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Ask The Mayor: Columbus' Lienhoop On Reopening, Sewer Rate, FairOaks Mall Renaming

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Unknown Speaker
Hello and welcome to Ask the mayor on Wi Fi you I'm Joe Hren with Columbus Mayor Jim What up? Hello, and welcome. Hello, Joe, good to see you again. Same here once a day after Memorial Day we do the sun Tuesday's day of remembrance. But for some a three day weekend, maybe one of the biggest holidays, especially with better weather, now that a lot of the restrictions have been loosened for the pandemic. But you know, you kind of can't help feel that things have are really starting to open up, you know, box stores masks only for those who are non vaccinated, risk restrictions lifted, but still not really close to herd immunity. What what's the plan right now?

Unknown Speaker
Well plan is that we're gonna follow the governor's guidelines, which in essence, says if you're, if you've if you've vaccinated, you're not expected or required to wear a mask, if you are not vaccinated, we expect you to wear a mask, we understand that that's going to put a lot of people on the honor system, and we understand what that means. But so so we may encourage some of our employees to continue to mask up just to provide a little protection for themselves if they feel the need to. But so far, the information that we've been given is that the vaccines are very effective. And so if you are vaccinated, you should be you should be protected. But But yeah, we will continue or start rather, to open up city facilities. We had opened the pool over the weekend, we've still got some, some limitations in place with respect to the number of people that we allow in the facility at one time, because we nonetheless so even though you're outdoors, we're nonetheless concerned about crowding. And so we want to try to limit the attendance at at our donor pool and and elsewhere to other other, you know, outdoor events. But But yeah, it's kind of interesting. I mean, Memorial Memorial Day and use that phrase, the reason for the season, I mean, it's two, we have that holiday to take some time to pay a little thanks pay little tribute to those who have served and particularly to those who lost their lives while doing so. But at the same time, a great many of us sort of use it as the unofficial starter's gun for the summer. And, you know, summer holidays and summer plans, you know, summer recreation. So, so yeah, it's a little bittersweet. From that perspective. We, you know, celebrated that Friday night here with a concert, we call salute. We, again, it was outdoors, we tried to limit the attendance to about 1000. That wasn't too hard to do, given the weather. It's pretty, pretty dreary Friday. But But yeah, we'll we try to sort of celebrate, you know, the contributions that the armed services folks have made over the years and, you know, try to pay with respect to those who have fallen, but at the same time, use it a little bit of kickoff, you know, the summertime summertime activities.

Unknown Speaker
And, you know, what a difference a year makes, you know, more openings. You talked about the the pools opening our government buildings, city meetings are those back to being open at some point,

Unknown Speaker
right, city meetings will be open again, we'll ask people to, to wear masks if they're not vaccinated. But we want to really be checking cards or anything like that. So yeah, you know, if we've got a city council meeting, if I could get one this evening, and the public will be welcome to come on down and join in the discussion.

Unknown Speaker
Hospital rates right now low still,

Unknown Speaker
they are due to COVID. My understanding is that occupancy and CRH is, is high. But the number of people in the hospital or at least in the ICU related to COVID issues is relatively low. Last number I saw was five white people.

Unknown Speaker
Any updates on the American rescue plan Act funds? Have you heard anything more on that?

Unknown Speaker
Now we continue to try to work through, you know, what, what our needs are? We've sort of focused on a four tier funding type system. I mean, we'll take a look first that city tax receipts that have been reduced due to COVID during during the pandemic. That'd be tier one. So property taxes, local income taxes, maybe some of the fuel taxes that fund our motor vehicle and highway funds. And I will try to replace those. The second tier would be city agencies that depend upon user fees to to fund their operations. And so our utilities department experienced a decline in revenue due to COVID. Parks Department has, you know, charges during the summer times and elsewhere for some of the programs that they they sponsor. So, you know, we'll try to replenish those lost revenues, then we'll look to community agencies, social service agencies that have a tie to the city and two, in particular, come up Millbrae center and foundation for us, because both of those buildings that they're used for those activities are owned by the city. And so we're very concerned about making sure that the maintenance is it maintained, you know, on both of those facilities. So we want to make sure those agencies are adequately funded. And then the fourth tier would be social service agencies that, you know, had a decline in funding. And that happened in general, because, you know, many of the signature events that these agencies that have to raise funds for their activities were your canceled or if your tail because of the pandemic. And so we've reached out to the local United Way. leadership to help us identify, you know, Where, where, where those funds are. And then I think they'll probably be a fifth tier and that'll be just to hold back some money. I don't know that we want to spend it all at once kind of thing. There may be some needs that develop as time goes on. 1231 24 is the deadline for spending this money. So it's not felt like we need to rush right out, you know, in and do all this right now. I think it makes some sense to try to hold back and maybe see where some of the greater needs might might surface.

