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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton on creamery smokestack, tax hike, annexation

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Unknown Speaker
Okay all right.

Unknown Speaker
Hello and welcome to ask the mayor on WFIU. I'm Joe Hren with WFIU - WTIU news. This week, we're joined by Bloomington's, John Hamilton. Hello, and welcome. It's spring break in Bloomington.

Unknown Speaker
Good to be with you again. Joe. Nice to be with you and all your listeners and watchers. Yes. It's a little different week in Bloomington this week, but it's good to be together.

Unknown Speaker
You can submit your questions to news at Indiana public media.org. Or you can tweet us at Ask the mayor. Let's get started as normal COVID numbers yesterday Monday. We taped the show on a Tuesday. For those may may be watching us later this week. But it was three cases total count. On Monday the state was at 137 from 320 on Friday, what a drop. But you know, it seems like it's over. But you can't let your guard down.

Unknown Speaker
Well, you're right, Joe. You know, we've had two years of weekly news conferences are nearly weekly and we decided last Friday to have that be our last regularly scheduled in light of the dramatic reduction in in hospitalizations and case numbers and such. We're very pleased to be able to do that. But as as was mentioned on that call, this is not a victory lap we are we still have to be wary, we recognize the dramatic reduction in cases hospitalizations, etc. But we we do need to continue to be wary. On the other hand, many of us are, are restarting some of the things we hadn't been doing and with the particularly those who are vaccinated and boosted. The prognosis is quite good.

Unknown Speaker
We've just heard a little bit I just heard today about a new variant omachron Stealth I don't know if you've heard if that's been making the rounds in the news and your circles yet. It I don't have anything new on that. And also if people want to get tested, where where can they go?

Unknown Speaker
Well, so it is important to recognize that tracking what may happen in the future is very, very important. I know there's been some uptick in Europe. I was seeing that in the UK and Europe. You mentioning this China. New I have not heard of that new one directly. But it is certainly really important to CDC has made clear center on disease control that we need to keep watching for wherever if ever we have blooms of hospitalizations or sicknesses and those kinds of things or a new variant. So we're all of us need to be watching for that. And the health experts are you know, I think the general hope is that the treatment of the Coronavirus to COVID-19 migrates really into the general health care system. You know, whether it's for vaccinations, whether it's for testing, whether it's for treatment, that it becomes evolves into like the flu, you know, they're still there are still a special sites, but those are declining. And I always the best way to see what's opening when is to either go on the state website or check with our county health department.

Unknown Speaker
Alrighty, um, of course, gas prices are soaring, and that only affects everyday people, but I'm sure city budgets or school budgets, it's kind of a triple effect that that happens. Is there anything that the city adjusts with these prices? And then also, I assume there's nothing really the city can do about gas stations that are out that that could gouge people?

Unknown Speaker
Well, of course everybody is is sensitive to what's going on and there's a lot of different reasons One thing that's helpful is our our economy and our basically our both at a national level and and household level are generally less dependent on gas or less affected by gas than we were 1020 or certainly 40 years ago. So that's a good thing we're have less dependence in our cars typically are better mileage, all that kind of thing. I do wish, you know, the state could have put a put a put a wait a stop a halt to the gas taxes, which would help a little bit and we've done that before in the past. I know when I was in state government and that can be helpful. I wish that had been done that state legislature and governor did not do that. Also, the gouging and anti competitive practices are subject to the Secretary of State we don't really have authority to oversee that. But look, I hope people can be patient. Recognize, you know, this is an economy that is rebounding and growing and we've got some stress points in it but we will get through this. It is Course terrible, the components of the Ukraine, what's going on in Ukraine is just heartbreaking. And that has some impact as well. But I hope we can view that as a as a inconvenience that we just have to shoulder in, in, in solidarity with the, you know, awful experience that are their friends and relatives and compatriots in in Ukraine are going through right now.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, you know, you bring up this terrible war in Ukraine, your thoughts? Maybe more on the war and and how it's impacting Bloomington and I know the Governor has a plan he's collecting data and and looking at severing ties with with Russia so your your thoughts on on that?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's it's terrifying and it's infuriating. You know, we have many of us I do have friends who have direct ties to Ukraine, family members, they're they're terrified. It's a it's a barbaric and brutal invasion that we haven't seen in Europe for generations since World War Two. If you accept some of the Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc, that were also terrible. So it's it's, oh, it's a it's a tough situation to decide and how to handle I'm I'm very glad that the the Europe and the EU and US and many other democracies are coming together to say this just cannot stand but but we also have to recognize we're dealing with a tyrannical nuclear armed country, and we have to be exceedingly tempered and measured and cognizant of how much worse it could get. So, you know, we're doing all we can, I think, for Ukraine, and we ought to steady with that. It's a terrible incursion. But we have to be very careful not to escalate the violence to and to, and I think that I think the Biden administration and the college in the in the collaboration is is moving in that direction and doing it as well as we can.

