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Ask The Mayor: Terre Haute's Duke Bennett On No Mask Mandates, Annexation

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Unknown Speaker
All right. Hello and welcome to Ask the mayor on WFIU I'm Joe Hren. This week we're joined as always by Terre Haute, Mayor Duke Bennett. Hello, and welcome, Mr. Mayor. Thanks for being here.

Unknown Speaker
Hello, Joe. Good to see you again.

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, just when you thought we were turning the corner of things, we're going back to normal the state having about 200 positive cases a day now, last week, more than 2000 a day hospitalizations had tripled. I see at new cases in Vigo county yesterday. Vigo county and the yellow advisory level on the state metrics map, any talk about mask mandates or more restrictions as these numbers start to go up.

Unknown Speaker
You know, not really other than the commissioners decided they were not going to go to masking no mandates from the commissioner's office. You know, some people asked me and I want to remind everyone that if I did a mask mandated only last seven days, and then I have to go to the city council. So that's not something that I'm going to do the commissioners need to do that because they're able to, they're you know, they can handle that through their legislative and executive process. They decided not to do that. But judges have decided and continuing the mask in the courtroom. So if you come in the courthouse, when the courtroom, if you come in City Hall and going our courtroom, you have to wear a mask while you're in there. The school corporation is deciding to mask the younger kids and, and the high school kids in certain environments. So I think it's an evolving situation. Um, you know, I talked to the people, health department, hospitals, the commissioners almost on a daily basis, at least every other day, about where's this going? I think everybody kind of feels that. We hope it's only a few weeks of this and not months of this. So right now we're just kind of status quo. From our perspective, we're still encouraging people to, you know, obviously, if you get any sickness, you stay home, wear a mask, if you choose to, and some distance from people get your vaccination. But we're not requiring masks in City Hall or anywhere else in the city at this point without a governor or Commissioner directive.

Unknown Speaker
So would that be kind of considered your metric for restrictions would be how long? The the cases continue to go up?

Unknown Speaker
You know, I think my guess is that one of the key triggers will be hospitalizations, you know, if people are getting sick, that's kind of one thing. And you got to stay home for a few days or a week and you come back to work. But it's those people that are really sick, if we're seeing where the numbers are going up. And hospitalizations are going up where you go back in time and the kind of the numbers that everybody was talking about using to take it to the next level, if you will, that's what's going to drive me I think more than just people getting the COVID. Hopefully, this will cause more people to get vaccinations. I think that's probably the case. And so maybe we keep closing that gap, some people are going to get it, some people are going to get vaccinated, and we continue to shrink that base out there. That can be contagious. The other problem, though, that I see is I know some people personally, who have had COVID had the vaccination, and now they have COVID. Again. And so I don't know how common that is yet. But I know of two people personally, just in the last week that that's happened to so I think we still have a lot of unknowns about all this. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker
I know. And here in Monroe County, seeing the highest hospitalizations since February. Are there any what are the metrics over there?

Unknown Speaker
And we're not where we were before. I don't have today's numbers. I didn't have a chance to look into it before this call. But they're pretty manageable right now. But you know, I think that could change. You know, in 24 hours, it could be a totally different picture. But it's not as high as it was last year.

Unknown Speaker
Now I wanted to bring up a kind of a different topic we've I don't think we've ever talked about just because it's such a big story here in Bloomington right now is annexation. And maybe you'd be able to offer just a different perspective coming from Terre Haute and Vigo county because Vigo county has about from what I looked up 107,000 people The city has, what about 61,000 does that sound about right? You know Bloomington has an annex and about 17 years the mayor here says he's trying to play catch up. Has your administration ever thought about annexation or What are your thoughts on that? You