Unknown Speaker
What about the next big holiday coming up? People might be wanting to make plans July 4? Are things back to normal in Columbus?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it depends on how you wish you'd called normal. But I think we're getting there. I mean, the last folks from CRA told me the other day that I think we vaccinated 48 or 49,000 people in in Bartholomew County, you've probably got 12, or excuse me, 10,000 people under the age of 12. And also really not eligible for a vaccine yet. So you put those two together, and we're beginning to get a percentage that that approximates where we thought we wouldn't be able to get in terms of you know, herd immunity and so forth. So, given another month, for everybody to complete the second round of their vaccines, if they've chosen that approach. My guess is we'll be at a point where, where Yeah, we can take one more step toward normalcy, and, and hopefully enjoy some fireworks and hot dogs and whatever else, you know, comes along yet, at the Fourth of July, I still think even then, in probably through the rest of the summer, we'll still be encouraging social distancing, you know, not being cooped up inside a facility with a bunch of other people and not being in close proximity even outdoors. Yeah, I think we only bred some a little bit about folks who maybe in their early years, were not vaccinated for diseases like the mumps or measles or, or what have you. And and those diseases are still out there. And so it's unfortunate to 20 year old or 30 year old 40 year old to contact or contract any of those ailments and and my guess is that Coronavirus is going to act very similarly, in that it'll be around. And so if you've not been vaccinated, he may get through the summer here and think that you're in the clear, and then find yourself a Disney World or Colts game or someplace where there's a large crowd. And guess what, you know, the Coronavirus is still sort of blowing rain in the breeze and you got it. So I would encourage continue to encourage everybody to get vaccinated. And hopefully, you know, by the end of the summer, we'll be have numbers that exceed 70 75%. But time will tell we'll see what we'll see what we're able to get to.

Unknown Speaker
Are you hearing or seeing any uptick in request for you know, building business proposals? Or investors still mean a holding back a little bit?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, that's a good question. I haven't received any statistics that indicate one way or the other. We You know, one of the things I do try to keep a close eye on or requests for tax abatements from some of the industry here in town, because we think that that's a pretty good measure of economic growth. One of the things we're always after here in Columbus is to increase our assessed valuation. Beyond inflation, and that tax abatement request, is that really a good indicator? Whether that economic growth is occurring. And candidly here in the last year, we've had very few, I can think to top my head, we're in a normal year, we might have 12 to 15. So Sunday, so I do continue to harbor some concerns about how the economy will respond to the pandemic, but really, mostly what we hear right now and some concerns about labor issues, you know, with, with the manufacturers here. So, we'll solve I guess it's a one time you know, you solve the problem in front of us at the moment T and the right now that for them seems to be seems to be labor. And

Unknown Speaker
why see some good news, Columbus Regional Health, with some plans for that former Clarion hotel site there as you enter Columbus from Bloomington? I believe it's a Bloomington firm that's developing or bought some of that land, and then CRH is going to use some of it as well.

Unknown Speaker
Correct? Yeah, they've announced plans to try to develop their property. I mean, as you're wearing set bacon for a few years, and I'm happy to see that, yeah, the plans that they brought forward, are exciting, you know, it'll be a nice addition to the community. And it'll also add presence for CRA chat there on the interstate.

Unknown Speaker
does this affect anything Columbus Regional Health is doing with their involvement with the Fair Oaks mall,

Unknown Speaker
not to my knowledge, you know, the, the, the effects that have happened out at the mall are pretty much the same for us as it is for them. And that relates to the pandemic, and just trying to understand what our revenue streams are going to be, and what, you know, what, how people are gathered. You know, I think at one point, they had very ambitious plans to put a great deal of facilities and a great deal of people into what had been the former Carson's space. And, and so those have changed, I think they've scaled back their plants a little bit. And, and we have to, you know, and the staging is all changed, and so forth. sequencing, excuse me. And so, you know, they're prepared to, though go forward, we're gonna think we're going to be spending this rest of this year in what they call the old kit, thank you the word I want to use, but a planning stage with the architects and engineers, where we design either first conceptual plans, and then once those are approved, then we get some more fine tuned drawings as to, you know, what wall those were and where to put the lighting, and so on, and so forth. But hopefully, you know, we take, we'll take a step forward this evening to help with City Council, they'll be asked to propriate funding for architects and the construction manager. And so we'll we'll start the process, soon, with respect to trying to configure what it is exactly that we want to build, you know, we've talked from time to time about a, the size of a field house, and the type of structure. But until we get some harder numbers from from those folks, you know, we really haven't been able to hone in on final decision, whether it's 100,000 square feet, 125 or 150. You know, that's a decision we have yet to make, we'd like to go with 150. But if we'd like for it to be, you know, within budget, so you know, you got to try to figure out a way to make all that work. But that's, that's the next step. I mean, that'll be the same thing with respect to, hopefully approval by the City Council to appropriate the funding for those two contracts.

