Plan commission lawsuit update: Bloomington makes First Amendment argument against GOP reading of statute

In the ongoing lawsuit over the rightful appointee to Bloomington’s plan commission, Bloomington’s most recent brief has introduced an argument that has not been a part of its previous papers.

The argument is based on the clause of the First Amendment that establishes a right of free association, or non-association.

The lawsuit is now in front of the court of appeals, after Bloomington lost an initial ruling seeking dismissal.

Currently serving on the plan commission since last summer, as the mayor’s appointee, is commercial real estate broker Chris Cockerham.

Litigating the right of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton to make the appointment is Monroe County Republican Party chair William Ellis, who appointed Andrew Guenther, a city environmental commissioner, to the same seat. Continue reading “Plan commission lawsuit update: Bloomington makes First Amendment argument against GOP reading of statute”

Monroe County prosecutor asks for analysis of possible racial justice disparities in own office

A study of possible racial justice disparities in Monroe County with “special attention given to racial disparities within the prosecutor’s office” was pitched to county councilors on Tuesday, by county prosecutor Erika Oliphant.

Screen shot of Monroe County’s county council meeting on Jan. 26, 2021.

At its work session on Tuesday, Monroe County’s councilors were presented with a request from Oliphant for funding.

On Tuesday, county councilors did not take a vote on the requested $68,000 appropriation, which would cover the contract with Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute Center for Health and Justice Research.

That approval could come at the county council’s next regular meeting, which is set for Feb. 9.

Responding to a question from councilor Kate Wiltz, Oliphant said the study of decision making in her office is separate from a comprehensive criminal justice system review that the county commissioned. Wiltz described the final report from the comprehensive review as expected “at some point, hopefully, in the very near future.”

Oliphant described the comprehensive review as having “a very different purpose and scope” from the study of her office. According to Oliphant, the question to be answered by the comprehensive review is: “How we can impact the jail population—who’s being held in jail for how long?” She added another question, “And how can we improve court processes to get those folks out of jail?”

The study that Oliphant now wants the county council to consider is focused “specifically on prosecutorial decision making,” she said. The study of her office won’t focus just on the jail population, but will include everyone impacted by prosecutorial decision making, even those people who might not see a day in jail, she said.

The researcher who would be conducting the study is Eric Grommon, an applied criminologist in the O’Neill School at IUPUI. Continue reading “Monroe County prosecutor asks for analysis of possible racial justice disparities in own office”

Bloomington OKs rezoning for Comcast, because new UDO does not allow use variances

The Comcast property that sits in the wedge formed by Adams Street and West Fountain Drive will eventually not be recognizable by its communications tower.

The dismantling of the tower will be made possible by the construction of a new building on the site, which will expand the kind of equipment that can be housed there.

The construction of the new building will be made possible by the approval by Bloomington’s city council of a rezone for the property, from residential (R2) to employment (EM).

The city council approved the rezoning at its meeting last Wednesday on a unanimous vote. The city’s plan commission had previously forwarded to the council its unanimous recommendation for the rezone.

How is it even possible for a property that is zoned for residential use to be used as a contractor’s yard and communications facility for at least the last two decades? Continue reading “Bloomington OKs rezoning for Comcast, because new UDO does not allow use variances”

IU Health’s bonus dose now standard as Pfizer limits COVID vaccine shipments based on 6-dose vials

The IU Health pharmacy team that prepares the COVID-19 vaccine for its clinic in Monroe County is able to extract an extra sixth dose out of the 5-dose vaccine vials it gets from Pfizer.

“We get at least six doses out of every vial,” president of IU Health’s southwest region Brian Shockney confirmed to the Square Beacon.

To accomplish the extraction of the extra dose requires a speciality syringe. Shockney said, “We have the needles.”

That is the same experience of many pharmacies across the country.

But the New York Times reported Friday that the sixth dose can’t be considered a bonus any longer.

According to the NYT report, the discovery in December that a sixth dose could be extracted from the 5-dose vials will now lead to less vaccine shipped by Pfizer.

According to the report: “Pfizer plans to count the surprise sixth dose toward its previous commitment of 200 million doses of Covid vaccine by the end of July and therefore will be providing fewer vials than once expected for the United States.”