Unknown Speaker
Okay, let's zero in on update on annexation. And as we learned last month, all but two areas have been voided by the remonstrance period, but for months, traders have I think, just one more day, I think, on Wednesday to file a court hearing if they want, excuse me for the other two areas. I haven't heard anything yet. You've mentioned a few times, though. The city could take the remonstrance process to court. So just wondering, it's been a few weeks. Where's the city right now?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, thanks. We have not filed any action, though. I expect we we may. Well, as you as you know, the, the bulk of the reason that the annexations didn't go through quite easily was because of the 2019 law that purported to negate a whole bunch of waivers. And we continue to believe that that law was inappropriately passed, illegally applied. I understand the treasurer, county treasurer, had county auditor sorry, I felt she She followed that law. But we believe that laws inappropriate. So we are continuing to look at legal remedies. We can pursue that for all seven areas. And we may well need to do that. I know this is this is complicated. The State Sets up very complicated ways to do the annexation. And we're only we're not in the ninth inning yet. We're still in the sixth or seventh inning. And I do expect over the next week or two. We may have to take some action, but we haven't decided yet. Okay.

Unknown Speaker
Is there any? I guess is the city looking at anything other than that? 2019 Law voiding waivers. Two numbers.

Unknown Speaker
Yes, the so the two areas one A and one B are actually, you know, we feel very confident that under the standards of review, which can be brought up in a court about is this an appropriate annexation, regardless of the waiver issue. We believe all these annexations are very appropriate in terms of the general review of are they are they densely populated? Are the is the plan to provide services appropriate etc, etc. And those are that's a range of litigation that could happen as well. Separate from the from the 2019 law about waivers.

Unknown Speaker
I talked to a couple of Vermont's traitors and said their case in court would be that the city didn't follow all of the prerequisites in order to go through the annexation. Do you feel confident on your side? And you know, your your case that the city did follow?

Unknown Speaker
We do we do. It's a very complicated process, but for for all involved, and we've done our very best and think we've complied with the law of since starting in 2017. But you know, some of that may have to get measured out and evaluated in a court we'll see.

Unknown Speaker
So let's say there there's a new area that wants city sewer, city water, they want the sum of the utilities that the city has Will the city move forward with voluntary annexation before installing utilities so that this all doesn't kind of happen again?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you're right to ask that that is kind of an an appropriate way to go forward, given the the risk of waivers now, if you will, we will and would pursue voluntary annexation. The difficulty, Joe, is that under state law, you cannot voluntarily annex unless you're immediately contiguous to his current city boundaries. So if there's a if there's an area that wants to be developed, let's say it's in a seeking sewer, if they're not right next to city limits, they're not they cannot do a voluntary annexation unless they can get enough land in between them in the city. So it makes it a kind of complicated situation. It's one of the reasons that right sizing as I talked about the city is so important, because then after you get the boundaries, right size, then you really can kind of go incrementally in involuntary annexation, which, which makes a lot of sense. It wasn't a rule that we had before nobody. The waivers were the way you approached that before. And now the state has tried to pull the rug out from under that. So everything's a little bit complicated and mixed up right now.

Unknown Speaker
So let's say there is a development that is next to the city, but they're not they're not, you know, in the city limits. And they say we would like city, sewer and water, could could the city say No, not unless you're annexed?

Unknown Speaker
What we would probably do, Joe, at this point now is say, Yes, we will we we appreciate it. And assuming that meets kind of general standards and such, we would say yes, let's do a voluntary annexation in connection with your receiving city sewers, and move forward with that and skip the whole waiver process. Now, it's a little ironic because the waivers were actually meant to make it easier for people and not have to pay city taxes and join the City immediately. But get a little time. And the problem is that, again, that rug got pulled out from under so we just need to know the rules we're living on and we can make it work but there's a little transition issue right here. I wanted

Unknown Speaker
to see if you have any update on that the condition of the historic Johnson Creamery, Creamery chimney tower, the property owners there, peerless capital of Chicago were notified to complete repairs within 60 days. I think that was back January 13. So what's Do you have an update?