Unknown Speaker
know, not really, because I personally believe that in past annexations, that the city is known for still not providing the full level of services that they need in that area, mostly infrastructure, stormwater drainage, and those kinds of things. You know, we're delivering trash and public safety and all those things. But there's some roads that need to be improved, along with storm drains and sewers, that I would feel imperative to make some major progress against that before we did any additional annexation. I think there's areas that make perfect sense to be in the city because they can be better served with especially public safety. But you know, on the other hand, the commissioners, not just here, but anywhere I hear this conversation for mayors all over that commissioners don't want to give up the tax revenue for the county. And when the city annexes that in, and so it's that trade off, it's like, are those people going to be better off? Or are they not, and you have to really look at smaller pieces of it to make that determination. You know, some layers just, they want to annex because they want to increase the population, or they want to increase the revenues coming in. But you've got to really look hard at that delivery of services and what it would take, you know, some of its easy, and some of its very inexpensive, other pieces of it can take on a pretty big dollar amount. And so I've never pushed it, because I really feel like we have some old things that we really need to deal with before we consider any new annexation. And it's just my opinion, though, I hear that a lot. I hear the legislature talking about it. It's like TIF districts, almost each fashion that make it a little tougher to annex them a little tougher to utilize TIF districts. Yeah, I

Unknown Speaker
mean, it's it's obviously kind of a broad question. So much to consider, you know, these expiring waivers under that newer state law that came up in 20. I believe 2019 the relationship with the other taxing units, as you say, but then, you know, the increase in population size, property taxes and such. But you know, Indiana is so different to than other states. And some say that it's taxation without representation. Do you feel like Indiana is off the on the way at that annexes?

Unknown Speaker
Um, no, I don't know. I mean, there's pros and cons, there's little pieces you can look at and say, Wow, that that's kind of unfortunate that it works that way, or this works pretty well. But let's just take a step back for a second and think about 30% of our customers of our wastewater utility are in the county. So we collect taxes, you know, to help pay for that. And then we use user fees primarily. And so that's our two revenue sources. And so I hear from people who live in the county will say, well, the City Council can raise my sewer rates, but we don't get to elect a city council member. So there's a, you know, it's not directly to be taxes, per se, but it's related to that. So I understand all those arguments. But that's kind of Indiana system. And I don't know how they would change it easily. To make it more fair, because it's been that way forever. It's restructured that way, and if somebody loses revenue or gains revenue, well, that means somebody else is on the opposite end of that. And you got to make it out. So I think annexation does become kind of challenging, because if you want to go annex the commercial areas, while the retail is as well, which is a prime target for municipalities, where you're going to generate a lot of revenue, and you're you're probably not going to have to deliver too many more services. There's some public safety, but you've already got sewers in there, you've already got infrastructure of roads. So really, you're only at an increase in expenses, public safety, and primarily, and so is that I don't know, I mean, I just think there's a lot you could talk to 10 different people and probably get, you know, seven or eight clearly different answers, only a few would agree. Now.

Unknown Speaker
Let's move on just to any update. I believe the Indiana Gaming Commission opened up the Terre Haute casino license applications. And have you heard anything more from your

Unknown Speaker
end? nothing other than there are some casinos that are interested in betting. We've had they've reached out to us about four or five so far. You know, the September 22 is the deadline for them to submit applications. So I guess maybe we'll hear more in the coming weeks. We'll find out if Greg Gibson's going to reapply or not. But I haven't heard anything from Indianapolis. That's just all been just local conversation because people know it's open. And a lot of these gaming companies, I think there'll be several proposals.

Unknown Speaker
Okay, so September 22, will be the deadline for submit to the game. meant to play. So that kind of gives us a timeline. So then after that, what do you expect? You know, I

Unknown Speaker
don't know how long it'll take, because obviously, they'll have to vet all of those. I guess the more people that apply, the longer it's probably going to take. And for them to make a recommendation the staff to the commission itself, I really don't know. And I've not had that conversation with Sarah T, you know, the Gaming Commission, or recently about any of that, how that might play out. But hopefully, things will begin to take off once they at least have applications in aim.

Unknown Speaker
About an update on the American rescue plan, Act funds use maybe also general budget hearings, which I assume are starting Pretty soon, right?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, we'll advertise the budget this week. hearings for us will be in September. So coming quickly, that's all in process run, generally the same tamp timeline we follow every year. So I feel pretty good about the budgeting process. So far, revenues look good, our expenses are manageable. I mean, we've had some increases, but I'm feeling good about the budget right now. And then on the phones, we've not spent anything yet we've received half our bar allocation, we'll get the other half next May. We're working on a budget or an appropriation for this year, to take care of a couple things, last year's revenue loss and some other projects, things we had in the hopper that we're kind of already committed to them were held up because of COVID. And then we're going to pause on that a little bit and have our committee that we put together began to really work through how we want to spend the vast majority of the money. So we have our first meeting recently, kind of develop some guidelines for the group, we're going to open up some opportunities for communicating with the public and get feedback from them. So it's going to be a ongoing process over the coming months and probably a year.