Extraction of a sixth dose from a Pfizer vial will now be considered just par for the course. Continue reading “IU Health’s bonus dose now standard as Pfizer limits COVID vaccine shipments based on 6-dose vials”

Advisory group OKs food and beverage tax money for convention center debt

On Thursday, Monroe County commissioners cleared a key hurdle for using part of the county government’s share of the 1-percent food and beverage tax, to pay for debt on the convention center and the center’s management expenses.

By the end of its hour-long meeting, the seven-member food and beverage tax advisory commission (FABTAC) had recommended that up to $300,000 of the county’s food and beverage fund balance could be spent on convention center debt and management.

Historically, it has been innkeeper’s tax revenues that have been used to pay the convention center debt service. The innkeeper’s tax is 5-percent charge on lodging in the county.

But innkeeper’s tax revenues have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food and beverage revenues are also a bit down due to the pandemic, but not by as much. That’s why commissioners wanted the flexibility to use some of the more than $600,000 in the food and beverage fund balance to pay towards the annual debt service on the convention center. The annual debt service is $636,000.

The specific mention of the $300,000 in FABTAC’s approval was different from the original wording of the request made to the FABTAC by county commissioners. Commissioners had voted in the first week of the year to ask for consideration from the FABTAC.

In their request, the three-member board of commissioners had asked to use “any and all funds” in the county’s food and beverage tax fund.

Except for wrangling over the difference in wording, the meeting probably could have been wrapped up in under a half hour. Continue reading “Advisory group OKs food and beverage tax money for convention center debt”

New Bloomington shelter already half full on first night: 26 total guests, not counting 3 pets

Aerial image is from the Pictometry module of Monroe County’s online property records system. The red arrow indicates entrance to the new temporary shelter.

On Tuesday, Beacon, Inc. opened a new, 49-bed temporary winter shelter for the houseless, in the warehouse space across the B-Line Trail from Switchyard Park’s pickleball courts.

At Wednesday morning’s regular meeting of Monroe County commissioners, Beacon, Inc.’s executive director Forrest Gilmore updated the three county officials on the tally for the first night of operation.

A total of 26 people slept there, Gilmore told commissioners. That included seven couples. Three dogs were also a part of the mix. Three more people stopped by to get warmed up, but did not stay the night.

The only women who stayed at the shelter that night arrived as part of a couple. That’s something that Gilmore said should be recognized and noted, because a lack of couples beds could pose a barrier to women seeking shelter.

The first night’s occupancy was more than Gilmore expected and he thinks it will increase when word spreads that it’s a safe place.
Continue reading “New Bloomington shelter already half full on first night: 26 total guests, not counting 3 pets”

Pandemic continues to crush public transit ridership, Bloomington doing extra bus stop improvements

The grim news out of Bloomington Transit’s Tuesday board meeting was not a surprise. The 53,187 bus trips taken on fixed-route service  in December 2020 amounted to just 20 percent of the 263,828 trips taken in 2019.

That continued the depressed trend that started after Indiana University’s 2020 spring break in mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It’s not a surprise, because normally about 70 percent of Bloomington’s public bus ridership is by Indiana University affiliates. Even when classes resumed, because a lot of instruction was conducted remotely, students had reduced local travel needs.

BT general manager Lew May said he thinks it could take years before ridership levels are back to the same level they were at the start of 2020.

Balanced against the expected bad ridership numbers was a proposal from the city’s public works director, Adam Wason, who said that at the end of last year, his department “rubbed nickels together to make dimes”—to identify an extra $150,000 that could be used for bus stop accessibility improvements. Wason already had $250,000 to spend on bus stops, from the first phase of the city’s Recover Forward initiative, which was approved by the city council in mid-August of 2020. Continue reading “Pandemic continues to crush public transit ridership, Bloomington doing extra bus stop improvements”

IU official on planned Bloomington water rate increase: “This is a rate shock to Indiana University.”

At its Tuesday meeting, Bloomington’s seven-member utilities service board (USB) voted unanimously, with one abstention, to recommend a proposal to the city council that water rates be increased starting in 2022.

Abstaining was USB member Jason Banach. He’s a former city councilmember who represented District 2 from 1996 to 2005.

