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Ask The Mayor: Terre Haute's Bennett on vaccine mandates, state tax cuts

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Unknown Speaker
Alright, hello. Hello and welcome to ask the mayor I'm Joe hren from WFIU news. It's January 2022. For the first time this year we have Terre Haute, Mayor, Duke Beddit, though but on the time that though has been on the program many, many times before, thank you so much for being here. Hello. Welcome. Happy New Year.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, happy New Year to you too. And everybody else that watches this. You know, it's the last couple of years it kind of been a blur. So I'm looking forward to 22 and hopefully we'll see the light at the end of the tunnel that I was hoping would happen last year, but we'll say I'm excited about 22

Unknown Speaker
How did your holidays go by you and your family doing well. Everybody else? Yeah,

Unknown Speaker
you know, it went really well. I know I've got four grandchildren now. So of course that was a busy time. A lot of fun. But you know, everybody healthy and just had a great calm quiet, you know, holiday be able to enjoy it with family was was great. And you know, it just kind of recharges your batteries for this next year.

Unknown Speaker
We'll we'll start the show with COVID updates. A vaccine we've had almost now coming up on a year COVID cases are at an all time high in the state. And as far as the daily count over 15,000. Last week, I think Thursday last week, hospitalizations we're hearing at least in our area, the most they've ever seen what's going on over there in Vigo County?

Unknown Speaker
Well, hospitalizations are up, but not necessarily because they're in there because they have COVID. Some of those people are being tested while they're in the hospital. So I think those statistics are always a little it all depends, you know if they can break it down for you. And here locally, there are some people on ventilators not a big number. So it's kind of like, you know, it's clear that this is much more contagious than the Delta variant or the original version of this Coronavirus. And so a lot more people are getting right now I've got quite a few people out in the city, but nobody's getting really overly sick with it. So I'm happy for them. And very, we're very fortunate. But the hospitals just between the fact that, you know they've implemented mandatory vaccinations a while back and they've got fewer employees, they're already overworked before we even got into this particular variant. It's just like the whole system is just kind of being pushed to the limit, just because of regular kind of medical crisis's that are going on out there. And then you throw the COVID on top of it. And they are just overwhelmed with staffing capacity and space. And so, you know, I guess it can be worse. I know I say this every time it could always be worse. But I really feel for those healthcare workers because they can barely keep up. I mean, that volume is just significant. I've read some other places in the states sounds like it might be worse in some other cities, some other counties than we have it. So I don't know, if we're heading towards better days, or we're still going to see a bigger peak, I get mixed messages from the professionals just you know, there's a lot of uncertainty still today. So we continue to tell people get vaccinated and talk to your doctor get your vaccination. But we're also seeing the vaccinated people are getting COVID. And they're also spreading it. So, you know, it's hard to keep that message going when you kind of got both dynamics going on that we've never seen before. So once again, I think that we're fortunate to have two major hospitals here and a lot of health care providers, but they are stressed, they are really pushing it to the limit. And we need to get through this when we get back to normal operations.

Unknown Speaker
I believe Monroe County is the only one in the state that has a mask mandate in place. What's your take on mask mandates, especially now when these numbers and hospitalizations are are so high?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, we expect people to wear him in court. Here's an example in our building. from a community perspective. You know, when you're indoors in a large crowd, it's suggested it's not mandatory in any way and I don't ever see us going back to that mandatory thing. The commissioners don't want to do that. And I support that. I think you just need to use your good common judgment. If you're going to be somewhere indoors, well, there's people you should wear a mask and help to help with that. Once again, you know, we're there's no guarantee that the mask is going to solve the problem but it can help at least with your particular situation. It's boy this COVID is very contagious. They say it goes through maths, you know or whatever. Maybe someday we'll know the answer to all these questions officially and scientifically but just use protections yourself, try to stay away from big crowds. You know, wear a mask when you are there. Don't stretch yourself down, but use common sense when you're out and about. And hopefully we can, as I said, get through this next phase.

Unknown Speaker
State House is in full swing as a vaccine mandate bill moves forward. It bans private companies from enforcing COVID vaccine mandates. It's going through some changes, though, as bills do. But our Do you think our legislators are on the right track with this bill during a pandemic?

