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Ask The Mayor: Terre Haute's Bennett On Rescue Plan Funds, Threshold For Restrictions

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Unknown Speaker
Hello again, everybody. It is the second week of the month and I'm joined as usual by Terre Haute, Mayor Duke Bennett via zoom. Hello, Mr. Mayor, and welcome.

Unknown Speaker
It's good to be here, Joe. Let's see again.

Unknown Speaker
So mayor is at his desk and city hall. What are the current City County guidelines there for buildings during the pandemic right now?

Unknown Speaker
You know, for we're following the governor's plan, other than local government buildings, we are still mandating masks at least till the end of the month. So if you come to city or county buildings, got to wear masks. We're still maintaining social distancing and those kind of things within the building, but the buildings are open so people can come and go. But that's really the only difference from the governor's what he rolled out recently.

Unknown Speaker
You know, vaccinations, increasing, Indiana reporting 1.4 million fully vaccinated. That's only 26%. But hospitalizations, infections now are growing and trends that have continued upward for at least three weeks. Why?

Unknown Speaker
You know, I think people are being smart about this. I think that a lot of people have had it. And maybe some of them don't even know they had it, and not never been tested and have antibodies. And then of course, you've got people that are getting vaccinations. And then you still got some people are just not going out in public very much. I mean, they've been this way for over a year now where they're just minimal interaction. And the masking, obviously, so I think all of those things have a factor in this. Obviously, we're not have any herd immunity yet, but I think we keep inching closer to that every single day. So My take is, it's just a variety of things. I don't think it's any one thing that's keeping those numbers down. I think it's all those things that I mentioned. You know, I was afraid that maybe after spring break here that we'd see a big uptick, but we haven't yet, so I'm still kind of holding on to that. But that was going to be our next wave. The numbers still seem to be pretty manageable. Both hospitals are doing fine. And as you mentioned, hospitals over the state. So I'm still pretty hopeful. I'm pretty positive right now about that.

Unknown Speaker
So even though the numbers are increasing, do you agree with the end of the state mask mandate?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I'm okay. But I think people need to make individual choices at this point. Yes, I'm making people wear a mask and city hall, because I think we need to still send that message. But I think loosening that is the right step. Let's just see if the numbers continue to go up or just not going up like that in Vigo County. That's what I'm kind of mostly focused on. But if we see numbers going up, and the governor has to do that, I mean, I'm all for it. I'm not sure. That just the mass part is what is gonna solve it. Once again, I just think there's multiple factors involved here. And I think people, you know, being cautious being outside more than inside with a group of people. That's a good move to make. Still today. I think it's helpful with the flu and everything else. So I think hopefully, we've all learned that, use that a little bit of, you know, common sense, and keep you in a much better position. I I don't know, though, Joe, you know, if everybody wore masks for another two months, is that going to completely go away? You know, I don't I wouldn't attribute that all the masks, but I think masks are a part of it. Definitely a part of the equation.

Unknown Speaker
Is there a certain? Excuse me? Is there a certain threshold that that you would need to see there in Terre Haute to be able to do more stricter ordinances there?

Unknown Speaker
I would just say, generally numbers trending upward in a significant way, which to me would be twice as many as we're seeing right now, which is about 14 to 18 a day. So maybe if we were in that 30 to 40 a day, we got to say, okay, you know, it's movement, it's heading the other direction significantly. I know I've talked to our health commissioner all the time. We have regular multiple times a week sometimes. He's He's an emergency room doctor. So he, he knows what's going on in the frontlines from a variety of sources. He'd like to see, you know, I mean, he's agreeing with what I mean, they agreed to do with what the governor said, but watching it closely, because if we see a trend here, then we're going to do some things beyond what the governor

Unknown Speaker
Why do you think some people aren't getting the vaccine and I know even today, there's some news about Johnson and Johnson being held back now because of some concerns.

