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Ask The Mayor: Columbus Lienhoop on wrong COVID trends

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Unknown Speaker 0:03
All right. Hello and welcome to ask the mayor on WFIU I'm Joe hren and this week as always, the first week of the month it's December already we're joined by Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop. Hello, and thank you. Happy holidays. Happy holidays. Is it weird to say December already?

Unknown Speaker 0:22
It is. It's feels like the the year took way too long. And now all of a sudden it's December.

Unknown Speaker 0:28
It's want to give listeners at the top of the show this week. If you have questions or comments, you can always email us news at Indiana public media.org. You can tweet us at Ask the mayor. Well, let's just start like we always do COVID numbers rising state recorded this a little bit more than 2000 hospitalizations, Monday that's up from 17 recorded last Monday, it's about 300 More state seven day positivity rate up to 11.9, up from 10 and a half percent this time last week. We talked about this last month, people staying indoors increasing transmission. Now there's news of a new variant on the cron Have you been briefed about this new variant from local health officials? Or what do you know?

Unknown Speaker 1:16
Well, I haven't haven't received a briefing yet about the new variant, who then it's that this is going to continue until we reach what they call herd immunity, we're going to continue to deal with variants that just pop up because every time we allow for the virus to transmit from one person to another, it replicates and there's a likelihood or at least a possibility, and strong likelihood that it will mutate into something that we haven't seen before. So, you know, here locally, our numbers have trended in the wrong direction. The last information I received from Columbus Regional indicated 33 inpatients as a week or two ago, we were looking at 10. And so So yeah, we've we've taken a step backwards, that would pair. And it particularly alarming given the the time of year. I mean, what we've noticed over the last year and a half is that following any kind of holiday, there's a bit of a spike, you know, so whether it's the fourth of July, or Labor Day, or the Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, we expect to see, you know, some kind of an increase. And at this point to, you know, November 30, to already be seeing a little bit of a spike is concerning. Because really what we're hopeful is that we do not use up the the capacity at the hospitals, you know, so that if there is somebody who needs assistance, that there is room for them there, there'll be, you know, properly staffed and and have facilities available. But if you know the words, your fault, because of COVID, you know, you may not, you may not get the attention you want. So, so yeah, we encourage everybody to mask up and get vaccinated. I got boosted a few weeks ago, and didn't hurt a bit. They didn't take much time. I mean, you just go into our local family physician, and they gave me the shot and asked me to sit there for 15 minutes or so just to make sure that I didn't didn't have a reaction. But you know, I did not and my wife didn't either. So I encourage everybody to go back and get vaccinated get boosted if you're eligible.

Unknown Speaker 3:22
And the booster shot some have some what you call it, but some of the requirements for booster shots had changed to I think it used to be you had to be within a certain age. And now pretty much the status saying anyone who wants one can get one.

Unknown Speaker 3:38
Yeah, the only requirement I recall that they really harped on when Pam and I went out there was six months, you know, they wanted you to have waited, you know from your original vaccination and, and I think we had seven months. So it worked out. But I you know, I There are a few there are very few privileges that come with age being over 65 As I am one of them is that you get pushed up to the front of the line when it comes to vaccinations. And, and that's that's okay.

Unknown Speaker 4:07
Well, here's another number that just came out yesterday, nearly 62,000 Hoosiers ages five to 11 have received the COVID-19 vaccine in just less than a month. So in some ways that's promising to it's heartening.

Unknown Speaker 4:21
Yeah, I'm glad to hear that.

Unknown Speaker 4:26
Let's move on to some other things. I know something we talked about with Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton. Last month was a new work in the works for broadband, high speed internet and Columbus icy Board of Works approved I think in October though, a letter of intent with meridiem for 80% coverage of high speed internet to work out a contract though by the end of the year. So how did this come about? They're in Columbus.