Unknown Speaker
I think the concept is okay. I mean, I understand wanting to have some ground rules about this. But I think it really boils down to what the Supreme Court is going to do with the vaccine mandate, I think that's going to drive most of this. And supposedly, we're going to hear something here by the end of this week. I don't like mandates. That's just my personal opinion. I think people need to make choices themselves and go that route, we need to encourage people get vaccinated, but I don't like the mandate component. And I definitely don't like the part where some community some cities and states are terminating employees for not getting vaccinated. I can't afford to do that. And, you know, our policemen environment and other frontline workers, we just need to keep continue to encourage them to take the precautions and you can take and they're doing that. But I'm not going to terminate a policeman or fireman for not getting a vaccine mandate is passed down by the federal government. The state's you know, I think we should be responsible for that. If the governor says there's a vaccine vaccine mandate, and we'll deal with that. I just don't like it coming down one size fits all for the federal government. I haven't read that bill to be specific, Joe. I've heard about it. You know, I've read some stories about it. But you know what, it ends up being at the end and what's voted on is I you know, I don't I guess I don't know, right this minute if I fully supported or I don't and understand why they're doing it. But I just hope we can kind of continue to make good common sense decisions locally, versus having too much coming down from up above.

Unknown Speaker
There are some efforts to cut $1 billion in taxes. Of course, I'm in the statehouse. I think the governor's worried about revenue stability future spending needs. We just talked to Columbus Mayor Jim Linn up last week, he's worried about the business personal property tax cuts. He says there are direct line items, you know, in his budget for his city, is that something you're looking at, too?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I have been for quite a while now. A few years ago, I got to sit on the Summer Study Committee representing aim pulsation, cities and towns then and now accelerating in municipalities. And it was great, you know, I guess it was a Senate group. And we talked about this business, personal property tax talked about the pros and cons. There were a few groups out there that were really pushing that hard to eliminate it. I didn't want to eliminate it completely without replacement revenue. That was my take, that was a mistake. And that's still our take today. Because the property tax caps are still affecting us, we're losing $13 million this year that we can't collect, because of tax caps. Okay, we've dealt with that we've all found a way to deal with that. If you bring in this piece, from a few years ago, it was about a five or $6 million hit to the city budget. So you do that now after we fixed all of our issues with the with with the property tax caps, and now you bring this to him. I'm not sure I see what the benefit is. Now, if they want to do it and give us replacement revenue. We're fully supported no problem at all. But that money needs to come from somewhere. So we don't have to turn around and raise taxes locally, the local option income tax, which we can't do anyway, as the city, the county is responsible for that. And they don't have the same issues with loss of revenue that we do. So they have no no concept of there's not even on their radar. Let's put it that way. And so it leaves cities to figure out okay, what are we going to do? We'll have to raise some fees, or I have to reduce our staff again, I don't want to go through all that. So it's a long response. But I think it would be not advantageous to cities, towns, counties, other municipal forms of government to cut this tax without a replacement because it will mean reuse services. We've already been through that at a higher level. We can't afford to take another hit. We just can't. And I'll go on you know I'm going to continue to talk about that. I know that the house is hearing a bill this week. And I'm going to be over at the State House as much as I can and continue to fight for replacement revenue and will be supportive.

Unknown Speaker
Anything else

Unknown Speaker
you know the other thing about it is they want from the I'm sorry, no, go ahead. Go ahead. Well, I was just gonna say, you know, we're in the top five, or the, there's a couple different lists. I've seen one, we're in the top five or top 10, for lowest tax state, awesome, great. Moving up another notch is not really going to make that much difference. We just need to be prudent and be smart about what taxes we do collect, spend them wisely, and not tax anybody in additional amounts. That's where I come from.

Unknown Speaker
And that's what Mayor Lindop said to he says he's not hearing from businesses or industries asking about that, Bert, that personal business property tax there. They're asking about other other things. Yes, transfer? Yeah. Anything else from the state house that you're looking at right now we're concerned,

Unknown Speaker
really just watching that one. And just seeing what happens with that vaccine thing? You know, I, I watch the legislature closely every year, there's always some TIF legislation that concerns me, I haven't heard much about that yet this session, but I'll be watching that closely. Otherwise, I think that we just need to find ways to invest in ourselves. And so as they begin to get through this session, and start thinking about next year's session, with the budget year, we need to figure out a way to use some of that surplus to invest in Indiana, that's what I'm going to be targeting. So hopefully, this session will be quiet. And then next year, it will be a little bit more active from my perspective of helping to figure out ways to for the state to help us all be successful.