Unknown Speaker
You know, I think we're getting to the point where everybody that wants a vaccine is going to get at least their first shot. Now we're going to move in, and you've heard this, that I'm not the first to say this, I'm probably the 100 say that, now, there's going to be a group of people that are a little bit more reluctant, because hear these stories like that, or, you know, other political statements or positions that have been made over the last, you know, year or so we're going to have to do some convincing people that and have some proof to back it up, and it is harmless, it's gonna protect you, it's gonna save lives. And so I think that's the time frame that we're moving into now, is doing a little bit more outreach to the people that are just kind of reluctant to do it. Because we can't just stop here. But you know, we don't even know how long this vaccinations gonna last. Is it gonna last six months? Or is it gonna last 12 months? You know, are we gonna have to go through this cycle again, and another six months? And I'm not trying to scare anybody, you're saying, I just don't know, I get a lot of mixed messages. And so I think right now our focus needs to be to get additional people vaccinated, however, we get that done. And then hopefully, we'll reach that herd immunity. And then we'll have to see when the cycle may start over again, and another year or something I really don't know.

Unknown Speaker
Now.

Unknown Speaker
The American rescue plan act allocates about $38 million to tear Whoa, 21 million to Vigo County? I know it's not a lot once there's some restrictions. And it's still very early in the process. But I've been asking all the mayors this month on the show, you know, how do you go about planning for that additional money?

Unknown Speaker
So it's kind of difficult without the rules, we kind of know the buckets that the money kind of falls into. But they're general and they don't have any specific rules? Like one of the questions I have is, if I was going to spend some of this on wastewater, which that's one of the infrastructure one of the three buckets within the infrastructure bucket? Can I use it for design or project? Or do I just have to use it on a project that's ready to go? I don't know the answer to that question that has a real implication on if I have to go design something that's going to take a year and a half to design it. You know, I'm not going to spend any money on that unless I am able to. So thinking about not for profits and look small business here, I'm not sure what other programs they have tapped into yet. I know they're out there. But those guidelines haven't been released for some of that either. And so we don't want to duplicate, you know, we want to make sure we spread this money and get the biggest bang for the buck. But I'm just in a position where we're just gearing up the infrastructure of this in order to create a budget to get the things done with the City Council next month to create the fund. And then we'll have to figure out how we get more specific with those expenditures, once we know what those rules are. So it's a little frustrating that we don't have any rules yet. The first deposit is supposed to be here by May 11. That means we're gonna get 19 million plus dollars in the bank. And today sitting right here, I have no guidance on how I can really spend that I do want to make sure that we The first thing we're going to do is pay ourselves back for lost revenue. That's pretty clear, we'll just have to have justification for that. But once I see the guidelines, then we can go ahead and get that part done. That'll be pretty easy. Everything else seems to be a bit more complicated.

Unknown Speaker
We'll all that other stuff have to go through certain like city council approval and things like that.

Unknown Speaker
So what I would envision, I think this the way this will work is we'll have a budget praying for this fund that the city council will approve. And then we'll have to deal with the State Board of Accounts here in Indiana, and with the feds, whoever is going to look at this information. And make sure that all of our documentation and follows this because it's a little different than last time we had to submit claims, and then they approved them and pay them. Well. Now we get the cash up front. And so we'll have to justify any expenditures we have. So we're going to have to set that infrastructure up within the city of having people that kind of do this every day and manage that process.

Unknown Speaker
And of course you have Vigo county to getting some money. So I assume there'll be some areas where you'll have to work together so that like you said there's no duplicate efforts.

Unknown Speaker
Exactly. We've already had preliminary conversations and we're going to have a big meeting coming up here soon. Because we like if we want to do something with the homeless issue in our community. We don't want you know, it's okay if we both maybe give to that, but we don't we want to make sure that We're not leaving another section out, because we used up all of our funds to do that particular thing. I just picked that one because that's an area that we've already focused on. And another Academy would like to do something. But when it comes to not for profits and other projects that are going on, we want to make sure that we can make both of our dollars, you know, get the get that value out of that and spread it and make sure that we're getting the return on that that the best we can. And just don't know enough about those guidelines. I wish they'd least tell us a few pieces would answer a couple questions and I could go start working on

Unknown Speaker
Baker Tilly a name I've been hearing in Nashville as well. And you mentioned it earlier. I believe they they are a firm that goes through your financial records and presents a report is that what that