Unknown Speaker 4:58
Well, it came about pretty easily. And that was I got a phone call from John Hamilton. And he wanted to know if we'd be interested in participating in this, that the meridian people had approached Bloomington and indicated that they were interested in investing in, in Bloomington, building a network there. But Bloomington more than big enough for that, they wanted to make a substantial investment $100 million, or something like this. And so you didn't have quite enough capacity there in Bloomington to soak all that up. And so they wanted to look at some other communities and, and so there could, they came over here to Columbus, I think they also went to Martinsville and maybe Shelbyville and we've been able to, to work out an arrangement with them, at least where at the letter of intent stage or Memorandum of Understanding whatever you call it, and hopes are, we can negotiate and sign contracts by the end of this year. The exciting part for us is that yeah, it will bring broadband throughout the city, and mostly into it through scrutiny throughout most of Bartholomew County. And that may be a little bit different than what you see in some of the other communities. But the county has decided to help fund, you know, part of the construction that would occur outside city limits. So you know, we're able to do that here in Bartholomew County, but, but this will be this will be a game changer, because we're talking gig speeds down and a pretty substantial speed up. And, and we've got, you know, in the city of Columbus, we don't have any black areas, you know, we've got some brown areas where the speed isn't what we think it should be. And we've got some people who can't afford it. So what we're hopeful that we can get out of this is number one, adequate speed, particularly for education. You know, but but not only for education, but for those who wish to work remotely. And part of what's going to happen here and the way communities will be judged is their connectivity to to the net to the internet. If you're a remote worker, and you're expected to participate in zoom call in San Francisco or New York City or Indianapolis, you don't want slow internet, you know what the freezes that come with, you know, being at the end of the line. And so we feel like this is going to be really important in terms of trying to allow us to say that, well, I don't want to be too, too hyperbolic here, but you know, the most wired city in the country. I mean, that's a, that's something that we would like to be along with Bloomington and some of the other communities that that'd be just great, because it will allow us to compete in an area that we really can't compete in today. So So yeah, we're excited about it and feel like it can change life. Here in Columbus, Bartholomew County, as well as the other communities that participate

Unknown Speaker 7:46
there, Hamilton calls high speed internet, like a utility, such as water or sewer, do you agree or think it's gotten to that point?

Unknown Speaker 7:58
I do. I mean, it's a Yeah, it's the kind of thing that you really can't do without, in today's environment. And the cost of construction is so high, that it does mimic a utility in terms of being a monopoly or close to it, we've only got one provider for electricity, one provider for natural gas, we've got multiple providers for say, telephone services, but so it's not a you know, it's not a perfect analogy to some of those examples, but it's pretty close, in terms of its relevance to our our daily lives, and, and just the requirement that we have in order to be able to communicate with others.

Unknown Speaker 8:44
And I think it's interesting to you touch on it there that the way this works, it's it's an infrastructure, so it's kind of like the city putting a road in, but anybody can drive on the road. So this isn't going to one internet provider, it could go to any internet provider to use that infrastructure than to charge residents for high speed internet, right? Is that how that works?

Unknown Speaker 9:07
Oh God, any internet provider, I mean, what they'll do is they'll string fiber optic cable, it will generally follow the electricity electricity provider. So, you know, wherever the call telephone poles, utility poles, you know, wherever those go to wherever they are underground, you know, you can expect a fiber optic cable to be you know, next to it meridiem, then we'll rent that space to an internet provider who the public will have an opportunity to interact with. And so we've we've indicated that we've received indications and we intend to try to nail this down with contract as to just what those charges will be. And that will, we'll see how that works. But the whole notion will be to be able to provide a cost effective option to consumers. That will, as I said, not only be a cost effective, but it'll be a better service so it'll be fast. And the

Unknown Speaker 10:01
city doesn't pay anything for this, right?

Unknown Speaker 10:03
No, the city is not participating in this, as I said, the county are following the county well, for areas outside city limits, because it's our sort of make sense. I mean, population is less dense once you get outside city limits. And so from a probe the meridians perspective, you know, they want to be able to go a mile and pass, pick your number 200 homes, and, you know, get a penetration rate of whatever they put, they hope to get two thirds or whatever. And that's just those numbers are harder to work out in the county, because you just don't have the density, you go down a county road, and in a mile, you might pass what, three, four houses. So it's, they need some help, in terms of being able to provide that fiber optic cable down that that stretch of roadway.