Unknown Speaker
Well, speaking of investments that you're pleased with the ready grant announcements that came out, believe after we talked last month.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, it was I was a little bit disappointed in the amount though, we know we really, we felt like we were entitled to the $50 million amount. And I'll say that over and over again, we prepared ourselves for that, but thankful that we got $20 million, I'm going to continue to talk to the IEC and the governor and others about funding the program again, in the future. It will definitely help and that's 20 million more than this region had before. So very thankful for that. But I just really felt like we deserve more. And we were in line for more. And did everything they asked us to do and and came up a little bit short. So I'm playing both sides of the fence on that. And you know, I don't want to I'm appreciative that the programs in place, and looking forward to future opportunities to help us to continue to build with Central Indiana and specifically taro vo County,

Unknown Speaker
when you start looking at that 20 million as per the 50 that you originally were asking for, what are some of the things that still popped out that are really high priorities that you really want to see happen? And that with that 20 million? Well,

Unknown Speaker
the some of the highest priorities were the most expensive things that was in our proposal. And so that makes it difficult to do. We've just began some preliminary discussions, we're waiting on final guidance from the IEC that's supposed to come out by the end of the month about how we proceed because we don't even know right now, is the state going to go through the list with us and say, These are the things that we feel like we'll fund? Or do we get to pick that you know, what we're gonna do with 20 million? I don't even know the answer to that question today. So when did we get that? What we're doing right now some preliminary discussion of looking through? Are there anything? Is there anything in our proposal that we can fund without already grant dollars, so we can use those ready game dollars for the things that can't happen without that? And that's the process? You know, we had a lot of projects and over $300 million worth of projects, and we get to figure out how to make this work. It's gonna take a few months probably to get it finalized. Sure, sure.

Unknown Speaker
We did get your reaction of course on Churchill Downs being selected as the as a casino operator there last month. Some new news that has happened since we last talked a lawsuit has been dropped by another casino pursuer that we're now kind of pushed that that process forward. Have there been any updates or meetings requests from Churchill Downs on the the progress of the new casino?

Unknown Speaker
No, not yet. I think the holiday slowed things down a little bit. And then when Full House dropped or sued, I think it caught everybody off guard that first they bottled it and then they dropped it fairly quickly. And so I I talked with Churchill Downs last week, and they're, you know, ramping up, you know, going crazy to get things begin to start formalizing things now. And so we're gonna see a lot of activity from them. We're working on scheduling a conference call with commissioners to have a bigger conversation about the specifics very soon. So I think things will happen pretty quickly now that the lawsuits out of the way they just couldn't really act on a lot. Well that legislate you know that that legal activity was going on out there. And so, the Gaming Commission now Ready to move forward and Churchill Downs is ready to move forward. So they just need a few weeks here, I think to, you know, really ramp up their efforts. And I would suspect by the end of the month, we're probably going to know a lot about their formal plan,

Unknown Speaker
I would assume that would include a definite location as well,

Unknown Speaker
location, the local development agreement, we're working on an agreement, we're going to be working on one with our golf course to give them access to homerun links out on the east side, our premier golf course that we have. And so there's just a few little pieces there, we have to work out that I'm excited now that kind of the, you know, the burden has been lifted of the legal challenges and, and they're able to accelerate the project now.

Unknown Speaker
On an update on the convention center construction, I hear don't think I've heard lately, the Larry Bird Museum is going to be delayed a little

Unknown Speaker
bit. Yeah, it's been delayed for a variety of reasons. It'll open up hopefully, by the end of next year, your work will begin on that very soon, we're still inventorying, all of Larry birds memorabilia. It's a challenge. There's a lot of a lot of things behind the scenes that you don't think about that how difficult it is to create a museum for somebody like that. And so it's coming together, it's just been really slow. And the focus has been on just really trying to get all the agreed everything. And so I think we're kind of through that now, the final design on the space is being completed so it can be built out and things will begin to happen. You know, I would say by the middle of this year, and hopefully get it done by the end of the year. That's kind of my goal. And we'll see if we can make that happen. And how about two ribbon candy, so I have one for the convention center, and one for the museum.