Unknown Speaker
they do a lot of different things that they kind of help with that. But most of the one of the biggest things they do for us is our comprehensive financial plan that we typically update every year to every two years kind of depending on what factors change. And so they just recently completed our current updated plan presented from city council last week. And I couldn't have been any happier with the way we project ourselves over the next four or five years of where we've come from since 2015. You know, we had a negative cash balance of about $9 million in the general fund. And we finished last year with a $2.1 million positive cash balance. So you know, just hearing those things being affirmed by a professional firm like Baker Tilly, but then looking at building cash reserves and how we're going to expend some of our funds like and funds and those things and making sure our pensions are rolled, we've got a plan, great plan that's fully funded, then you get a chance to get some of this American recovery, our rescue plan money, we've got to see no money coming in 23. And so we've really positioned ourselves well to invest in the community, because we've solved our internal problems that we had back in the property tax caps in 2015, we really were hit the hardest. That was our worst year.

Unknown Speaker
And then, you know, as soon as you hear good news like that, we heard at least last week with Mayor Lin up in Columbus about them losing Metropolitan status for federal federal funding. And he said something that maybe Terre Haute could be at risk to what have you heard from your end?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, when I when I first read that it said, Oh, this won't affect any funding sources. And I thought, you know, you can't make that blanket statement. Because a lot of we have funding sources for HUD, and for CDBG and for our transit system. And so we got all the Housing Authority here, we have all these different pieces that they use that criteria to develop our allocation. And so if they change that, then obviously it can have an impact on the revenues we receive on an annual basis. I don't know that for a fact. But I serve wouldn't leave it to just saying that, Oh, don't worry about it. Nothing's gonna happen. And so we've put a large group of us letters together to send it to DC. We've talked to both of our senators, we've talked to our Congressman, we've just gone on record as saying, What's the value? Why are they making this change? Because it is going to affect places like Kokomo, Terre Haute Muncie, you know, Bloomington, Columbus, whatever. All these places are subject to this change. And we just don't understand why they're doing it. And hopefully, they won't do it. Because there's some other things that come out of this. It keeps you on lists for economic development related activity consultants and others look at is this a metropolitan area and MSA area because that means something to them. And so we don't want to lose that. We don't want to lose anything that will set us back and this potentially could do that.

Unknown Speaker
And Mayor lindop seem to be concerned about the loss of transportation money to a few million dollars a year and

Unknown Speaker
that that would be it would to us that would be a game changer. It would be a crushing blow. So I'm right there with him.

Unknown Speaker
Is there any timeframe on this? I mean, do you expect to hear something soon or is it something that's going to go on?

Unknown Speaker
They didn't put any timeframe on it kind of like a census we're not really hearing a whole lot so I'm not sure didn't get any straight answer on that.

Unknown Speaker
You know, last month you shared with us rose home and engineering students proposing designs for Fairbanks Park more along the Wabash River Riverwalk art pieces, reminded me Mayor Lin up to in Columbus trying to do the same with the river there. At one point, rivers weren't seen as an attraction. And now, cities are saying, boy, this is a missed opportunity. So what are the plans? Now? We're in April, I believe you said maybe may you might have some plans Is that still the plan?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, they'll roll out their overall the things they've been looking at, give us their recommendations, kind of kind of drilling it down to the point where we can take that, and then roll that into a more formal project. And so I'm looking forward to getting that information, we really want to start doing that Riverwalk planning, and some of the art sculptures and those things, we're trying to create a destination, we want that to be a place, people go down there down to have lunch, sit by the river, and enjoy that or when we have events at the park, not for profit events or races or you name it. But otherwise, it's very underutilized. So our goal is to kind of fill in all the holes, if you will, to provide something down there on a more regular basis, that will draw people to the river and make that more part of our community. It's all about the quality of life quality place, I know that those phrases get used a lot. But we feel like we already have the park there, it's already a great asset, how do we turn it into an even greater asset and a destination for people?