Unknown Speaker
Yes. So, we agreed with them and got they paid for and got a very intensive engineering study done, which has just been completed, it is made clear that they are going to need to bring that for safety purposes down significantly down that is an unstable and not really, even repairable in many ways. Top half of that smokestack. So, there's sorry, if you hear a little noise here. The our finest at work, but um, the, the historic preservation commission and the city council will kind of need to make an ultimate decision about should it be rebuilt. But at the short term, we know it's got to be reduced significantly in height just to protect safety. And I expect you'll see some action on that. And just the days and weeks ahead, we we wanted to see that full engineering report we just came in in the last week or two.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, so a lot is going on with despite still being blocked off and not seeing much over there. Okay. Great. Let's talk about the new collective bargaining police agreement announced last week 13% pay increase longevity pay increase vote talk to the FOP President Paul post about and he said the agreement is the highest contract proposal he's seen in 20 years. He called it a very good, very good numbers. He was also pleased about how fast the process took to complete. How did the city get to those numbers so quickly?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, as you indicated, this is a this is a very significant new bargaining agreement with the police department. It's we call it a contingent contract because it does depend upon getting revenue to fund it. As you may recall, or your your viewers listeners may recall back in the last budget cycle last fall, preparing for this year, the council urge that we put in place significant police salary increases which we did for this year, but need to have ongoing revenue to do that in the future. Police departments all across the country are facing challenges in recruitment and retention. That is true here. It's true in other jurisdictions in Monroe County and around the state. And I think we're finding this contract helped us get to a place where we think we can recruit and retain it is a significant increase. We we have one of the finest police departments in the state and they're nationally accredited and and doing excellent, excellent work. So I'm pleased that we were able to reach what we call this contingent contract or relatively quickly, and then the next step really He is going in front of city council to identify a revenue, ways that we're going to pay for it because it does it does increase the cost of the city in a measurable way.

Unknown Speaker
So that you're proposing an increase of the county local income tax, what needs to happen to get that approved? What's the process?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. So the main way that a local government like us here in the state of Indiana can raise revenue is either by bonding, for fixed costs and buildings or by increasing the local income tax, which is basically the only revenue source that we have for general operations that we can do. And that is passed. Again, this is complicated state law configuration, but there's something called the local income tax Council, a statutory body, which is made up of the legislative bodies of the city. So City Council, the fiscal legislative body of the County, the county council, and there are representatives from ellisville as well on it and Stein's Ville has a has a little slice of interest as well. And those votes are what have to pass a local income tax. And it's a very complicated voting scheme. Different combinations of different members of those bodies have to make up a majority 50% Total to pass an income tax, which then is put in place over the whole county.

Unknown Speaker
And have you talked to city council members, county council members and find out if this is something that they would support yet?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, I've had discussions with all of our city council members and most of the county council members as well as ellisville. And, and some other interested parties. I think there's a variety of views on it. I think the city does feel the immediate pressure of the police contract and other needs that we have in front of us. I think the county of faces and acknowledges and looks at serious revenue needs probably around the criminal justice system. They've done a major criminal justice study. They're just starting to dig into what does that mean, but I think most of them recognize as well, it's going to take some revenue related to the jail related to wraparound services in mental health and substance use disorder and diversion programs and recovery programs, harm reduction programs. But they're I think the city is a little bit in time ahead of that process with our process. So we'll see. We'll see how it all lines up. But I do expect our city council will support some revenue increase in the in the weeks and months ahead.

Unknown Speaker
And you know, by chance, how many votes you would need from Is it from city council to be able to get it to pass?

Unknown Speaker
The lit vote is complicated. Yeah. I think you know, it used to be a majority vote of the city council would put it into place so that you cast your whole number of votes. Now, I think it would take eight city council members, if no one else supported it, it would take eight city council members. Other combinations could be seven city and ellisville. Two or three or it could be seven city in one county. It could be six city and two or three county. It could be there's a whole it's it's a it's a mathematical formula that that it depends, but we'll be working first, I think with the City Council to try to identify their interest in moving ahead.

Unknown Speaker
I bet you're excited to Waldron reopening and a collaboration of different organizations, I think Did you call it a three arts group coming together to form a partnership to use the Waldron right in the middle of downtown.

Unknown Speaker
It's very exciting. Joe, of course, the Walden were very pleased to be able to reopen that and they had a big event there with arts community just a few weeks ago. And that will be an asset for our community for years to come. We're still studying kind of the longer term for that whether it's a few years or longer than that. But it was also really rewarding and exciting to see three of our really stellar arts companies come together to create a new synergy to stage organizations and one film organization. You have Cardinal stage you had Bloomington playwright project and then you had bath that arts and Film Center, which is just really an exciting combination. We wish them all the luck and they're going to help they're really going to be we expect to contract it to manage the Waldron, at least over the coming year or two. So keep your keep your ears. Open your eyes peeled the watch for some exciting new collaborations on the arts front.