Unknown Speaker
It's been a while since we talked about Terre Haute, a long term plan set the Wabash River as a bigger destination and a lot it's part of the your long term control plan as well. Any update on those, I guess they're separate projects, but really contributing to the same thing.

Unknown Speaker
You know, there's just a whole bunch of pieces to that. So long term control plan encompasses the entire city of Terre Haute along the river, so the east side of the river from end to end. And we were in the middle of that existing long term control plan ran into some issues that we've talked about on here, some environmental issues down the southern end of the city, that we had to put a pause on that. And we knew that we were going to have to renegotiate at some point, but it happened a little sooner, because the cost keeps going up. So we have proposed three alternatives to IDM to consider for a long term control plan, a length of time, an update of projects, and a cost associated with that. I'm told that we'll probably get some feedback by the end of this year and an approval sometime next year. Some of that affects what we're doing in Fairbanks Park, because it depends on where we're going to any outfalls we're going to remove the old combined sewer overflows into the river, burying a pipe through Fairbanks Park, those things all have a bearing on what we're going to do in the park. But then we've also hired a consultant to do a master plan for Fairbanks Park. So they will look at all the amenities that we've talked about the the art thing we want to do down there and bring back with it's been there for a long time. It just doesn't work and water feature. The boathouse for the the rowing crew that's here in our community, and a variety of other improvements we want to make. So we need to kind of tie those two planes together so they don't get in each other's way. So we've got consultants going down a parallel path here, and then ensuring as we crossover, that we're what the work we're going to do down there will be very beneficial to the entire community, no doubt about that. But we have to make sure that we find this out on the calendar, so we're not in each other's way. And then these projects begin to happen and we roll them out. So all that's kind of in flux, but we have submitted some plans that we're waiting on approval on at the IDM level. You're muted there, Joe.

Unknown Speaker
Sorry about that. And this was something I know we talked about before as being much longer term plan. That's something that was going to take place in the next two or even three years.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, so the long term control plan component of putting that pipe bands probably in that same timeframe. I suspect, probably the three to four year timeframe of actually burying that, but then the projects in the park We hope to start some of them maybe by the end of next year, and then maybe do you know one or two a year over the next couple of years. So my guess is it'll, it's going to be five years, but probably for everything is done down there. And maybe the pipe won't even be completed by them. Right?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we're down about five minutes left. So I just wanted to see if there was any city council news, any updates on the police station, the convention center, or any special announcements you have for us

Unknown Speaker
police stations running a couple of weeks behind because of some materials coming in some carpet. And some other things, you know, the supply chain out there, we've not been affected much by it. But we are a little bit now we were they were supposed to be done by the end of August, it looks like maybe the by the end of the first week or into the second week of September, we'll be moving in. So we'll hold a ribbon cutting on that. And then the police are going to have a community day at some point to open house up for everybody and do some things for the kids since we're not doing national night out this year. Because of the move primarily. So we're looking forward to that the convention center still on schedule, and it's right at budget, we were a little under budget, we've got some change orders coming through, that's going to bump that up a little bit that we'll do here later this month. But we're still considering we put that budget together in 2017. I feel really good about being you know, right on it, or maybe just a hair above it with some change orders. So open up next May starting to book some things. Lots of phone calls, lots of activity. So I'm really excited about that. We're wrapping up our road projects. I think we got two more left to do smaller ones, and in some little repair jobs. So we're kind of winding up on that road construction season. So you know, it's been pretty exciting around here, a lot going on. And I'm just I'm really glad and happy where we're at right now here in August.

Unknown Speaker
All right, well, thank you very much again for your time. Hope to see you again. Boy, September, our next time. It's crazy. If you're listening to this and have a question for Mayor Bennett or any of our mayor's Email us at news at Indiana public media.org. Thanks again. Okay. Thank you.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett (Zoom)

The city is status quo on COVID-19 cases and doesn't see the need for more restrictions, the balance of annexing more people into a city, and a few interested casino operator parties have contacted the city.

