Bloomington mayor, Monroe County commissioners schedule public meeting: Charting course to catch better winds for becalmed convention center expansion?

In a letter sent Thursday to Monroe County commissioners, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, told them he plans to attend their weekly Wednesday morning meeting on Nov. 6.

The mayor’s letter didn’t come out of the blue—it was his response to an invitation sent by commissioners earlier the same day: “[W]e write to invite you to attend our November 6th meeting to discuss this exciting opportunity.”

The “opportunity” to which the commissioners referred was the idea of creating a capital improvement board in connection with the convention center expansion.

Administrator for the board of commissioners, Angie Purdie, told The Beacon on Friday that the mayor will be first on the agenda under new business.

The quick exchange of letters on Thursday came less than 48 hours after a Tuesday night joint meeting attended by the mayor, county commissioners, members of the county council and the city council. The Tuesday meeting was blown off course by a mid-meeting agenda change, followed by an attempted motion to vote. The unexpected vote was to have been on a preferred site plan and the appropriate group of people to move the project forward to the next phase.

A disagreement over which group should now helm the project has left it dead in the water since May 23, when a nine-member steering committee voted to recommend a site plan. The recommended site plan included a northward expansion from the existing convention center, which sits at 3rd Street and College Avenue.

The group that Hamilton thinks should take the rudder for the design and construction phase is the same nine-member steering committee that moved the project through selection of an architect, public engagement and preliminary site plan. The steering committee was established in an October 2018 MOU between Hamilton and the county’s board of commissioners.

County commissioners want first to create a capital improvement board (CIB) and authorize the CIB to guide the project forward. In July, the county commissioners released a public memo to other elected officials pitching the idea of moving the convention center forward with a CIB.

County commissioners aren’t necessarily in favor of the northward expansion that’s been recommended. Part of the mix contributing to the disagreement over the eventual site plan is the location of parcels that the city and the county have acquired with an eye to expanding the convention center.

The city’s administration envisions creating a CIB, but not in the short term. What’s needed eventually in any case, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen told The Beacon on Thursday, is some third entity, other than the city or the county, to hold the land and the bonds. That way neither of those governmental units’ constitutional debt limit would be exceeded. The city sees that third entity as likely being a building corporation, which could eventually transition to a CIB, Renneisen said.

The city sees the formation of a CIB as relatively complex, potentially taking as long as a year. According to Renneisen, county and city legal staff have already been working on the issue of creating a CIB and its proper sequencing with the creation of a building corporation. They have a standing weekly phone meeting.

Renneisen told the Beacon he’ll likely join Hamilton for the Nov. 6 meeting with the county commissioners.

In the letters exchanged by the two governmental units on Thursday, they each highlighted the part of the Tuesday discussion that supported their cause. The letter sent by commissioners starts this way: “Given the clear and overwhelming support for the creation of a Capital Improvement Board (CIB), made evident at last night’s meeting of elected County and City officials,…”

After acknowledging the support for a CIB, Hamilton’s response says: “Relaunching the Steering Committee received the same ‘clear and overwhelming support’ at the meeting on the 29th, and therefore we urge you to support that recommendation as well.”

The outcome of the Nov. 6 meeting between the mayor and the county commissioners will shape the next meeting of the city and county councils, plus the mayor and the board of county commissioners. It is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 21.

Scheduled for the Nov. 12 regular meeting of the county council is a presentation by county legal staff about CIBs.

Analysis

Some compromise will be required somewhere by someone if the project is to move from the spot where it is currently anchored—between preliminary design and final-design-and-construction. Once a site plan is settled, it’s expected that the project will take around three years to complete.

Whether the site plan should now be considered settled—by the steering committee’s May 23 recommendation—is a point of conflict and possible compromise. The city’s position is that the northward expansion is the right way to go, and purchased the Bunger & Robertson property for $5 million, based on that view. Commissioners think eastward expansion could be better.

For the city officials to agree to a relatively quick creation of a CIB, they would probably need to be convinced that the work of the steering committee, and its recommendation, are secured as cargo in the vessel that moves the work forward and not allowed to drift away.

For the county commissioners to agree to a new MOU that authorizes the nine-member steering committee to reconvene and continue the work, they would likely need some assurance that a final decision on the site plan is yet to be made and that some opportunity would exist to persuade the committee to go in a different direction.

Formation of a CIB includes the configuration of its seven-member board. Under the state’s enabling statute on CIBs, it’s the county commissioners who have the power to establish the board and decide “which units within the county shall make appointments to the board.” An added wrinkle is that no more than four members can be of the same political party.

Thursday’s letter from the commissioners to the mayor floats an approach to the party question that could fairly be analyzed as creative.

If Monroe County and the City of Bloomington are the units of government who make appointments, we all must acknowledge that both Monroe County and the City of Bloomington currently are heavily Democratic. We suggest that whichever unit gets to make four appointments, also be required to appoint the three non-Democratic appointments. There may be other ways to make appointments, but we offer that as an initial suggestion.

The Beacon asked Monroe County Republican Party’s chair, William Ellis, if he’d ever seen that approach to settling the party membership requirement for a board. Ellis first established he was against the formation of a CIB at all, because it would be “yet another level of policy making removed from the citizens and party.”

The party membership requirement does not make much practical difference for Bloomington and Monroe County, Ellis said, because when Republicans are appointed, “they appoint Republicans with no ties to the Republican Party, so the spirit of the statute—differing party ideals brought to the table—is lost.” Ellis added, “I think they are just checking a box to adhere to the statute instead of making sure there is a varied, robust opinion on the board.”

The proposal from the commissioners appears to presuppose that the split between the city and the county should be 4–3 or 3–4. That’s as close to “equal” as basic arithmetic allows on a seven-member board. The word “equal” has been a part of disagreement between the city and the county.

The county wants to describe the convention center expansion project as a “true and equal partnership.” The city looks at the $44 million cost of the expansion that will be funded with the city’s share of the food and beverage tax, and the $15 million that will be funded with city TIF money and concludes that it’s not an “equal” partnership from a financial perspective.

When The Beacon spoke with deputy mayor Mick Renneisen on Thursday, he said that the food and beverage tax was not the whole story, and the county was bringing real estate to the table that should be considered. The city is trying to quantify what it thinks the financial stakes on each side are.

The county counts land it has acquired for the project, as well as the existing convention center, as part of the equation. Also counted  by the county as part of the its financial stake is the innkeeper’s tax, which brought in $2.8 million in 2018. County officials also count the “political capital” that it took for the county council to enact the food and beverage tax in the first place. It was a contentious 4–3 vote of the county council that allowed the tax to start being collected in February 2018.

[Note: The initially-posted version of this piece omitted mention of the innkeeper’s tax as a financial part of the equation that the county counts as relevant for adding up equity in the project. The omission was due to a copy-paste failure from draft to final version.]

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