Unknown Speaker
I just wanted to get your take on this. Before we go here on the state legislature the 2022 session ended last week, ton of bills, fuel making headlines. There's the tax cut bill, though no reduction in the business tax, which I know you and other, especially Columbus and Terre Haute very happy about this is carry a handgun and public without getting a permit, though not sure if the governor of course will sign that just anything that that you want to comment on the state legislature this year?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, I'm I'm disappointed in many of the actions of the legislature or inactions of the legislature. It's no secret that Bloomington politically is pretty different from the state legislature. While I think most Hoosiers would like to see a lot of common sense things done, I don't think the legislature took those steps. First, for example, that the the tax cut is is not we have major resources available to help our public in particular people who need help low income workers, people suffering without adequate housing and food and such and I would much prefer to see more investments that can help those the last the least the last, to help move forward in these ways helped people get into jobs. Second, I was exasperated and fearful, frankly about the increased liberalisation of gun laws is trying to we already have a lot of guns around, we have very little ability to control who has them, who carries them ammunition where it can be used, I'm always worried that will have a bad outcome. And they've just made it much more difficult to let anyone carry a handgun without any restriction on who that is whether their mental state their history, there's, it's it's very concerning the steps they've taken to make that and it's gonna make our lives and the lives of law enforcement more difficult. And finally, just the indications on reproductive rights, they didn't take immediate steps on that, but indicated an interest in cutting back on fundamental rights for the women of our community in our state is terrifying to me as well. And I think in the wrong direction. So I would say disappointment and and even great concern on some of the steps they took in the state legislature this year,

Unknown Speaker
that we just have a couple of minutes left, I always like to leave that open for last word, any special announcements that that you'd like to say?

Unknown Speaker
No, Joe, you know, I was just kind of thinking about we, I gave my state of the city a few weeks ago and talked about the importance of several things moving forward, two of which were really climate and inclusion. And I maybe it's useful just to to remind folks that this community is deeply committed to moving forward on climate and I talked about the importance of gathering around the table, not just government folks, but institutional representatives from places like schools and universities as well as business representatives advocates to really address directly together how are we going to move forward to become zero carbon community, and similarly on inclusion to make sure we continue to make regular progress. There's going to be at a Dei, a diversity, equity inclusion coalition, IU, the city, other institutions really to make sure Bloomington is open and inclusive. Everyone Everyone feels they can belong in Bloomington. I'm very excited about our future. We have a bright future ahead. But we've got some challenges to meet. And I think our community is up for it and ready to go. And we're looking forward to climbing out of the pandemic in into the 2020s and moving forward into that really bright future.

Unknown Speaker
All right, well, thank you so much for your time. We were always appreciate this and hope again, we'll see you in April, maybe even in person.

Unknown Speaker
Joe, I look forward to that. I hope that might happen. Hope everybody has good weeks ahead. Thank you
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton

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

An engineer says the downtown creamery smokestack will have to be reduced in size. A proposed local income tax increase could fund police dept. raises. And decisions on city annexation lawsuits could be announced in a week or two.

In this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more during a Zoom interview 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: On Monday, the state recorded 137 COVID cases, down from 320 on Friday. It seems like the pandemic is over, but you can't let your guard down as news comes out of a new variant stealth omicron.

Hamilton: We've had two years of weekly news conferences and we decided last Friday to have that be our last regularly scheduled in light of the dramatic reduction in in hospitalizations and case numbers and such. But as was mentioned on that call, this is not a victory lap - we still have to be wary, we recognize the dramatic reduction in cases hospitalizations, etc. but we do need to continue to be wary.

It is important to recognize that tracking what may happen in the future is very, very important. I know there's been some uptick in Europe. I have not heard of that new one directly. The CDC has made clear that we need to keep watching for wherever if ever we have blooms of hospitalizations or sicknesses and those kinds of things or a new variant.

I think the general hope is that the treatment of the coronavirus migrates really into the general health care system. Whether it's for vaccinations, whether it's for testing, whether it's for treatment, that it becomes evolves into like the flu.

Adopted Bloomington Annexation Areas
Areas 1A and 1B did not void annexation through the remonstrance period, but can appeal in court.

Hren: As we learned last month, all but two areas have been voided by the remonstrance period, but areas 1A and 1B have until Wednesday to file a court hearing to appeal. You've mentioned a few times, the city could take the remonstrance process to court. Where's the city right now?