Unknown Speaker
And the funds use to for that would come over a variety of sources, I assume.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. And you know, the casino money will be a big part of that. Because we want to invest one follower Community Plan. But we'll use that funds. You know, maybe we can use some of these American rescue plan funds, we'll see. It'll be a variety of funding sources. But now that we've got our sales that are great fiscal position, we'll be able to start making those kind of investments in the coming years.

Unknown Speaker
And it's not something Usually, I think about how when Bloomington planned the Beeline trail that that took decades to to plan and implement the entire thing, this isn't something that gets done in one year, this is

Unknown Speaker
that you're exactly right. And I think when you're sitting in this seat, you want to get things done faster. There's a lot of red tape, internally at the state level at the federal level, depending on what pots of money you use. And you have to hire consultants to work through a lot of that because we don't have to staff and we don't have to get one or two projects done a year, we used our staff. So we have to do a mix of that. And you know, it takes about a year to roll something like that out to go to bed, and then you got to build it as long as your fundings in place. So even a small project sometimes take two or three years pleat, the bigger the project and may take four or five or more, you know, that's exactly right.

Unknown Speaker
You met with Senator Todd young about a proposal to bring more jobs to the community, we talked about this a while back, you have an update,

Unknown Speaker
you know, not a real big update, we just continue to work with iedc. And with the Indian Air National Guard on the SF 35 project for the airport of training facility for new f 35 planes that other countries are purchasing from the United States be a great thing for our community, and bring flying you know planes back to our airport, which great to have jets out there. Again, we had to have six teams, you know, many years ago into the mission changed out here. And so we met with Senator Yun last week just to kind of, you know, update kind of around the table all the different partners and developing our strategies moving forward. A lot of it has to do with the new administration going in, get by, you know, President by getting his staff in place all the way down to the Pentagon level. And so we know that's part of it. But we want to make sure they know we're still interested, we're excited about the opportunity. And you know, we believe we're in the top we know we're in the top five, we really believe we're probably in the top two or three. And we want to just keep pushing that we'd love to see that be in Terre Haute and all of Indiana would benefit from that. But we're just continuing to do everything we need to do to make sure the right people get that message about Taro.

Unknown Speaker
That was about all I had. But I always like to leave the last couple minutes with you with any announcements or any other updates you'd like to

Unknown Speaker
give us. One quick update would be our fire chief retired this week. And so he's done a tremendous job. Chief Jeff Fisher. Yesterday was his last day or the first of the week, I guess, losing track of my days here, sorry. But he retired this week. And so I announced the new fire chief take over for him. Bill Berry. He's currently a captain and been on the job for 28 years and he'll do a great job of following up after him. Fisher I couldn't be any more proud of our public safety in Terre Haute, both police and fire and you know, it's just kind of bittersweet to lose somebody who's been doing it for 13 years has been with me from the beginning. But you know, it was time for him to move on and look at what he's going to do next and his career and his life and just excited to bring bill on and he's gonna do a great job and made that announcement. And we're moving ahead, you know, we just continue to not miss a beat here and provide great public safety to the citizens of our community.

Unknown Speaker
All right, well, again, appreciate your time for April and hope to see you again in May. Okay,

Unknown Speaker
Joe, thank you.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you very much.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett on the Zoom interview Tuesday morning. (Zoom)

Bennett agrees with Holcomb's loosening of COVID restrictions and says the city would need to see cases in the 30s before imposing local restrictions. And the city is getting $38 million in federal relief funding.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett 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: Even though COVID numbers and hospitalizations are increasing, do you agree with the end of the state mask mandate?

Bennett: Yeah, I'm okay. But I think people need to make individual choices at this point. Yes, I'm making people wear a mask at City Hall, because I think we need to still send that message. But I think loosening that is the right step. Let's just see if the numbers continue to go up, they're just not going up like that in Vigo County. That's what I'm kind of mostly focused on.

But if we see numbers going up, and the governor has to do that, I mean, I'm all for it. Once again, I just think there's multiple factors involved here.

I don't know, though, Joe, if everybody wore masks for another two months, is that going to completely go away? I wouldn't attribute that to all the masks, but I think masks are a part of it. Definitely a part of the equation.