Unknown Speaker 10:53
And I know meridiem says 80% coverage, but how does the city kind of work with the company to make sure that that 20% That might get left out are areas of the city that might be considered low income so that the service is also available to all?

Unknown Speaker 11:09
Well, I actually think that the low income areas are going to be desirable for Meridiam, because of the the lower price that they hope to be able to offer that, you know, they'll get a higher uptake or higher penetration rates, you know, in those areas. So I'm a little less concerned about about that. But but we'll have an opportunity to audit that, you know, we can, you know, we'll be able to know, or we will know where the where the cable news. And so if they don't put it where they need to well, we'll have something to talk about.

Unknown Speaker 11:40
I see the city is looking at $42 million, and sewer bonds, and it's something that we talked about with Mayor Hamilton and in Nashville with aging infrastructure. And also, I guess, expanding capacity, is this. What is replacing? Is this kind of the same story that's happening in Columbus,

Unknown Speaker 11:59
very similar. You know, we've got parts of the the downtown area, the old part of the city, where water mains and the wastewater sewer, excuse me, the sanitary sewer, reaches 100 years old. And so we've had a few not not a lot, but a handful of sinkholes develop where, you know, some of that sanitary sewer has collapsed. And so, you know, the dirt filters down the roadway collapses, and, you know, you end up with a hole in your, your, on your street, and so don't want that. So, so yeah, it's incumbent upon us to, to get out and try to replace these areas before they before they break.

Unknown Speaker 12:42
I see the if I remember, right, I think we did a story. I don't remember the last year, so about the Columbus utilities rates being increased? Is this part of the right way of funding all of this these? Yeah, well,

Unknown Speaker 12:57
yeah, money doesn't grow on trees, right? I mean, you've got to find a way to to pay for all this stuff. And, and so we have authorized increases for the water and wastewater utilities here in Columbus. And it you know, the good news is it, it, nobody likes to pay more. I mean, everybody wants to pay us and I get that, but at the same time, it's been like 25 years, since we increased our rates. And you know, those people who who studied this kind of stuff will tell us, they have told us that we've waited too long, you know, that we should have increased rates previously. With the water utility that's regulated, Indiana utility Regulatory Commission oversees that, and every time you go in front of them, it's just like a buying, it's a $50,000 ante just to, you know, hire the attorneys and the consultants and prepare the, the the forms to request a rate increase, increase. So somebody that's understandable that you, you know, go back every year, but at the same time, after, after a while it does become it does build up, I mean, in terms of the the amount of money that you need to pay for some of these infrastructure improvements. And even with that, I mean, we benchmark against about 20 other communities here in Indiana, and we're going to be in the bottom five. And I mean, it's just not when you compare what our rates are to some others. Now, I don't have a list in front of me, but, you know, we're still towards the bottom of that list. And so nobody wants to pay more and it doesn't feel good to raise rates. It's, it's going for a good cause. You know, so we can all flash when we want to, but we're still well below are our peers as we benchmark around the state.

Unknown Speaker 14:39
Speaking of money, I know the city of Columbus is looking preparing for ready grants and Sutton. Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett has talked about too. Can you fill us in on what Columbus is looking for there?

