyn, again, this global company is looking at another major expansion of their facility 1000 employees $350 million of investment that would be the biggest single investment and an expansion like that in a long, long time and Bloomington, they're considering Bloomington and and some other places around the world and the country. And we are actually this week, it'd be presenting the city council and abatement request, you know, tax abatements, it's a complicated and sometimes controversial approach, what you're doing is you're trying to encourage major private investment that may not come here by saying if you come here, we will reduce your taxes for a period of time a certain kind of taxes. Now, I will say the spin off of this would be extraordinary. The the wages and the and the purchasing and the overall spin off would be really important for our community. They're high wage jobs. They're clean jobs, they're in the city downtown. Great for for our climate impacts. So I'm very hopeful it'll go through and that Katelyn will end up choosing the right spot for them, which we think is Bloomington.

Unknown Speaker
And the state of the city is scheduled February 24. Is that back live and public at the Buskirk like the good old days.

Unknown Speaker
You know Joe last year I did it all virtually this year. We do hope to do it and plan to do it in person at the Buskirk it'll be under the bus Kirk's rules which include you have to prove you're vaccinated you have to wear a mask, you have to be socially distanced. So we will also simulcast it. So it's kind of a hybrid event. I'm really looking forward to that. It's its chance, once a year to look back on what we've all done together and kind of recap that it's been quite a year and also then look forward to what's coming next. And I encourage people seven o'clock next Thursday, the 24th of February to be welcome to attend in person or online either way.

Unknown Speaker
All right, we only have two minutes left. And I would like to leave the last couple of minutes to the mayor any other announcements or things that you'd like to let everyone know about?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, you know, one of the I'll just mention, one of the things I really enjoyed over the last couple of weeks was joining with the Eagles and family, the Eagles and Bridgewater family as we renamed what used to be called Jordan avenue to Eagleson Avenue. And, you know, I knew that was on my schedule, and I was looking forward to it. But I I have to say it was more powerful than I than I expected to see the name to recognize what that means to our history to know that the name this amazing family of Eagle sons in Bridgewater who moved here out of slavery and became a business person and huge family involvement in academics in all around the country. Just to think that that name will now be spoken many, many, many times in the next generations. See Eagleson, I'm on Engleson Avenue. And and that honoring of that wonderful family in our history and changing that name was really powerful and important, and I'm really proud of the city and I you coming together to do that, and congratulations to the Eagleson family.

Unknown Speaker
And, of course, just heard David Baker will be the name of the, the North extension of what was Jordan Avenue,

Unknown Speaker
another great change to recognize a wonderful blooming Tony and David Baker, the late David Baker, who, who was a fantastic contributor to this community in this country, and in the history of the world, frankly, with his musical contributions. That's a wonderful step to

Unknown Speaker
Mayor Hamilton, thank you so much for being with us. We'll see you next month. Those of you watching next week will have municipal consultants in Nashville, Indiana, Dax Norton, thanks again there.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you, Joe. Have a good month.
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton on Tuesday's Zoom interview. (Zoom)

If declining COVID trends continue the mask mandate could end, the city is using some of the food and beverage tax dollars for pandemic assistance, and there's still a long ways to go before annexation is finalized.

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: We've had a little bit of good news, COVID numbers are declining, but still have to remember that the case count is still pretty high. Some news that the county mask mandate could expire in March when the governor ends the state of emergency. Is that what you're hearing?

Hamilton: Well, we've always followed the science and our Board of Health. Our local County Board of Health has been the entity that's put that into place. We've had it for quite a long time. And I think most of us involved in watching this feel it's been very helpful to our community, we've had really good experience compared to a lot of our neighbors and other Indiana counties.

It is our hope that these numbers will continue to come down such that could be lifted, it'll be up to the Board of Health, which I think we'll meet very early in March right before the governor's order extends. We do have authority to keep that in place. But if the trends continue, my expectation is the mask mandate may go away.

