At its meeting last Tuesday, the Monroe County council handled two $3-million items.
One was a transfer of $3 million to its rainy day fund. The other was a final approval on issuance of $3.1 million in general obligation bonds. The amount includes $3 million worth of capital projects and another $100,000 to cover transaction costs.
The rainy day fund transfers came in the context of a negative impact to local income tax revenue that’s expected in 2022. In that year, revenue will be based on individual earnings in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At last Tuesday’s meeting of Monroe County’s council, county board of commissioners president Julie Thomas presented a list of projects that could be funded using proceeds from a $3-million general obligation (GO) bond.
It’s a routine strategy for the county, each year to set property taxes at a high enough rate to generate enough revenue to cover the repayment of short-term general obligation bonds.
The list presented by Thomas for this year included: trucks and heavy equipment for the highway department; support vehicles for the highway department; parks ADA projects; replacement of core switches in the justice building; radios for sheriff’s office; handheld narcotics analyzer; county vehicle refresh; renovations related to office move by highway and surveyor; and trail connections.
On Tuesday, the list did not appear to generate any red flags for county councilors. Last year, commissioners proposed a $5-million bond that drew sharp enough scrutiny from councilor Marty Hawk that the list of projects was trimmed down to about $3.3 million. This year’s proposal will get more consideration in the next few weeks before a vote is taken.
A week ago Friday, the Monroe County council wrapped up a series of four budget work sessions in as many days.
On the docket for Friday were the funds related to the county’s convention center.
The recovery of the area’s tourism industry from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has already begun, but it will be gradual. It will follow a U-shaped trend, not a V-shaped pattern, according to Mike Campbell, who serves on the county’s 5-member convention and visitors commission.
Campbell sits on the board in his capacity as the associate director of the Indiana University Memorial Union.
Campbell gave projections for the county’s 5-percent innkeeper tax based on numbers that show a recovery starting to take shape. Revenues are expected to rebound from a low of about $49,000, reported in June this year. That was just 17 percent of the total for June in 2019, which was about $289,000.
Already on the books are increases in July and August to 40 percent and 60 percent of revenue for those same months last year. Based on September’s numbers so far, Campbell thinks the now-projected $155,000 figure for September will be hit. It won’t be until August of next year, however, when the revenues are forecasted to be back to previous levels.
At their budget work session on Thursday, the third in as many days, Monroe County councilors voted 5–2 to set the salaries for the three county commissioners at $46,000, which is about $10,000 more than they were paid last year.
It’s about $14,000 less than the figure that commissioners had requested.
Thursday’s vote set the amount that will be included in the advertised budget, which will get a final vote in mid-October.
Procedurally, the councilors voted to reduce the three line items for each of the commissioners in their proposed budget from a requested $60,133 to $46,000.
Responding to a proposal to increase Monroe County’s local income tax by a quarter point, from 1.345 percent to 1.595 percent, the county council voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a letter to the Bloomington city council that questions the timing of the move.
The county council’s letter asks Bloomington’s legislative branch “to devote substantially more time to collaborating with the mayor and the full local income tax council membership to most effectively plan and consider this proposed income tax rate increase.”
The city council has scheduled its vote on the proposal for Sept. 16, after an initial city council discussion that is set for Sept. 9. The county council wanted city councilmembers to receive the letter in time for their Sept. 9 deliberations.
The city council is responding to a request by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton to consider increasing the income tax by a quarter point, after proposing a half-point increase on New Year’s Day.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is a reason given by Hamilton for reducing the amount of the increase. Hamilton has also refocussed the intended expenditures for the additional revenue to eliminate additional funding for public transit, among other changes.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is one reason that the county council’s letter gives for not considering a tax increase of any amount at this time: “Monroe County residents are experiencing a global pandemic with no end in sight. The negative impacts of COVID-19 are real and continue to weigh heavily on all residents in recent weeks and months.”
The letter continues, “Some of Monroe County’s largest employers have announced plans for personnel furloughs, and wage cuts due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In addition, many small local businesses have had to make the difficult choice to close permanently, or lay off staff indefinitely, causing a loss of income to a significant number of Monroe County residents and families.”
The letter wraps up the point about the COVID-19 impact by saying, “During such uncertain times, when evidence of stress and depression are all around us, and hitting us too close to home, it would be unwise to add to the stress our residents face by increasing their tax burden without a manifest and widely supported plan for its use.”
On Tuesday night, Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) chief Dustin Dillard presented a 2021 budget to the county council that weighed in at just shy of $12 million.
That’s better than three times the 2020 adopted budget, which totals around $3.7 million. But as Dillard put it, “It’s impossible to compare the current district to the 2021 budget without expressing the scale of this operation.”
The budget for 2021 is way bigger for a couple of reasons. First, it reflects a consolation of three departments—MFPD with the fire departments in Van Buren and Bloomington townships. Van Buren and Bloomington townships were approved last year by the board of county commissioners to join MFPD starting in 2021 after following a process that the commissioners had laid out. It was the same process that Washington and Benton townships are following this year.
Until they join the MFPD in 2022—assuming their membership is approved by county commissioners later this year—the plan is for Washington and Benton townships to contract with MFPD for fire protection service. So MFPD’s 2021 budget includes the contracts with Washington and Benton townships.
That means MFPD will be adding five townships worth of geography to its coverage area. According to Dillard, in 2021 MFPD will serve nearly 45,000 Monroe County citizens, 19,000 housing units, covering 317 square miles, or 77 percent of Monroe County.
The other reason the budget is bigger is that it reflects more than just a consolidation of departments. The 2021 budget includes 13 additional full-time and 20 additional part-time firefighters. Eight of the 13 full-time positions will be in place on Jan. 1, 2021 and the additional five will be added in the second half of the year, Dillard said.
Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, gave a speech last week on Thursday, released in a Facebook video, that revealed the basic approach the city will take to spur a local recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19. It’s a program the mayor is calling “Recovering Forward.”
The speech prompted a response from county elected officials in the form of a pointed press release issued late this Friday afternoon.
By way of background, the mayor had sketched out the initial part of his recovery plan at a Bloomington city council work session the Friday before. To jump start the effort, the initial part of the plan includes a request to the Bloomington city council for a $2-million appropriation.
Overshadowing the rest of the speech was the mayor’s renewed pitch for an increase to the local income tax, something he’d announced as a goal on New Year’s Day. The amount of the proposed increase last week was reduced—from a half point to a quarter point—compared to the proposal he’d made earlier.
The way the local income tax works is already a point of friction between Bloomington and Monroe County government.
But escaping mention in the local press was this passage from the mayor’s speech:
I’ll note that the City’s recovery investment can and I believe should be in parallel with a similar county government investment in recovery, with their also-healthy financial reserves. I’ve urged our colleagues in county government to expand their support for eviction protection, for our public health system, for the criminal justice system reforms so sorely needed, and for other recovery needs.
That paragraph from the address, among others, piqued the interest of the mayor’s “colleagues in county government”—who wondered why the mayor felt it was his place to urge them to do anything at all.
On Tuesday evening, the seven-member Monroe County council, which is the elected fiscal body of county government, held a video-conferenced public forum on the future of law enforcement funding.
Described on the agenda as a “community concerns and law enforcement resourcing meeting” the three-hour event was led by Latosha Williams from the Community Justice and Mediation Center. Attendance by the public reportedly peaked around 150 people.
Councilors imposed the hiring freeze because they had concerns about the clarity of the county’s financial picture, given the unknown revenue impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The objections to Swain’s proposed filling of two vacant deputy positions came in the context of nationwide and local demonstrations over the May 25 killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, along with other recent police killings of Black men and women.