Unknown Speaker 14:50
Yeah, well, our ready application or ready grant submission, if you will, we go have the have the in person portion this coming Friday, December 3 130 or so in the afternoon. And so we've been practicing, they put together a video and little script to try to explain, you know, what we have proposed here locally, but basically, you know, we're trying to react to that two or three things, you know, big pictures, you could call them, paradigm shifts. And a lot of it has to do with electrification, particularly vehicles. You know, if you think about the the economy in Bartholomew, Jackson, Jenny's counties, and that's the region that we put together here, recall to South Central Indiana talent region. But if you look at those three counties, and you ask yourself, What's the predominant industry, it's either diesel engines or automotive components. You know, we don't have an assembly plant here. They have assembly plants in Decatur County and down towards Evansville, and Princeton. But we we produce the parts that go to those assembly plants. So we make drive shafts, we make cost of velocity joints, we make fasteners, and wheels and exhaust parts. The problem you get into is if you think about how those are used without an internal combustion engine, if those are in an electric vehicle, well, some of those parts just are needed. I mean, you just don't need exhaust parts, you don't need transmission parts. You may use Drive shafts if you have distributed power, but But you may not. And so we've got 19,000 People who work in those two areas, diesel engines and automotive components. And so we're worried, you know that we'll lose a substantial portion of those jobs in as quickly as 10 years. And so part of what we want to do is come up with a strategy that will attract other component manufacturers for electric vehicles. Don't know yet what those will be. But we want to put ourselves in position to be able to attract those kinds of folks. So part of the ready grant proposal is to authorize or to help fund the construction of a test track out at what we call the willsboro airport. And the whole notion would be to bring some of those supply or some of those manufacturers of components for electric vehicles to our area, and allow them to grow here. A lot of the industry that we have in TN, for example, employs about 1800. Today, they started out at 200. And K probably employs around 800, they started out at maybe 100. And so these businesses will grow over time. We just need to have grow here. And so it starts with having to make an investment here, because we've created the right kind of framework, we've created the right kind of environment for them. And so it's a, it's a big part of what we put forward in in the ready proposal. At the same time, we know that Columbus, Seymour, North Vernon, all the communities inside these three counties have to be attractive places. I mean, people's demands change over time. When I was a kid, we played three sports, right? It was baseball, football and basketball. And there were other guys who did golf and they swam, and that kind of stuff. But, you know, 90% of its focused on those three things. Well, it's all changed, right? I mean, today, we have to provide for soccer, and we have to provide for softball. And in time, I'm sure we'll be providing for lacrosse and cricket and some other things. And so, you know, it's just an example of how life has to evolve over time. And so, you know, we here locally have talked about the river front, being able to get into the river and engage it with recreational activities. We ever thought of that, you know, when I was when I was a young man, I mean, you just evergreen never went to the river. And he was just, we turned our backs to it. And it's so that's an example of, you know, what we might want what we might want to approach here for Columbus and Bartholomew County in terms of trying to make this an attractive place for, for people to, to move to or to stay. I mean, you know, the easiest, or the most important resident that you have is the one who's already here. You know, we don't want people to feel like there's a whole lot of green grass, you know, two states over, we want them to understand that this is a pretty green place right here. And if they do, if we're successful with that, then I'm confident we'll attract others, you know, from those states to here. And so anyway, it's the ready process has been interesting. It's required us to take a look at ourselves to try to identify that which is really attractive to people and try to find where are we're having swinging a miss, you know, where where we need to fill in the blank, so to speak. And, and so hopefully, we'll, we'll go to Indianapolis on Friday, and we'll give them a proposal they can't can't turn down.

Unknown Speaker 19:50
You know, this is our last show of 2021. And it's the end of the city, county Bicentennial, and maybe lost a little bit during the pandemic but what Were some of the key celebrations.

Unknown Speaker 20:02
Well, you know, it's a, it's a milestone that's really important to be able to show that you've got 200 years. I mean, for this part of the country, 200 years is about as long as it gets. The State of Indiana is just a tad bit older. And so we had, we had number celebrations throughout the year, all of it was a little muted because of the pandemic and concerns about gatherings. So we will have a celebration here as part of the Festival of Lights Parade, which will be this Saturday, December 4, in the downtown area. And then we're going to come away with what we call a legacy project, the 1821 trail. And 1821 Trail is a bit of a misnomer, it will be there will be a trail part. I mean, we will extend the the people that call the people trail here, behind the jail and behind city hall here on First Street. But people need to realize that there's a whole lot more going on there than a trail. And we're going to reconstruct both those streets replaced sewer and water lines, as we've mentioned earlier, you know, that's this is part of the oldest part of the city. So the the infrastructure here is about the oldest that we have. But But again, we wanted to have a legacy project, something to point to that said, you know, that's what we did, you know, to celebrate our Bicentennial, and, and so that will come forward. And yeah, we've had a couple other get togethers during the year that Berthiaume County Historical Society is hosted several events at their location, kind of a couple of books that have been produced that, you know, summarize the county and tell a few stories about some of the people who've lived here down through the years. So it's been fun. And but yeah, we're a little bit muted throughout the year. We'll have a couple last hurrahs here, it says, like I say, as part of the festival life parade and the 1821 Trail, and then we'll move on. So as

