Monroe County’s councilors want to know: How do propane, parking decks, PCBs, a pillar and polling equipment add up to $5.17 million?

A presentation from Monroe County’s three commissioners to the seven-member county council on Tuesday night listed out a dozen and a half projects they want to pay for with one-year general obligation (GO) bonds. The not-to-exceed amount that the commissioners want the county council to authorize is $5.17 million.

Adding up the cost of the individual projects might come to that total, but councilors weren’t provided that information by commissioners on Tuesday. And they expressed their wish to have that information before voting on the bonds.

The list of items includes: propane conversions for vehicles in the county fleet; sealing of a parking garage top deck; purchase of some land that was declared a Superfund site by the EPA in the 1980s; refurbishment of the Alexander Memorial; voting equipment that will be deployed in the 2020 spring primaries; and a raft of other items.

One way to arrive at the $5.17 million figure is to check the statutory limit for the maximum allowable bond issuance, above which the proposal becomes what the state legislature calls a “controlled project.” This year that limit matches the amount the commissioners want the county to bond for: $5.17 million—any higher and the bond issuance would be subject to remonstrance and potential referendum.

The GO bonds were just up for a first reading Tuesday night. The vote will come at the county council’s next regular meeting, which is set for Oct. 8. That gives the councilors some time get the kind of cost details they are looking for.

During the meeting, the council’s president, Shelli Yoder, put together an ad hoc committee to look at paying cash for a few items instead of bonding for them.

Marty Hawk summed up her lack up of support for the bond by pointing to the amount, which is more than twice as much as the amount for which the county has bonded in past years: “I just think it’s over the top.”

Besides the ad hoc committee, another outcome of the back-and-forth between the council and commissioners was scheduling a special work session, before the Sept. 24 session already on the council’s schedule, for the 10 elected officials to talk about the projects on the list.

Controlled Projects

Councilor Marty Hawk was the first to express her disappointment about the lack of dollar figures for the projects. Echoing Hawk’s wish for more detail on costs was Geoff McKim. He also asked for the auditor’s office to estimate the impact of the bonds on the tax rates for different taxing districts. In addition to individual cost estimates, Kate Wiltz wanted more information about the county’s history of annual bond issuance.

On Tuesday, county attorney Jeff Cockerill sketched out a bonding history that included almost every year the issuance of general obligation bonds for $2 million. That was the previous threshold for “controlled projects.” They’re called that because a bond issuance that’s greater would be under the control of potential remonstrators, who could push the issue to a referendum.

It was HB 1043, passed in 2017 that raised the “controlled project” limit from $2 million to $5 million and added the idea of a growth quotient, so that it would get a regular, automatic increase. The odd figure for this year’s limit comes from the assessed value growth quotient applied to the new $5-million limit.

President of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, addressed the council on behalf of her two colleagues, who also attended. Thomas said she could provide a list of cost estimates—commissioners have a draft list of estimates they’ve been working from.

Alexander Memorial

Getting the specific cost estimates for individual items was only part of the concern that Hawk expressed. A general concern was the total amount of the bonds. “For years we had a $2-million bond, and now because the state says we can do a $5 million bond, we will just do a $5 million bond,” she said. Hawk said the additional levy required would hurt her district, on the west side of the county probably more than others, because many tax payers there are already at the circuit breaker limits.

Hawk said she had a cost estimate for one item on the list—a recent Herald-Times newspaper story reported that $207,000 was the estimated amount required for refurbishment of the Alexander Memorial. It’s the 35-foot tall memorial “to the soldiers of all wars” that stands at the southeast corner of the courthouse grounds.

Hawk said the county surely had $207,000 in cash it could use to pay for it the refurbishment, which she’d been pushing for “many, many years.” Having enough money to pay for that project, Hawk said, is not consistent with the language in a “Whereas” clause in the resolution authorizing issuance of the bonds:

WHEREAS, the Council finds that the County does not have sufficient funds available or provided for in the existing budgets and tax levies that may be applied to the costs of the Projects and that it is necessary to finance the entire costs of the Projects by the issuance of general obligation bonds, payable from ad valorem taxes to be levied upon all of the taxable property located in the County, in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed Five Million One Hundred Seventy Thousand Dollars ($5,170,000) and, if necessary, bond anticipation notes (the “BANs”);

After reading aloud the clause, Hawk stated, “Well, I cannot in good conscience say that is true.” She added that she’s supported bonds in the past. “But this one, I can’t. I just think it is over the top,” Hawk concluded.