Before the USB took up the item, Banach announced that his employer is Bloomington’s largest water customer, adding, “It’s out of an abundance of caution that I’ll be recusing myself from this discussion and abstaining from the vote.” Banach works for Indiana University as the university’s director of real estate.

It is the university that is likely to be the strongest opponent of the water rate increase.

The proposed water rate increase would come in two phases, in 2022 and 2024, with residential customers paying a total of 22 percent more over the course of four years. Customers would see higher bills starting in early 2022.

After the two phases are implemented, Indiana University, which is a separate class of customer, would pay 39.7 percent more than it does now. IU also pays for water as an irrigation customer, and all irrigation customers would see a 43.9 percent increase over the two phases.

At Tuesday’s USB meeting, Indiana University assistant vice president for utilities Keith Thompson told the board: “IU is not happy with a 40-percent rate increase, even though it’s coming in two phases.” Thompson added, “This is a rate shock to Indiana University.”

The higher increases for IU and for irrigation customers is based on a cost of service study, done by a city of Bloomington utilities (CBU) consultant, which says that residential customers have been subsidizing other classes of customers.

Director of utilities Vic Kelson had previously reported to the USB that Indiana University is not happy with the proposed rate increase.

If the city council approves the water rate increase as proposed, Thompson said, IU would likely intervene in the case that goes in front of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC). Any water rate increase would have to be reviewed by the IURC. Continue reading “IU official on planned Bloomington water rate increase: “This is a rate shock to Indiana University.””

Houseless advocates march from Seminary Park to People’s Park to protest clearance from public spaces

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The clearance of an encampment at Bloomington’s Seminary Park in early December and again last week prompted on Monday the second protest in as many nights.

Protesters want the Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, to allow encampments of houseless people to persist in public parks. They point to Centers for Disease Control guidelines that call for allowing encampments to stay in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, if other individual housing options are not available.

Whether such options are available is a disputed point.

Monday’s action included as many as 80 people at its peak, which retraced the steps of around a dozen people the night before, from Seminary Park to Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s house. He lives in the Elm Heights neighborhood, south of the Indiana University campus, about a three-quarter mile walk from Seminary Park.

On Monday, the group continued from the mayor’s house to People’s Park on Kirkwood Avenue, where a teach-in was held, featuring speakers from Indiana University’s Rainbow Coalition, a relatively new coalition of multicultural groups on campus.

The night wrapped up around 11:30 p.m. as two houseless men pitched a tent at People’s Park, and protesters lined the sidewalk to form a wall against possible police action.

Protesters left soon after that, and as of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the tent was still there. Another second, larger one had been added. Continue reading “Houseless advocates march from Seminary Park to People’s Park to protest clearance from public spaces”

Analysis: Possible historic designation of building a chance to reckon with Bloomington’s racism

On the Bloomington city council’s Wednesday agenda for a first reading is an ordinance that would establish a new single-property historic district for the building at 424 1/2 S. Walnut Street.

Consideration of the ordinance could be a chance for the city council and the community to review an episode from Bloomington’s restaurant industry in 1950, which was described this way in a World-Telephone article: “Downtown Bloomington restaurants, closed this week in protest of a campaign to force them to serve Negroes, are to be reopened for business beginning on Thursday of this week, serving customers of all colors.”

The building at 424 1/2 S. Walnut is probably best known for the most recent business that was housed there, which was The Player’s Pub.

Part of the argument for the property’s historic designation is the building’s connection to Henry Boxman, who operated the place as Boxman’s Restaurant” for nearly three decades, from 1929 to 1958.

One of the possible criteria that can qualify a building for historic designation is its association “with a person who played a significant role in local, state, or national history.”

Boxman is described in the report prepared by Conor Herterich, the city’s historic preservation program manager, as “one of Bloomington’s greatest restaurateurs,” who helped found the Indiana Restaurant Association and re-established the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, among other achievements.

Not a part of the report prepared by Herterich is an analysis of where, if anywhere, Boxman’s Restaurant might have fit into the segregationist history of Bloomington’s downtown restaurant scene of the 1950s.

Continue reading “Analysis: Possible historic designation of building a chance to reckon with Bloomington’s racism”