Unknown Speaker 21:56
we finish up our last show here of 2021, what would you say looking back here this past year, maybe a smashing success, something you're really happy about. And then something maybe that was just a really big challenge for you? Well,

Unknown Speaker 22:12
the pandemic has continued to be a really big challenge for us. You know, just trying to explain to people the the value of vaccinations and to, to help them overcome their concerns. I mean, 3 million people in Indiana, have taken the vaccine, and, and there's no evidence that he had has been harmful to them, only helpful. And so so we would hope that, you know, people here in Indiana could read the, read the statistics, do the math and go line up for the vaccine. And candidly, the, the difficulty in trying to get that message across has been a little frustrating. But but we'll get there. I think in time, you know, other things that will come on May 2021, was a destroy, really just trying to keep pushing the ball forward, we've got a number of different projects here in the downtown area, we received from the Department of Natural Resources a permit to permit the riverfront project to go forward. Now we find ourselves in front of the Corps of Engineers, US Army Corps of Engineers. They will we'll try to push them a little bit, but it was good to get DNR on board and behind us. I think, yeah, one of the things that happened just recently, our police department was reaccredited by the Commission on Accreditation for law enforcement agencies. And that's really kind of a big deal. You know, we've been accredited for several years now, I want to say five or six, maybe a little bit longer. And it points to the professionalism that we have in that department. And I point that out, particularly because policing, law enforcement is becoming a difficult job. We were fortunate to have the crew that we have here in Columbus, but we find when we go to recruit, to replace, you know, when we have retirements, when we have to replace a person who's retired, it's becoming increasingly difficult, you know, to find the, the people we're looking for so, so I want to point out the fact that we've got a good crowd here and and some folks that we're really proud of. So again, pre accreditation was a high point, you know, for this year, we've passed a $84 million budget for 2022. While I, you all continue to be amazed at how expensive everything is, you know, the notion that I want to come back to is that we can do that. I mean, we have the financial wherewithal here in Columbus to be able to, to make that work. And, you know, it's a it's a testament to the folks who did the industrial recruitment, the economic development, you know, 2025 years ago that We've got such a strong economy today. So I feel good about a number of different things. It's we've got a lot of things working well in Columbus. If we could just sort of shrug this pandemic off our backs we, we'd be we'd be running 100 100 yards in 10 seconds. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 25:18
Thank you so much for all of your time this year on the show and hope you'll have this back in 2022. We'll see you then. Thank you. All right, thank you.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop on the Zoom interview Tuesday. (Zoom)

Lienhoop says COVID numbers are trending in the wrong direction and will until herd immunity is reached, the city signed a letter of intent to bring high-speed internet to 80 percent of city residents, and city/county bicentennial celebrations come to an end.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop addresses these issues and more on a Zoom conference call. 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.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: COVID numbers are rising - the state recorded more than 2,000 hospitalizations Monday, that's up from 1,700 recorded last Monday. People are staying indoors increasing transmission. Now there's news of a new variant omicron, have you been briefed about it?

Lienhoop: I haven't received a briefing yet about the new variant, this is going to continue until we reach what they call herd immunity, we're going to continue to deal with variants that just pop up because every time we allow for the virus to transmit from one person to another, it replicates and there's a likelihood or at least a possibility, and strong likelihood that it will mutate into something that we haven't seen before.