READ MORE: Monroe Co. mask mandate could expire March 4, IU reverts to fall policy

Hren: Ann emails in and asks, "The city is spending $800K to provide a more equitable tree canopy.  Areas for trees at no cost to homeowners were allegedly chosen based on median income and percentage non-white residents. How did Hoosier Acres, one of the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods, get included?"

Hamilton: That's part of our Bicentennial Bond program. Back in 2018 we financed and the city council supported what we called trees and trails. And one of the things we wanted to do was look at the public tree plots, that is places where the public owns - usually the strip between the sidewalk in the street, and where we need trees and where they can go.

We did a real push this time to look hard at places that were under lower tree canopy. But we also have to look at where you actually can plant trees. There's a lot of things that go into it, including infrastructure or utilities beneath the tree plot. So there's a committee, I didn't decide it. But the committee that looked at how do we maximize the equitable justice as well as getting tree canopy. So it was a range of neighborhoods, I'm really proud and pleased.

Hren: Quick follow up from Ann, "Was Green Acres chosen based on the median income of the landlords or of the student renters in that neighborhood?"

Hamilton: We'd look at the median income of the residents, I think that's how median income is generally calculated. It's kind of a mix. It's not a mathematical formula, but it's trying to measure different factors. It is trying to remedy what I think was a problem in the past, which is, there was maybe a tendency to put public trees in areas of neighborhoods that were the most active or are loud about asking for them. And we've tried to remedy that with a more systematic look at where the tree canopy should go.

READ MORE: Bloomington crime drops nine percent in 2021

fire station damage
Downtown Bloomington fire station flood damage in June of 2021. (George Hale, WTIU News)

Hren: Any update on a permanent location for the downtown fire station headquarters after last year's June flood?

Hamilton: Well, that's a sticky, sticky problem. We're still in temporary quarters. And thanks to the department, they've done a great job, responding downtown, finding a location, a plan for a downtown headquarters, whether we rebuild where we were, without a basement, whether we look at a different facility. We're still, frankly, struggling to figure out how to do that. We're looking at a few options, but I don't have anything decided yet.

Hren: Let's move on to annexation. The city released annexation numbers about a week or so ago, I  see two sets of numbers, those that include all the waivers as the city sees fit. And those that don't include waivers older than 15 years as part of that 2019 state law that we've talked about many times on this show. If you don't count all the waivers only area 1B would be annexed. So those waivers do make a big difference, don't they?

Hamilton: Well, yes, Joe, the waivers matter a lot. And as you indicated, if they are recognized, which we believe they should be, the vast majority of this annexation goes through automatically, because most of the parcels in these areas agreed to be part of the city in the past years.

One thing I'll just remind people to keep breathing - there's a legal process for all this. It's not just the waivers. There's also really detailed rules about signatures and how they get counted. And whether they're notarized or whether they're not and the timing of them. And if somebody collected the signatures was it done correctly, and the state sets up sets out a very specific way to do it and a very specific process to review it.

So we're in the sixth or seventh inning, I guess, of the game, but we're not not down to the bottom of the ninth or anything. So let's just let the process run.

Adopted Bloomington Annexation Areas

Hren: Last month, we talked about the convention center expansion on hold due to the pandemic. The county is collecting a food and beverage tax for the project since about 2018 - about $12.5 million through 2021. In 2021, the city took about $3.2 million, the county $443,000. So where's that money going?

Hamilton: I know we and I believe the county are using the food and beverage tax proceeds for helping people get through the pandemic. We ran a multimillion dollar very favorable loan program to help businesses who needed to who are losing business. I'm a strong advocate for the convention center. I hope we can move forward with it. There's not a meeting of the minds yet on that.

We have just seen the food and beverage tax rebound. So just late last year, it came back to the levels it was before. And as a practical matter, you do have to see a pretty stable revenue source before you can use it to finance long term construction like that. So that money is still dedicated to a convention center and it'll actually just help us borrow less money when it's time to build one.

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