Ledge Wall Quarry Land

The Alexander Memorial is built of limestone. And commissioner Julie Thomas said at Tuesday’s meeting that there were some local quarries that had expressed a willingness to donate some limestone for its renovation.

Some old quarry holes were a part of Tuesday’s agenda in two places, as “land acquisition” on the project list for the GO bonds, and as a separate item which would authorize the purchase of some land. It’s at the northwest corner of the SR-46 and I-69 interchange. The idea is to create a “destination point” that highlights the region’s limestone history.

The item that would have authorized the purchase of the land, owned by Ledge Wall Quarry, did not specify an amount, only that it was to be funded through the GO bonds. Land acquisition was an item added to the GO bonds project list during its Sept. 4 meeting by the board of commissioners, before they approved their own resolution.

Monroe County records show that it was purchased from Star Quarry by Ledge Wall Quarry on Dec. 22, 2010 for $1,466,658. The most recent valuation of the property, in March of 2019, was $221,700.

The quarry land purchase item was tabled at the start of the county council’s Tuesday meeting. But it did get some mentions later.

Objecting to the GO bonds and their use for purchase of the land, Councilor Hawk said she was not comfortable with the site’s environmental history. She remembers when Bennett’s Dump, of which the site is a part, was a “big dirty, dirty deal.”

Councilor McKim said he was “extremely supportive” of converting the land to a limestone history destination point. But given that the land purchase had been tabled, he didn’t want to discuss the matter that night.

Hawk’s remarks about the site’s environmental history were a reference to an 2017 environmental restrictive covenant on the property that recites its history as part of a area polluted with PCBs.

The Real Estate is part of an area designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the Bennett’s Dump Superfund Site (Site). In September 1984, EPA placed the Site on its National Priorities List (40 C.F.R. part 300, Appendix B) pursuant to the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) because the Site had been impacted by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In 1985, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, a predecessor to CBS Corporation (CBS), entered into a Consent Decree, as amended, with EPA, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM),Monroe County and the City of Bloomington to remediate the Site.

For the western portion of the site no restrictions apply on the use of the land.

Restrictions on the central and eastern parts of the site involve a prohibition against changes to the remediation pipes that are in place. Also prohibited is any development that affects drainage to or from the site, or changes in the water levels in the quarry holes.

Quarry Parcel Screen Shot 2019-09-10 at 3.49.59 PM
Ariel view from the south of the land being considered for a destination point that celebrates the history of the limestone industry in Monroe County. This is a screen shot from the Picotometry tool from Monroe County’s online GIS system.

Voting Machines: Elections are “just around the corner”

Drawing councilor Trent Deckard’s attention on the list of items to be funded by the GO bonds was voting equipment. He was co-director of the Indiana Election Division from 2011 to 2015 and brought that experience to bear on the idea that the council should not delay too much on their approval of the GO bonds.

cropped deckard 09-10-2019 IMG_3118
Monroe County councilor Trent Deckard at the Sept. 10 meeting of the county council. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

For the spring primaries, he said, early voting is only about 200 days away. “I know about the certification process, counties getting machines, counties training on machines, and then counties discovering the inadvertent things that have maybe gone wrong with the system.”

Councilor Eric Spoonmore asked Thomas if the commissioners had identified the voting equipment they wanted, or if it was the county clerk’s decision. Monroe County’s clerk is Nicole Browne.

Thomas first clarified that in the past the county preferred to lease election equipment because they’d get the newest version from whatever company the county was leasing. Now, companies are no longer leasing, and that means purchasing the voting equipment, Thomas said. The figure she gave as $1 million. The county election board has recommended a vendor, Thomas said. An event for viewing that vendor’s product was held recently (on Sept. 5), she said.

Thomas added, “We take what the election board recommends very seriously, but we also feel that we should do a look-see at what else is out there and see what we are missing.” Thomas said the county commissioners “are the ones who sign the contract,” so they want to have a look at all the machines that have been certified. They’ll be announcing a date for another viewing of other equipment soon, Thomas said.

Monroe County’s Election Supervisor, Karen Wheeler, told The Beacon that the vendor who demonstrated the equipment on Sept. 5 was Hart Intercivic out of Austin, Texas. As far as a preference of vendor, Wheeler deferred to the county clerk and the election board.

But Wheeler has a clear preference for the kind of system she’d like to have: “I know what I want and everyone that works with elections…we all want pen-on-paper ballots. I believe that is what Monroe County residents want, too. We are used to it, we expect it, and we believe it is the most secure way to go.”