So, here locally, our numbers have trended in the wrong direction. The last information I received from Columbus Regional indicated 33 inpatients. A week or two ago, we were looking at 10. And at this point to already be seeing a little bit of a spike is concerning. Because really what we're hopeful is that we do not use up the the capacity at the hospitals.

We encourage everybody to mask up and get vaccinated. I got boosted a few weeks ago, and didn't hurt a bit. They didn't take much time.

READ MORE: Monroe County confirms two new COVID-19 deaths

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton

Hren: The city approved a letter of intent with Meridiam for 80% coverage of a high-speed internet infrastructure contract by the end of the year. How did this come about?

Lienhoop: Well, it came about pretty easily. And that was I got a phone call from John Hamilton. And he wanted to know if we'd be interested in participating in this, that the Meridiam people had approached Bloomington and indicated that they were interested in building a network there. But Bloomington wasn't big enough for that, they wanted to make a substantial investment $100 million, or something like that.

LISTEN TO MORE: Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton on high-speed Internet

And so they came here to Columbus, I think they also went to Martinsville and maybe Shelbyville and we've been able to work out an arrangement with them, and hopes are we can negotiate and sign contracts by the end of this year.

The county has decided to help fund, part of the construction that would occur outside city limits. But this will be a game changer - not only for education, but for those who wish to work remotely. And the way communities will be judged is their connectivity to the internet.

What they'll do is string fiber optic cable, it will generally follow the electricity provider underground, then we'll rent that space to an internet provider who the public will have an opportunity to interact with. And so we intend to try to nail this down with a contract as to what those charges will be. But the whole notion will be to provide a cost effective option to consumers.

internet cable
Internet cable installed by Smithville. (WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: Meridiam says 80% coverage, but how does the city work with the company to make sure that the other 20% of the city isn't low income?

Lienhoop: Well, I actually think that the low income areas are going to be desirable for Meridiam, because of the the lower price that they hope to be able to offer. They'll get a higher uptake or higher penetration rates in those areas. So I'm a little less concerned about about that. But we'll have an opportunity to audit that. And so if they don't put it where they need to well, we'll have something to talk about.

Hren: I know the Columbus is preparing for READI grants - Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett has talked about it too. What's Columbus looking for there?

Lienhoop: We have the in person portion this coming Friday, December 3. And so we've been practicing, they put together a video and little script to try to explain, what we have proposed here locally - big pictures, you could call them paradigm shifts. And a lot of it has to do with electrification, particularly vehicles.

If you think about the the economy in Bartholomew, Jackson, Jennings counties - and that's the region that we put together here. But if you look at those three counties, and you ask yourself, what's the predominant industry, it's either diesel engines or automotive components.

We've got 19,000 people who work in those two areas, and we're worried that we'll lose a substantial portion of those jobs in as quickly as 10 years. And so part of what we want to do is come up with a strategy that will attract other component manufacturers for electric vehicles.

So part of the READI grant proposal is to help fund the construction of a test track out at the Walesboro airport to bring some of those supply or some of those manufacturers of components for electric vehicles to our area, and allow them to grow here.

We here locally have talked about the river front, being able to get into the river and engage it with recreational activities. We ever thought of that when I was a young man, you just never went to the river. We turned our backs to it. And so that's an example of what we might want to approach here for Columbus and Bartholomew County in terms of trying to make this an attractive place for people to move to.

Columbus Riverfront proposed design
Columbus Riverfront proposed design (City of Columbus)

Hren: The end of the city, county Bicentennial is here, and maybe was a little lost during the pandemic but what were some of the key celebrations?

Lienhoop: We will have a celebration here as part of the Festival of Lights Parade, which will be this Saturday, December 4, in the downtown area.

And then we're going to come away with what we call a legacy project, the 1821 Trail - we will extend the People Trail here, behind the jail and behind city hall here on First Street. But people need to realize that there's a whole lot more going on than a trail. We're going to reconstruct both those streets - replace sewer and water lines. The infrastructure here is about the oldest that we have.

But we wanted to have a legacy project, something to point to that said, that's what we did to celebrate our Bicentennial.

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