Hamilton: We have not filed any action, though. I expect we may. The bulk of the reason that the annexations didn't go through quite easily was because of the 2019 law that purported to negate a whole bunch of waivers. And we continue to believe that that law was inappropriately passed, illegally applied.

So we are continuing to look at legal remedies. We can pursue that for all seven areas. And we may well need to do that. The state sets up very complicated ways to do the annexation. I do expect over the next week or two, we may have to take some action. 

READ MORE: Residents opposing annexation doubling down on fundraising efforts

Hren: If remonstrators go to court to appeal annexation, their case is that the city didn't follow all the state procedures. Do you feel confident the city did follow annexation law?

Hamilton: We do, we do. It's a very complicated process, but for for all involved, we've done our very best and think we've complied with the law starting in 2017. But some of that may have to get measured out and evaluated in a court, we'll see.

Hren: Let's say there's a new area that wants city sewer, city water, they want city utilities, but not part of the city. Will the city move forward with voluntary annexation before installing utilities so that this doesn't happen again?

Hamilton: That is kind of an appropriate way to go forward, given the the risk of waivers now, if you will, we will and would pursue voluntary annexation. The difficulty, Joe, is that under state law, you cannot voluntarily annex unless you're immediately contiguous to current city boundaries. So if there's an area that wants to be developed, let's say it's in a seeking sewer, if they're not right next to city limits, they're not they cannot do a voluntary annexation.

Assuming that meets general standards, we would say yes, let's do a voluntary annexation in connection with your receiving city sewers, and move forward with that and skip the whole waiver process.

Johnson Creamery smokestack

Hren: The historic Johnson Creamery smokestack is in danger of falling. The property owners Peerless Capital of Chicago were notified to complete repairs within 60 days. That was back on January 13. Do you have an update?

Hamilton: We agreed and they paid for and got a very intensive engineering study done. It is made clear that they are going to need to bring for safety purposes that down - significantly down. That is unstable and not really even repairable in many ways, top half of that smokestack.

The historic preservation commission and the city council will need to make an ultimate decision on whether it should be rebuilt. But at the short term, we know it's got to be reduced significantly in height just to protect safety. And I expect you'll see some action on that.

Mayor John Hamilton
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton during February's State of the City Address (Holden Abshier, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: A new collective bargaining police agreement announced last week includes a 13% pay increase, longevity pay. FOP President Paul Post said the agreement is the highest contract proposal he's seen in 20 years. How did the city get to those numbers so quickly?

Hamilton: We call it a contingent contract because it does depend upon getting revenue to fund it. As you may recall, the council urged that we put in place significant police salary increases which we did for this year, but need to have ongoing revenue to do that in the future. Police departments all across the country are facing challenges in recruitment and retention. That is true here.

I think we're finding this contract helped us get to a place where we think we can recruit and retain - it is a significant increase. We have one of the finest police departments in the state and they're nationally accredited and doing excellent, excellent work.

READ MORE: State of the City: Hamilton to propose another local income tax hike

Hren: You're proposing an increase of the county local income tax, what needs to happen to get that approved? What's the process?

Hamilton: The main way that a local government like us here in the state of Indiana can raise revenue is either by bonding, for fixed costs and buildings or by increasing the local income tax, which is basically the only revenue source that we have for general operations that we can do. There's something called the local income tax Council, a statutory body, which is made up of the legislative bodies of the city council, the county council, and there are representatives from Ellettsville as well as Stinesville.

Those votes are what have to pass a local income tax. And it's a very complicated voting scheme. Different combinations of different members of those bodies have to make up a majority 50% total to pass an income tax, which then is put in place over the whole county.

Hren: Have you talked to city council members, county council members and find out if this is something that they would support yet?

Hamilton: I've had discussions with all of our city council members and most of the county council members as well as Ellettsville. And, some other interested parties. I think there's a variety of views on it. I think the city does feel the immediate pressure of the police contract and other needs that we have in front of us.

I think the county faces and acknowledges and looks at serious revenue needed around the criminal justice system. They've done a major criminal justice study. They're just starting to dig into what does that mean, but I think most of them recognize it's going to take some revenue related to the jail to wraparound services in mental health and substance use disorder and diversion programs and recovery programs, harm reduction programs.

Hren: How many votes you would need from city council to be able to get it to pass?

Hamilton: The LIT vote is complicated. It used to be a majority vote of the city council would put it into place. Now, I think it would take eight city council members, if no one else supported it... it would take eight city council members.

Other combinations could be seven city and Ellettsville. Or it could be seven city and one county. It could be six city and two or three county. It's a mathematical formula that it depends, but we'll be working first, I think with the city council to try to identify their interest in moving ahead.

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