A $2.4 million package of recovery programs, first pitched to the city council by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton at a July 10 work session, is now on course for approval at this Wednesday’s city council meeting.
The money is already in city coffers, Hamilton said last Wednesday afternoon.
So as soon as the appropriation is approved, the money can start paying for the programs it is meant to support. That includes a coding school to be hosted by The Mill, to train underemployed people to program computers.
Hamilton’s comments last Wednesday came during a video conference on the proposed funding package.
As a panelist on the video call, The Mill’s executive director, Pat East, described how he and other partners on the code school had “sharpened their pencils” to reduce the needed start-up funding from $250,000 to $100,000, without increasing tuition. In fact, they’d managed to reduce the coding school tuition from $800 to $200 per student, East said.
The city council is being asked to approve an appropriation ordinance just shy of $2 million.
Last Wednesday’s city council discussion of the appropriation was the second deliberation on the stimulus money by the council in its guise as a committee of the whole. After last Wednesday’s round of discussion, the council took a straw poll, with five councilmembers voting yes, and three abstaining. Dave Rollo was absent.
The three who abstained were Sue Sgambelluri, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Steve Volan. The council committee straw polls have no legal significance—a majority is not necessary to move the legislation forward.
The money will go towards three main categories of programs—sustainable development, jobs, and housing. The source of the funding is so-called “reversion money,” which are unspent 2019 funds that 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 ask the council to approve an appropriation ordinance for the reversion money, as he has for the last few years. That was in anticipation of needing the money to address COVID-19 impacts.
Piedmont-Smith said she was skeptical of the first version of the proposal, which had called for $325,000 to spent on a $5,000-per-job subsidy to local employers for creating net new local jobs that pay more than $15 per hour. But that’s been swapped out for a plan that now includes training in the building trades and re-entry support, but still leaves $75,000 worth of direct job support.
As Piedmont-Smith put it last Wednesday evening, “As I’ve said before, I was skeptical about the $5,000-per-job subsidy. And I see the BEDC (Bloomington Economic Development Corporation), in their memo that we received today, also thought that was a bad idea. So you have reduced that to $75,000 to go to direct job subsidies, but it’s still in there.”
One point of significant hesitation for council president Steve Volan was the planned expenditures aimed at “building wealth and creating permanently affordable homes.”
Volan said, “My concern is, if this is an economic emergency, why are we helping people build wealth? I mean…how do I justify this program to somebody who doesn’t have an income, let alone own a home?”
Hamilton’s reply to Volan pointed to the variety of different approaches that the package includes. “Well, I don’t know that I’ll convince you, Mr. Volan, but I’ll just say…this is meant to be a balanced approach.” Hamilton added, “Certainly anyone, I suppose, could pick any component of this and say, ‘I can think of something where somebody more needy could could benefit from this money.'”
Hamilton hammered the three points of justice that the stimulus package is meant to support: climate justice, economic justice, and racial justice. “I will say homeownership is a racial justice issue,” Hamilton said.
Racial justice came up at last Wednesday night’s council meeting in connection with a proposed consignment-based, local-only grocery store, following the successful model developed by the Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Being mulled as an initial test location of Bloomington’s version of the Farm Stop is an unused portion of the 216 S. College Avenue building—the former Campus Costume location. The building is owned by Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC).
Council vice president Jim Sims supports the local Black Lives Matter B-town core council call for a boycott of the city-sponsored farmers market—because of a vendor with identified white supremacist ties. The city’s legal department says the vendor cannot be excluded, because of constitutional free speech issues.
Last Wednesday, Sims wanted to know if the new farm stop for local farmers will be independent enough of the city of Bloomington to eliminate the constitutional issues.
Hamilton described how a nonprofit would run and establish the rules for the consignment store. The consignment food store would not become a governmental entity subject to the same constitutional restrictions, Hamilton said.
Director of the city’s economic and sustainable development department, Alex Crowley, confirmed the consignment food store will not be constitutionally restricted in the same way that the city-sponsored farmers market is. In fact, it would would “go further down that road to really make a significant effort to look at ways to create inclusion,” Crowley said.
Last Wednesday, Crowley was also asked by councilmember Ron Smith to explain what specifically would be purchased with the $100,000 for The Mill’s code school.
Half the amount would go towards having someone in place at The Mill to run the program, Crowley said. About $16,000 would go towards helping students to maintain their momentum and motivation as new students in the program. About $10,000 would go towards marketing and recruitment for the program.
For students who don’t have the necessary hardware, about $16,000 would go towards purchase of about 20 computers. Finally, about $7,500 of the $100,000 for the code school is tied to student assessments and their interview profile, Crowley said.