Unknown Speaker
Great. You know, interesting report. I wanted to ask you more about I know this was a few weeks ago, but human bones discovered at a construction what will be the new web probation department? And then the report was it could be Indian burial ground. What do you have any updates on that?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, it's not an IT No, I'm not an Indian burial ground. That is not true. But these are some old bones. It's a you know, just a little surprising, but the guys were, the contractor was out there on site and trying to uncover a sewer line. And the sewer line was built or installed back in 1910 or 1920. So, you know, sometimes the sewer lines about 20 feet down for somewhere at about seven feet. They found some human bones mixed in with other types of bones there were some cow bones and pig bones. You know, in the in the next protocol is when you uncover bones like that you contact the county coroner, whose initial determination was whether or not there's a crime scene there and he quickly determined that No, I don't think that exists. Soil had not been moved. Since the building was Built on that site back in the 1970s, or 80s. But, but once they determine that, then they have to focus in on the age of the bones. And if they think the bones are aged prior to 1940, then we contact the Department of Natural Resources, which we did. And they sat down at an archaeologist, who further determined that the bones were likely a couple 1000 years old, and that we needed to do some anthropological work, you know, try to an earth whatever other bones might be nearby, as well as contact a couple of tribes. And so, you know, the DNR will, on our behalf, contact representatives of I think it's the Delaware and Shawnee tribes, but don't don't quote me on that, but a couple of them, and basically ask them what what would they like for us to do? You know, do they want us to leave the bones? where they are? Do they want us to re bury them somewhere else? Should we send them to the tribes? Well, we'll get some guidance from them as to what they want done. And then we'll, we'll follow that up. Because at the end of the day, at the end of the day, I mean, these are, these are human remains, and we want to be respectful. Even though, you know, these are people who we have very little connection with, you know, they, they need a similar kind of safe resting place, just like we all we all hope for. So we will get some direction from the tribes and then proceed, at the same time construction on the site will continue. We'll just work around the area where the bones were found, the sewer line that we were trying to locate, we will reroute. And, you know, we'll we'll proceed forward. But yeah, we had a, you know, a couple afternoons there where construction was, was halted that at that site, and, and so it's just always interesting. You never know, you never know what you're going to get into.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. And it sounds like it's not a major setback like you. So yeah. I want to just follow up on you were talking about city council meeting, I believe tonight, this is being recorded on Tuesday, there's a sewer rate increase. Is that a tonight proposal for city council as well?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, yeah, yeah, we'll, we'll consider revising the sewer rates, wastewater and water rates. You know, it's a it's a kind of a situation you find yourself in government where we are loath to increase rates, or prices or taxes or any of that kind of stuff. And so we find ourselves where every so often you just have no choice. And I want to say with respect to the wastewater rates, it's a significant increase, but it's been 25 years. And so you may look at it and say, well, that's 75%, or whatever the number may be, well, yeah, you divide by 25. It's 3% a year, which, again, is not that by itself is not a big number. What we find ourselves into in situation into is where you typically don't request a rate increase until you absolutely need it. You know, we don't do this because we have raised rates for a while. I mean, we're not doing it, because it just, it seems like, excuse me, we're doing this because we really, really are close to running out of cash. And we've got a significant building permit, excuse me, we've got significant building projects that we need to pursue. We've got some sewer lines in the city that are 100 years old, and they're doing what you would think a sewer line 100 years old would do in many cases, they collapse or we've ended up with sinkholes, particularly in the Third and Fourth Street areas by California and chestnut streets. And so we, you know, we have to react to those, you know, with repair work, and we prefer to react to them with a little bit of proactivity and try to replace those lines, or similarly aged lines. You know, before we have to we've also got a little bit of an issue out on the west side there by the Interstate, we need to add to the sewer capacity that serves the hotels and restaurants out there. So it's a combination of, you know, finally waiting as long as we could possibly wait to raise rates as well as a need for repair work and some some capacity expansion. So it's all come together. Unfortunately, right now. So, so we will deal with that this evening city council meeting as well.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, well, I'm in Bloomington and Rhode county has one approved. I know Nashville's dealing with this deck snoring over there last week, right that the next crisis is water and sewer services. And again, speaking about water infrastructure, or sewer infrastructure or you know, 100 years old. So this is happening all over in every city we talk with, just to give some of the residents an idea of that proposal. How much would an average bill raise with Then the next year or so, or how does that work out?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I don't have the numbers with me right now. But I can share with you that right now Columbus is among the least expensive of any community in Indiana. And even after the increases, we will still be among the least expensive now Yeah, it's going to go up. So a $34 bill may become a $40. Bill. But we will still be, you know, much less pricey place to live and some of our some of our neighbors, you know, Columbus's, it's just kind of fortunate with respect to water, I mean, we, we sit here on a very large aquifer. And it means that when we, when we drill a well, it's really a high producing oil, the water is cheap for us to get to, there's a lot of pressure, you know, that fills the well. And then we're fairly flat. Except for you know, how to Tipton Lakes area, the city of Columbus is relatively flat. So the requirements of the pump this water all around the community, is just not that expensive. I mean, you pump it up, you know, to a tower, and you're done. You don't have to pump it up to large hill or a mountain or anything of any significance. So part of what we part of what we enjoy here is low cost for water and wastewater. And that's really going to continue after this is over, it'll be a little bit of a jolt I'm sure for, for some industry and for some homeowners, but it'll still be less here than it is most other places.

