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”

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”

Monroe County looking to rectify CVC’s violation of Open Door Law with meeting reenactment, possible new guidelines

Monroe County’s five-member convention and visitors commission (CVC) met on Wednesday Dec. 9 at noon.

The meeting was not accessible to the public as required under Indiana’s Open Door Law. That’s because the Zoom video conferencing link that was used to conduct the meeting had not been posted on Monroe County’s website, or anywhere else The Square Beacon could see.

According to Monroe County attorney Margie Rice, the approach will be next week to hold a properly noticed, publicly accessible meeting of the CVC to ratify the actions taken at the Wednesday meeting, as well as four other meetings held earlier this year.

The tentative date for the meeting to re-enact the CVC’s work for previous meetings is Dec. 18.

The purpose of the CVC as a public body under state statute is to promote the development and growth of the convention and visitor industry in the county using funds generated by the county’s 5-percent innkeeper’s tax.

Rice told The Square Beacon that when she reviewed the situation arising out of the Dec. 9 meeting, she concluded that four other CVC meetings held earlier this year, after the  COVID-19 pandemic hit,  had violated the Open Door Law in the same way. There was no way for the public to access those meetings because the Zoom link had not been posted. Continue reading “Monroe County looking to rectify CVC’s violation of Open Door Law with meeting reenactment, possible new guidelines”

Monroe County electeds mull legal fees, COVID-19 relief money, innkeeper’s tax, food and beverage tax

At a work session held on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, Monroe County councilors took care of some year-end appropriations, and talked with county commissioners about next year’s priorities.

A vote on extra appropriation to cover legal fees, amended by councilors from $30,000 to $18,126, was split 6–1

Screenshot of the Monroe county council’s Nov. 24 work session held by Zoom videoconference.

Some positive news was relayed from the commissioners office about the $4.7 million in CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) reimbursement funding that’s been awarded to the county. The state of Indiana has told the county to submit public safety personnel expenses as claims against the $4.7 million award.

That means the county will max out the reimbursement, according to Angie Purdie, administrator for the commissioners office.

Once the money is reimbursed to the county, it goes into the county general fund, according to Purdie, which means county councilors have flexibility to spend the money as they judge to be appropriate.

Less flexible in the way it can be spent is revenue from the countywide food and beverage tax, which is split about 90-10 between Bloomington and Monroe County government. The county’s current fund balance for the food and beverage tax is $554,194, even after distributing nearly $400,000 worth of grants for COVID-19 relief to businesses and nonprofits earlier this year.

Councilors will be weighing whether to put some of that fund balance towards additional business relief, or using it to backstop shortfalls in the revenue from the innkeeper’s tax, due to the COVID-pandemic. The innkeeper’s tax is a key source of revenue for payment of $636,000 in debt service on the land surrounding the convention center and the most recent renovation to the center.

A meeting of the county’s 5-member convention and visitors commission is set for noon on Wednesday, Dec. 9. The meetings have not typically been broadcast on CATS, but based on conversation at Tuesday’s county council work session, the link to the Zoom video conference is expected to be included on the list maintained on Monroe County’s website. Continue reading “Monroe County electeds mull legal fees, COVID-19 relief money, innkeeper’s tax, food and beverage tax”

Monroe County gets GO bonds OK’d before expected pre-election news of rebounding economy

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.

Those items will now provide some of the background for the county council’s first reading of the 2021 budget, on Monday starting at 5:30 p.m.

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.

The timing of the bond issuance came before the general election in a presidential year and before Thanksgiving—two events that can affect bond ratings, according to county attorney Jeff Cockerill. Continue reading “Monroe County gets GO bonds OK’d before expected pre-election news of rebounding economy”

Monroe County mulls $3 million in capital projects for yearly GO bond issuance, after concept gets kicked around in debate on local income tax increase

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.

Introductory text of a past year’s ordinance used to authorize Monroe County’s issuance of general obligation bonds.

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.

The idea of issuing GO bonds to fund capital projects made its way into recent deliberations in front of the Bloomington city council, during its deliberations on a possible increase to the countywide local income tax (LIT). The council’s vote was 4–5, so the proposal did not achieve even the simply majority to move it forward for consideration by the rest of the tax council. Continue reading “Monroe County mulls $3 million in capital projects for yearly GO bond issuance, after concept gets kicked around in debate on local income tax increase”

Convention center budget session: A glimpse into possible timing for tourism recovery

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.

Some of the projected recovery is due to latent travel demand that would not have been seen otherwise, because the usual large events are not taking place. For example, the cancelation of Indiana University football games means a loss of bookings, but that makes room for people looking to visit the area to view the fall foliage. Continue reading “Convention center budget session: A glimpse into possible timing for tourism recovery”

Monroe County commissioners get preliminary OK for $10K salary increase

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.

From the on-screen live spreadsheet used by Monroe County councilors to track their budget revisions during their Sept. 10 work session, which was conducted on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

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.

Commissioners had asked for around $60,000, which would have put them on roughly equal footing with other Monroe County electeds like the auditor, treasurer and recorder. It would have also made their compensation on par with county commissioners in Tippecanoe County. Continue reading “Monroe County commissioners get preliminary OK for $10K salary increase”

Monroe County to Bloomington: “We respectfully write to implore you to postpone any vote on the tax increase.”

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.”

A city council vote on Sept. 16 could enact the tax increase on all Monroe County residents, if it achieves either a 9–0 or 8–1 majority. That’s based on the voting weights assigned to individual representative to members of the tax council. Continue reading “Monroe County to Bloomington: “We respectfully write to implore you to postpone any vote on the tax increase.””

Monroe Fire Protection District presents “massive” budget to county council

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.

Dillard summed it up this way: “In addition to merging the three together, we have more on top of that, that really make for a massive budget.” Continue reading “Monroe Fire Protection District presents “massive” budget to county council”