COVID-19 response: Bloomington mulls $2 million in city general fund money for economic stimulus

 

At a Friday noon work session, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, pitched a $2-million economic stimulus package to Bloomington city council members.  It could be in front of the council for a final vote on August 12.

The package—which in technical terms is an appropriation ordinance that draws on local funds—is meant to help aid Bloomington’s recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. [Updated: July 14 at 9:14 a.m. In response to a formal records request, The Square Beacon was provided a draft of the proposal, which councilmembers were asking questions about during their work session.]

The appropriation is meant to get an early start on some additional “countercyclical” measures that Hamilton wants to include in the 2021 budget. Instead of waiting until January, Hamilton said on Friday, the proposal is a way to get started in September.

Hamilton sketched out three general “buckets” that are in the stimulus package: (1) a more sustainable and higher quality of life for residents, particularly low and moderate income households; (2) more good jobs to help people get back into the economy; and (3) more affordable housing.

But it’s still in draft form—even the source of funds is not yet set in stone. For now, the money will be drawn from money that departments did not spend in 2019, which was in their budgets that year.

Called “reversion money” in casual usage, it would otherwise revert to the general fund. In the past few years, reversion money has been to some extent shared back to departments by Hamilton’s administration, as a kind of reward for finding innovative ways to be efficient with budgeted funds.

But this spring Hamilton didn’t present an appropriation ordinance for the reversion money, as he has for the last few years. As Hamilton put it on Friday, that decision “kept our powder dry.”

The roughly $2 million worth of powder is comparable to the amount of reversion money that’s been appropriated in the past few years, Hamilton said.

Hamilton repeated several times during Friday’s work session that the goal of the spending would be to help achieve “racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice.”

Under the first “bucket,” a more sustainable quality of life for residents, Hamilton described four sub-areas.

One area is investments to promote energy conservation by homeowners, landlords and businesses, for example by installing more insulation.

A second area is focused on mobility options, Hamilton said. That means sidewalk and path improvements, particularly in low and moderate income neighborhoods. Included in mobility investments are about 25 Bloomington Transit bus stops, Hamilton said.

A third area of sustainable quality of life investments is local food. As part of local food investments, Hamilton described a kind of consignment farmers market. The model for this approach is Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Argus Farm Stop was founded in 2014—it’s housed in a re-purposed corner gas station. Farmers provide their meat and produce to the bricks-and-mortar store, which keeps regular daily hours and sells the food on a consignment basis.

The final area of quality of life investments is a catch-all category, which includes a special round of Jack Hopkins social services funding, Hamilton said.

The second “bucket” described by Hamilton is support for more jobs. Hamilton said thousands of people are still out of work in the area.

The most recent weekly unemployment claims numbers for Monroe County show a rise to 855 initial claims made in the last week of June. That’s half as many as the initial spike of 1,627 claims made in the last week of March. But it’s a sharp increase from the previous five weeks, when the numbers stayed under 400 until the third week of June, when they started to turn upward again.

Even numbers in the mid-300s are near the peak of claims made back in the 2008 economic downturn.

Hamilton described the programs in the package that will help support job growth as “modest individual investments” designed for smaller companies. “Smaller companies don’t get tax abatements,” Hamilton said, because they don’t add 100 jobs at a time.

Among the other approaches in the jobs “bucket” is a focus on positions that are currently unfilled, to provide training for people who are currently unemployed and could be trained to do those jobs. Hamilton mentioned a coding school as one initiative that’s in the package.

Based on a late June memo written by the city’s director of economic and sustainable development, Alex Crowley, the responsibility for the coding school would be handled in part by The Dimension Mill, a co-working community located in the Trades District of downtown Bloomington. The Mill would work in concert with Ivy Tech, the Indiana Walter Career Center, and local employers like Cook Medical, Singota, Cornerstone, and MetroStar Systems.

The third “bucket” described by Hamilton at Friday’s work session was affordable home ownership. Hamilton said the city has created several hundred affordable rental units over the last four years. The stimulus package focuses instead on home ownership by lower and moderate income family households.

The city council will likely have the $2 million appropriation ordinance on its July 22 meeting agenda for a first reading.

All ordinances have to get two readings in front of the council. The vote after the second reading can’t come at the same meeting as the first reading, unless those councilmembers present vote unanimously to approve it.

President of the city council, Steve Volan, said at Friday’s work session that he would refer the ordinance to the council’s four-member standing committee on sustainable development. The committee would presumably meet immediately following the July 22 council meeting.

But under city code, the committee does not owe a report back to the full council until the “second regular session after being referred to the committee.”

After July 22, the first regular session of the full council is July 29. The second one is August 12. the committee could decide on July 22 to meet again on Aug. 5 about the appropriation ordinance.

Volan said that the public hearing, which requires 10 days published notice, had been set for Aug. 12,  to allow of the possibility the committee would choose to use all of its allowable time.

Hamilton responded to Volan’s remarks on scheduling by saying, “We urge as much speed and alacrity as possible with this, and certainly appreciate the engagement with the full council.”

Hamilton continued, “I know all nine [council]members will have views about how it ought to be steered.” Hamilton wrapped up by saying that councilmembers could convey any suggestions to the administration they’d like, before the final ordinance is proposed.

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