READ MORE: Indiana Surpasses 700,000 Confirmed COVID-19 Cases, Reports Recent Increase

Hren: Is there a certain threshold that you would need to see there in Terre Haute to do stricter ordinances?

Bennett: I would just say, generally numbers trending upward in a significant way, which to me would be twice as many as we're seeing right now, which is about 14 to 18 a day. So maybe if we were in that 30 to 40 a day, we got to say, okay, it's movement, it's heading the other direction significantly.

I talk to our health commissioner all the time. We have regular multiple times a week sometimes. He's an emergency room doctor. So he knows what's going on in the frontlines from a variety of sources. They agreed to do with what the governor said, but watching it closely, because if we see a trend here, then we're going to do some things beyond what the governor did.

Hren: Why do you think some people aren't getting the vaccine and even today, there's news about Johnson and Johnson vaccine being held back because of medical concerns?

Bennett: You know, I think we're getting to the point where everybody that wants a vaccine is going to get at least their first shot. There's going to be a group of people that are a little bit more reluctant, because they hear these stories like that, or other political statements or positions that have been made over the last year. We're going to have to do some convincing and have some proof to back it up, and it is harmless, it's gonna protect you, it's gonna save lives. And so I think that's the time frame that we're moving into now.

And then hopefully, we'll reach that herd immunity. And then we'll have to see when the cycle may start over again.

Hren: The American Rescue Plan Act allocates about $38 million to Terre Haute, $21 million to Vigo County. I know it's not all at once, there's some restrictions, and it's still early in the process. But I've been asking all the mayors this month on the show, how do you go about planning for that additional money?

Bennett: So it's kind of difficult without the rules, we kind of know the buckets that the money kind of falls into. But they're general and they don't have any specific rules. One of the questions I have is, if I was going to spend some of this on wastewater, which infrastructure is one of the three buckets, can I use it to design a project? Or do I just have to use it on a project that's ready to go?

Thinking about not for profits and small business here, I'm not sure what other programs they have tapped into yet. I know they're out there. But those guidelines haven't been released for some of that either. And so we don't want to duplicate, we want to make sure we spread this money and get the biggest bang for the buck.

But I'm just in a position where we're just gearing up the infrastructure of this in order to create a budget to get the things done with the City Council next month to create the fund. So it's a little frustrating that we don't have any rules yet. The first deposit is supposed to be here by May 11. That means we're gonna get $19 million plus dollars in the bank. And today sitting right here, I have no guidance on how I can really spend that. I do want to make sure that the first thing we're going to do is pay ourselves back for lost revenue.

Hren: You mentioned to me earlier about a financial report Baker Tilly presented, what did it say?

Bennett: They do a lot of different things, one of the biggest things they do for us is our comprehensive financial plan that we typically update every year to every two years. They just recently completed our current updated plan presented from city council last week. And I couldn't have been any happier with the way we project ourselves over the next four or five years of where we've come from since 2015.

You know, we had a negative cash balance of about $9 million in the general fund. And we finished last year with a $2.1 million positive cash balance. So just hearing those things being affirmed by a professional firm like Baker Tilly, but then looking at building cash reserves and how we're going to expend some of our funds and making sure our pensions are rolled, we've got a plan, great plan that's fully funded.

Hren: You met with Senator Todd Young about a proposal to bring more jobs to the community, we talked about this a while back, a Terre Haute U.S. Airforce training site?

Bennett: We just continue to work with the IEDC and the Indiana Air National Guard on the F-35 project for the airport training facility for new F-35 planes that other countries are purchasing from the United States. Be a great thing for our community, and bring flying planes back to our airport, which would be great to have jets out there.

We met with Senator Young last week just to update around the table all the different partners and developing our strategies moving forward. A lot of it has to do with the new administration going in, President Biden getting his staff in place all the way down to the Pentagon level. But we want to make sure they know we're still interested, we're excited about the opportunity. And we believe we're in the top five, we really believe we're probably in the top two or three. And we want to just keep pushing that we'd love to see that in Terre Haute and all of Indiana would benefit from that.

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