Climate change, looming recession highlight city council response to mayor’s budget speech

Reactions from some Bloomington councilmembers to the administration’s proposed 2020 budget on Monday included two major questions: whether the budget does enough to address climate change; and whether Bloomington is ready for a looming recession.

Climate Change

In his 2020 budget speech to the Bloomington city council Monday night, Mayor John Hamilton hit most of the points he’d highlighted in a Friday press briefing. He also devoted a few minutes to the topic of climate change. “The abdication of leadership at the federal level is tragic, and compels those of us in state and municipal governments to step up our efforts,” he said.

Hamilton sketched out how the city’s Sustainability Action Plan provides a response to climate change, which he called a “global emergency.” Among the goals in the SAP that were cited by Hamilton on Monday night is an 11-percent reduction in community greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2023, relative to a baseline of 1.3 million metric tons in 2016.

During his presentation, Hamilton said that in the 2020 budget, the city’s efforts to deal with climate change were not assembled into a single activity-based budget category. Still, he said, the city “has spent and will spend many millions of dollars addressing climate destruction.”

During the time for questions from the council, Isabel Piedmont-Smith thanked Hamilton for his emphasis on climate change. But after reading through the budget over the weekend, she told him, “It’s not enough.”

Piedmont-Smith said, “We need a World-War-II-type mobilization to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” citing the writing of Bill McKibben.  That’s what it will take, Piedmont-Smith said, “if we have any hope of having a livable future for our children and grandchildren.”

Piedmont-Smith said she wants the city to have a director of climate action sustainability, heading up a separate department.

Responding to Piedmont-Smith, Hamilton expressed agreement, saying he wanted to associate himself with her remarks “generally.” He said it’s important to think about the politics on the national level over the next 15 months leading up to the presidential election, and not to support those candidates who are not acknowledging the importance of climate change.

Recession?

On the general financial climate, councilmember Dave Rollo said, “I think it’s become common knowledge that we’ll be dealing with a recession soon.” He put the timeframe for a recession at 12 to 24 months. He wanted to know how the administration was preparing to deal with the possibility of reduced property tax levies.

Bloomington Property Tax Levy Growth
Part of the discussion of a looming recession at Monday night’s budget hearing included the idea that the impact of a recession on the tax levy is delayed. The impact of the 2008 recession was not reflected in the tax levy until 2011.

In Hamilton’s speech, he had put the general fund cash reserve at $15.4 million and the rainy day fund at $4.7 million, which totaled to 50.9 percent of operating expenses. The response to Rollo came in part from the city’s controller, Jeff Underwood, who pointed to the city’s substantial reserves.

Underwood added that governments are somewhat insulated from recession, because the impact from lower property tax revenues comes later than the recession. Underwood said he’d asked departments to look what they’d have to cut if they had to cut the budget by 10 percent. About a possible recession, Underwood said, “I think we’re well prepared for that.”

About a looming a recession, Hamilton said, “I think one of the jobs of government is to be countercyclical and to step up.” He said the City of Bloomington should step up with the reserves it has in support the community.

Hamilton also said the investments in infrastructure and equipment that are now being made are to make sure the city is well-supplied and well-trained to deal with a possible recession. Hamilton echoed Underwood’s remarks about governments being somewhat buffered from the immediate effects of a recession, adding that the presence of Indiana University is an added buffer for Bloomington.

Rollo pushed back a bit on the idea that in 2008 the effects of the recession were not felt immediately, pointing out that the general fund reserve dipped into the red that year. Underwood said in that era, the administration had not been accumulating reserves as aggressively as the current one is.

Hearing Process

The departmental budget hearings continue on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

On Monday, the council voted to impose a time limit on the their question period for each department, equal to 80 percent of the time allotted for the departmental presentation. It passed on a 5–3 vote, with Andy Ruff, Dave Rollo and Susan Sandberg dissenting. Allison Chopra was absent—she told her council colleagues last week she would not be able to attend this week’s hearings.

The hearing schedule and slide decks for the presentation are available on the City of Bloomington’s website.

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