Unknown Speaker
And how about the the I mean, the main part, the convention center is going

Unknown Speaker
just fine. Everything's going great. We're still on target to take it over and march 1 events, probably April May timeframe, we're going to do a couple local events here just to kind of begin to operate the facility. But things will start happening very quickly later this spring. Wow. It's you're already you know, we've been talking about it so long. It's like next April, next March. And finally, we're in that year, and it's going to happen here. And just in a couple of months, we're going to take over that building and, and I'm just really excited about it, I think it's gonna be very successful.

Unknown Speaker
What else any other updates, special announcements that anything on the jail, you want to say?

Unknown Speaker
No, the last time when I touch base with the Sheriff of the jail, they're still on target to get in there and beginning in May to start moving some prisoners. So it's gonna be a, you know, multi week process to do that. But they're right on target going great. Everybody's loving the new police station. So I'm excited about that, you know, we kind of ended the year with, we spent a little bit of our ARPA funds in December, about 5 million of that. And so we still got 31 million left that we're beginning to plan for as we move forward, finalizing some of our financial information for the end of the year. And I'll be doing an update with the chamber on January 27. So I'm kind of starting to gear up for that presentation that I do annually to kind of let the community know what's going on how we finished last year out and what what it looks like our forecast for this year. And I'm really bullish on Terre Haute and excited about where we're headed. And so it's just kind of that transition from you know, last year to the new one. And the gearing up for this next construction season. Still the one with COVID. And so you know, it's kind of a whirlwind in a way at this time of the year. It's slows down at the holidays, and it picks up dramatically in January. So that's kind of where we're at. I'm just really, you know, finalizing our plans for 22. When it comes to our project,

Unknown Speaker
and you have a state i It's called state of the chamber coming up January 27. We'll

Unknown Speaker
be out at the MCL banquet Center at The Meadows metals banquet center out next to MCL. We just have a full house that's usually sold out. So I'm looking forward to that. We'll be sharing a lot of information about you know, kind of what's most recently happened, but what's in front of us and kind of what the next few years look like in a way to I've got some we've got some challenges, but we have a lot of opportunities. And so it's a very exciting time. All right, well,

Unknown Speaker
thank you very much for joining us and we'll see you next month. Alright Joe, thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett on Tuesday's Zoom interview. (Zoom)

Bennett says he rather see vaccine mandates come from the statehouse and not the White House, masks in public places should be up to individuals, and says state tax cuts are fine if legislators replace those funds to cities with other revenue streams.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett addresses these issues and more on a Zoom interview. 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: A state daily count last week broke COVID case records of over 15,000. Hospitalizations we're hearing at least in our area, the most they've ever seen. What's going on over there in Vigo County?

Bennett: Well, hospitalizations are up, but not necessarily because they're in there because they have COVID. Some of those people are being tested while they're in the hospital. So I think those statistics are always a little... it all depends, if they can break it down for you.

Here locally, there are some people on ventilators not a big number. So it's clear that this is much more contagious than the Delta variant or the original version of this coronavirus. And so a lot more people are getting it right now. I've got quite a few people out in the city, but nobody's getting really overly sick with it. So I'm happy for them. And we're very fortunate.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: State reports 15,000+ cases in one day, vaccine mandate ban bill moves forward

But the hospitals - the whole system is just kind of being pushed to the limit, just because of regular kind of medical crisis's that are going on out there. And then you throw the COVID on top of it. And they are just overwhelmed with staffing capacity and space. And so, you know, I guess it can be worse.

So we continue to tell people get vaccinated and talk to your doctor. But we're also seeing the vaccinated people are getting COVID. And they're also spreading it. So it's hard to keep that message going when you kind of got both dynamics going on that we've never seen before.

Hren: I believe Monroe is the only county in the state that has a mask mandate in place. What's your take on mask mandates, especially now when these numbers and hospitalizations are so high?