Unknown Speaker
I know we're getting just a few minutes away from our time. So I just wanted to leave this up to you. Any other big announcements or anything else you'd like to fill us in on?

Unknown Speaker
No, I just share with you that we picked a name for what has been fairly small, we want to call it Nexus Park. That'll be your connection to health, wellness and recreation. And I want to remind everybody that this really does solve a couple of problems for us. I mean, get our parks department does a five year plan every five years, and identifies what the the upcoming trends are in recreational needs for our community. And five years or so ago, they identified indoor recreational facilities and indoor programming. Part of that's because, you know, people try to recreate it's a little tough to do outdoors, particularly during the winter months, we've got a population that's getting a little bit older. And so the need for indoor recreation is continues to be cute. And I will say to that we spend a lot of money taking care of Donner center. Donner center is sort of parks headquarters right now. So part of our plans for Nexus Park is to move those parks headquarters and some of the meeting or event facilities there up to up to Nexus Park. So anyway, it's a it's something that has been on our radar screen for a while. We got delayed here because of the pandemic but but yeah, we hope to be able to take a step forward tonight and Nexus part can become a reality. So you know, stay tuned. It should be fun.

Unknown Speaker
Great. Great. For just for my reporting. How do you spell that Nexus?

Unknown Speaker
Is it right now? We're doing an E x us pa rk? One word, one word. Okay. Yeah, one word with the N and the P capitalized. So we'll see. We'll see what the graphic artists.

Unknown Speaker
I want to make sure I have that right. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you very much for your time. Appreciate it. And those listening, watching. Don't forget you can send a question to news at Indiana public media.org or on Twitter at ask the mayor. Thank you. We'll see you next time. Take care. Bye bye.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop on Tuesday's Zoom interview (Zoom)

As COVID restrictions loosen, more buildings and places are opening. Human bones were discovered during sewer work. Sewer rate proposal heads to city council. And FairOaks Mall will soon be renamed.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop addresses these issues and more. 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: Memorial Day was yesterday, for some a three day weekend, one of the biggest holidays since loosening COVID restrictions - especially with better weather. Things have are really starting to open up, but still not really close to herd immunity. What's the plan right now?

Lienhoop: Well the plan is that we're gonna follow the governor's guidelines, which in essence, says if you're vaccinated, you're not expected or required to wear a mask. If you are not vaccinated, we expect you to wear a mask. We understand that's going to put a lot of people on the honor system, and we understand what that means. But so far, the information that we've been given is that the vaccines are very effective.

We had opened the pool over the weekend, we've still got some limitations in place with respect to the number of people that we allow in the facility at one time, even though you're outdoors, we're nonetheless concerned about crowding.

We celebrated Memorial Day Friday night here with a concert, we call Salute. It was outdoors, we tried to limit the attendance to about 1000. That wasn't too hard to do, given the weather.

Hren: Do you feel it's safe to say normal again?

Lienhoop: Well, it depends on how you wish you'd called normal. But I think we're getting there. I mean, the folks from Columbus Regional Hospital told me the other day that I think we vaccinated 48 or 49,000 people in Bartholomew County. You've probably got 10,000 people under the age of 12 really not eligible for a vaccine yet. So you put those two together, and we're beginning to get a percentage that approximates where we thought we wouldn't be able to get in terms of herd immunity and so forth. So, given another month, my guess is we'll be at a point where we can take one more step toward normalcy.