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: The state went from recording 200 positive COVID-19 cases a day to well over 2,000 last week, Vigo Co. is in the yellow advisory state metric level, yet no restrictions or mask mandates in effect, why?

Bennett: The commissioners decided they were not going to masking - no mandates from the commissioner's office. I want to remind everyone that if I did a mask mandate, it would only last seven days, and then I have to go to the city council. So that's not something that I'm going to do, the commissioners need to do that because they can handle that through their legislative and executive process.

The school corporation is deciding to mask the younger kids and, the high school kids in certain environments. So I think it's an evolving situation. I talked to the health department, hospitals, the commissioners almost on a daily basis, at least every other day, about where's this is going. We hope it's only a few weeks of this and not months of this. So right now we're just kind of status quo.

But we're not requiring masks in City Hall or anywhere else in the city at this point without a governor or Commissioner directive.

READ MORE: Health Officials Report More Than 2,000 New Cases For Second Time Since April

Hren: Then what's your metric for more restrictions? How are the hospitals there? Monroe Co. is seeing the highest hospitalizations since February.

Bennett: I think my guess is that one of the key triggers will be hospitalizations, if people are getting sick, that's kind of one thing. And hospitalizations are going up where you go back in time and the kind of the numbers that everybody was talking about using to take it to the next level, if you will, that's what's going to drive me I think more than just people getting the COVID. 

I didn't have a chance to look into it before this call. But they're pretty manageable right now. But you know, I think that could change. In 24 hours, it could be a totally different picture.

Hren: I wanted to bring up annexation because we've never talked about it and it's becoming a big story in Bloomington. I see Vigo Co. population is 107,000 and Terre Haute has about 61,000 - have you ever thought of taking in growing surrounding parcels?

Bennett: I personally believe that in past annexations, that the city is known for still not providing the full level of services that they need in that area, mostly infrastructure, stormwater drainage, and those kinds of things. We're delivering trash and public safety and all those things. But there's some roads that need to be improved that I would feel imperative to make some major progress against that before we did any additional annexation.

I think there's areas that make perfect sense to be in the city because they can be better served with especially public safety. But you know, on the other hand, the commissioners, not just here, but anywhere I hear this conversation for mayors all over - that commissioners don't want to give up the tax revenue for the county. It's like, are those people going to be better off?

You have to really look at smaller pieces of it to make that determination. You know, some mayors just want to annex because they want to increase the population, or they want to increase the revenues coming in. But you've got to really look hard at that delivery of services and what it would take, some of it's easy, and some of it's very inexpensive, other pieces of it can take on a pretty big dollar amount. And so I've never pushed it.

READ MORE: Bloomington's Annexation Proposal A Hard Sell For Some Non-City Residents

Hren: The Indiana Gaming Commission has opened up Terre Haute casino license applications, is the city receiving any interest?

Bennett: Nothing other than there are some casinos that are interested in bidding. They've reached out to us - about four or five so far. September 22 is the deadline for them to submit applications. So I guess maybe we'll hear more in the coming weeks. We'll find out if Greg Gibson's going to reapply or not. But I haven't heard anything from Indianapolis. That's just all been just local conversation because people know it's open. I think there'll be several proposals.

Rocksino rendering inside
Courtesy photo of a proposed Terre Haute Rocksino interior

Hren: How about an update on the American Rescue Plan Act funds and general budget hearing preparations?

Bennett: We'll advertise the budget this week. Hearings for us will be in September. So I feel pretty good about the budgeting process. So far, revenues look good, our expenses are manageable. I mean, we've had some increases, but I'm feeling good about the budget right now.

And then on the ARP funds, we've not spent anything yet. We've received half of our allocation, we'll get the other half next May. We're working on a budget or an appropriation for this year, to take care of a couple things - last year's revenue loss and some other projects... things we had in the hopper that we're kind of already committed to and were held up because of COVID. And then we're going to pause on that a little bit and have our committee that we put together begin to really work through how we want to spend the vast majority of the money. So we have our first meeting recently, kind of develop some guidelines for the group, we're going to open up some opportunities for communicating with the public and get feedback from them. So it's going to be a ongoing process over the coming months and probably a year.

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