Bennett: We expect people to wear them in court. Here's an example in our building. When you're indoors in a large crowd, it's suggested it's not mandatory in any way and I don't ever see us going back to that mandatory thing. The commissioners don't want to do that. And I support that.

I think you just need to use your good common judgment. If you're going to be somewhere indoors where there's people, you should wear a mask to help with that. Once again, there's no guarantee that the mask is going to solve the problem but it can help at least with your particular situation. This COVID is very contagious.

READ MORE: Community Use of Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2

Hren: The state house is in full swing as a vaccine mandate bill moves forward. It bans private companies from enforcing COVID vaccine mandates. It's going through some changes as bills do. But do you think our legislators are on the right track with this bill during a pandemic?

The Indiana Statehouse

Bennett: I think the concept is okay. I understand wanting to have some ground rules about this. But I think it really boils down to what the Supreme Court is going to do with the vaccine mandate. And supposedly, we're going to hear something here by the end of this week.

I don't like mandates. That's just my personal opinion. I think people need to make choices themselves and go that route, we need to encourage people get vaccinated, but I don't like the mandate component. And I definitely don't like the part where some cities and states are terminating employees for not getting vaccinated. I can't afford to do that.

I think we should be responsible for that. If the governor says there's a vaccine mandate, we'll deal with that. I just don't like it coming down one size fits all for the federal government. I haven't read that bill to be specific, Joe. I've heard about it. I guess I don't know right this minute if I fully support or I don't and understand why they're doing it.

Weekly Statehouse update: Vaccine mandate ban, curriculum and classroom transparency

Hren: There are efforts to cut $1 billion in taxes. The governor is worried about revenue stability, future spending needs. Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop is worried about the business personal property tax cuts. He says there are direct line items in his budget, is that something you're looking at too?

Bennett: Yeah, I have been for quite a while now. A few years ago, I got to sit on the Summer Study Committee representing AIM, Association of Cities and Towns then and now Accelerating In Municipalities. We talked about this business personal property tax - talked about the pros and cons.

There were a few groups out there that were really pushing that hard to eliminate it. I didn't want to eliminate it completely without replacement revenue. And that's still our take today. Because the property tax caps are still affecting us. We're losing $13 million this year that we can't collect, because of tax caps. We've all found a way to deal with that. If you bring in this piece, from a few years ago, it was about a five or $6 million hit to the city budget.

But that money needs to come from somewhere. So we don't have to turn around and raise taxes locally, the local option income tax, which we can't do anyway, as the city, the county is responsible for that. And they don't have the same issues with loss of revenue that we do.

Hren: Are you pleased with the READI grant allocations?

Bennett: I was a little bit disappointed in the amount, we felt like we were entitled to the $50 million amount. And I'll say that over and over again, we prepared ourselves for that, but thankful that we got $20 million.

I'm going to continue to talk to the IEC and the governor and others about funding the program again, in the future. Some of the highest priorities were the most expensive things that was in our proposal. And so that makes it difficult to do.

Is the state going to go through the list with us and say, These are the things that we feel like we'll fund? Or do we get to pick that? I don't even know the answer to that question today.

Churchill Downs proposed rendering of Terre Haute casino
Churchill Downs proposed rendering of Terre Haute casino. (Courtesy photo)

Hren: Have there been any updates or meetings requests from Churchill Downs on the the progress of the new casino?

Bennett: No, not yet. I think the holiday slowed things down a little bit. And then when Full House dropped their lawsuit, I think it caught everybody off guard that first they bottled it and then they dropped it fairly quickly. And so I talked with Churchill Downs last week, and they're ramping up to begin formalizing things now.

We're working on scheduling a conference call with commissioners to have a bigger conversation about the specifics very soon. And I would suspect by the end of the month, we're probably going to know a lot about their formal plan... such as location and the local development agreement.

We're going to be working with our golf course to give them access to Hulman Links out on the east side, our premier golf course. And so there's just a few little pieces there, we have to work out.

Hren: And you have a State of the Chamber coming up January 27?

Bennett: It'll be out at the MCL Banquet Center at The Meadows. We have a full house that's usually sold out. So I'm looking forward to that. We'll be sharing a lot of information about what's most recently happened, but what's in front of us and kind of what the next few years look like. We've got some challenges, but we have a lot of opportunities. And so it's a very exciting time.

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