I still think probably through the rest of the summer, we'll be encouraging social distancing. If you've not been vaccinated, you may get through the summer here and think that you're in the clear, and then find yourself at Disney World or a Colts game or someplace where there's a large crowd. And guess what, the coronavirus is still sort of blowing rain in the breeze and you got it. So I would encourage everybody to get vaccinated. And hopefully by the end of the summer, we'll have numbers that exceed 75%. But time will tell.

Empty parking lot at Fair Oaks Mall

Hren: Does the new development Columbus Regional Health is working with on the former Clarion hotel site have any effect with their FairOaks Mall involvement?

Lienhoop: Not to my knowledge. Any effect relates to the pandemic, and just trying to understand what our revenue streams are going to be, and how people are gathered. I think at one point, they had very ambitious plans to put a great deal of facilities and a great deal of people into what had been the former Carson's space. And so those have changed, I think they've scaled back their plants a little bit. And, and we have to, the staging is all changed, and so forth.

We're going to be spending this year in a planning stage with the architects and engineers, where we design first conceptual plans, and then once those are approved, then we get some more fine tuned drawings. But hopefully, we'll take a step forward this evening to help with City Council. They'll be asked to appropriate funding for architects and the construction manager. And so we'll start the process soon, with respect to trying to configure what it is exactly that we want to build.

We've talked from time to time about the size of a field house, and the type of structure. But until we get some harder numbers from those folks, we really haven't been able to hone in on final decision.

We picked a name, we want to call it NexusPark. That'll be your connection to health, wellness and recreation.

Hren: Interesting report... I know this was a few weeks ago, but human bones were discovered at a construction site what will be the new probation department? And then the report was it could be an Indian burial ground. What do you have any updates on that?

Lienhoop: No, it's not an Indian burial ground. That is not true. But these are some old bones. It's just a little surprising, but the contractor was out there on site and trying to uncover a sewer line. And the sewer line was built or installed back in 1910 or 1920. So, sometimes the sewer line's about 20 feet down. They found some human bones mixed in with other types of bones - there were some cow bones and pig bones.

The next protocol is when you uncover bones like that you contact the county coroner, whose initial determination was whether or not there's a crime scene there - and he quickly determined that no, I don't think that exists. Soil had not been moved since the building was built on that site back in the 1970s, or 80s. Then they have to focus in on the age of the bones. And if they think the bones are aged prior to 1940, then we contact the Department of Natural Resources, which we did. And they sat down at an archaeologist, who further determined that the bones were likely a couple thousand years old, and that we needed to do some anthropological work as well as contact a couple of tribes.

And so the DNR will, on our behalf, contact representatives of a couple tribes and basically ask them what what would they like for us to do? Do they want us to leave the bones? Do they want us to rebury them somewhere else? Should we send them to the tribes?

At the same time, construction on the site will continue. We'll just work around the area where the bones were found, the sewer line that we were trying to locate, we will reroute.

Hren: I also believe tonight, this is being recorded on Tuesday, there's a sewer rate increase proposal?

Lienhoop: Yeah, we'll consider revising the sewer rates, wastewater and water rates. It's kind of a situation you find yourself in government where we are loath to increase rates, or prices or taxes or any of that kind of stuff. And so we find ourselves where every so often you just have no choice. And I want to say with respect to the wastewater rates, it's a significant increase, but it's been 25 years. And so you may look at it and say, well, that's 75%, or whatever the number may be, well, yeah, you divide by 25, it's 3% a year, which, again, is not that by itself is not a big number.

We're doing this because we really are close to running out of cash. And we've got a significant building projects that we need to pursue. We've got some sewer lines in the city that are 100 years old, and they're doing what you would think a sewer line 100 years old would do in many cases, they collapse or we've ended up with sinkholes, particularly in the Third and Fourth Street areas by California and Chestnut streets.

We've also got a little bit of an issue out on the west side there by the Interstate, we need to add to the sewer capacity that serves the hotels and restaurants out there. I can share with you that right now Columbus is among the least expensive of any community in Indiana. And even after the increases, we will still be among the least expensive. So a $34 bill may become a $40 bill. 

Columbus is just kind of fortunate with respect to water, we sit here on a very large aquifer. And it means that when we drill a well, it's really a high producing - the water is cheap for us to get to, there's a lot of pressure. And then we're fairly flat. So the requirements to the pump this water all around the community, is just not that expensive. It'll be a little bit of a jolt I'm sure for some industry and for some homeowners, but it'll still be less here than it is most other places.

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