First reading of Bloomington 2020 budget: “The two issues are police and climate change.”

At a special meeting held on Wednesday night, the Bloomington city council got a formal first reading of the half dozen ordinances that make up the 2020 budget, proposed by Mayor John Hamilton’s administration.

At their committee-of-the whole meeting, which followed on the heels of the special meeting, the council took a series of non-binding straw votes on the ordinances.

The outcome of those straw votes formed a record of their discontent.

They’re disappointed that the city and the police union have not yet reached an agreement after more than 18 months of negotiation, and they’re frustrated by the sheer volume of conflicting information about staffing levels, morale, recruitment and retention that they’ve heard from the police union and administration.

They’re also disappointed that the mayor declined to add a top-level position to manage the city’s response to climate change.

The areas of disappointment will not have surprised the administration or the watching public. Councilmembers had voiced many of the same concerns during a series of departmental budget hearings held over four days in August.

The ordinance on police and firefighter salaries got just a single vote of support—from council president Dave Rollo—with abstentions from everyone else. The salary ordinance for the other city employees was split 2–2 between yes and no votes, with three abstentions. Finally, the ordinance making appropriations and setting tax rates was split 1-1 with the rest abstaining.

Their straw votes were also a record of the council’s satisfaction with many aspects of the 2020 budget.

The ordinances on the budgets for City of Bloomington Utilities and Bloomington Transit, as well as the one for elected official salaries, both got 8–0 votes in support. (Allison Chopra was absent.)

Late in the discussion on Wednesday, councilmember Steve Volan distilled the points of controversy: “The two issues are police and climate change.”

Volan agreed with other councilmembers that the administration’s budget did not reflect the council’s concerns, which he shared, about climate change and police staffing. But he said he hoped that his colleague would offer some concrete consequence, if the administration doesn’t meet their expectations.

Under Indiana state law, the city council does not have the option to increase the budget to include a position that the administration doesn’t want to create. The council can only cut the budget. If the council really wants to see some change, Volan said, it needs to be prepared to cut some aspect of the budget to get the administration to comply. The idea of rejecting the budget wholesale he called the “nuclear option.”

Results of a quick informal survey by The Beacon of administration and councilmembers after the meeting suggest the “nuclear option” is unprecedented in Bloomington. If the proposed budget were rejected, the authorized 2019 spending levels would persist through 2020.

Here’s a summary of the straw poll votes:

Voting Table

Ordinance Sturbaum Granger Chopra Rollo Piedmont-Smith Volan Ruff Sandberg Sims
Police, Fire salaries pass pass absent yes pass pass pass pass pass
Other salaries pass no absent pass no pass pass yes yes
Elected officials salaries yes yes absent yes yes yes yes yes yes
Appropriations, tax rates pass  no  absent pass pass  pass pass  pass  yes
Utilities budget yes  yes  absent yes  yes  yes yes yes yes
Blmgtn Transit budget yes  yes  absent  yes  yes yes yes  yes  yes 

Climate action director

During his remarks to the council on Wednesday night, Mayor Hamilton pointed to the city’s sustainability action plan as providing guidance on climate change issues. He said the city has an internal working group on climate change. He also cited  a recent environmental award to the city—the 2019 Indiana Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in the Greening the Government category.

Hamilton said he agreed with the chants he’d heard outside his office last week from hundreds of climate strikers who filled city hall, about the efforts the city had made so far: “Not enough!” None of us has done enough, Hamilton said.

Creating a high-level position of director to manage the city’s response to climate change was one of the demands  that climate strikers had presented to Hamilton last week.

Alluding to the idea of creating a top level position, on Wednesday Hamilton said there might be some different views about how city government could be restructured in response to climate change. He said he was going to do what’s necessary to achieve the city’s climate change goals.

At Wednesday’s meeting, council president Dave Rollo said that he thought it was important that the city have someone whose full duty it is to to ensure that the city meets the goals in the sustainability action plan. If the responsibility is dispersed to a number of different people, he feared the goals might not be met. If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s no one’s responsibility, Rollo said.

Related to the idea of creating a director level position, councilmember Andy Ruff said he thought the already established position of innovation director could be used to make a major step towards meeting the city’s towards climate action goals. (Devta Kidd is the city’s director of innovation.)

Another demand made by climate strikers last week was for the city council and the mayor to declare a climate emergency. On hand that day were Rollo and councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who has also called for a director-level position at the city to manage climate change. They briefly batted around the idea with each other to bring forward a resolution declaring such an emergency, but Piedmont-Smith wondered, “Would it have teeth?”

Responding later to a followup query from The Beacon, she said, “I am in favor of a declaration of climate emergency, but it must include a commitment by the mayor’s administration to hire a Director of Climate Action & Sustainability (reporting directly to the mayor) and the creation, within a year, of a plan to get to net zero emissions by 2050. The strikers said 2040, but I am willing to go with 2050, which would meet the IPCC’s October 2018 recommendations.”

The idea from councilmembers of cutting leaf collection services and using it to fund a director of climate action or police salary increases was reigned in by the city’s controller, Jeff Underwood, who explained that the money in that public works fund couldn’t be spent on some unrelated purpose.

The idea of converting the golf course to some other, more sustainable use, got pushback from councilmember Jim Sims, who was chairing the committee meeting. “I am a golfer!” he said, adding, “Don’t make me a bad person!” Sims counseled moderation in the council’s approach.

Police Contract

The current police contract ran from 2015 to 2018, and expired on Dec. 31, 2018. Officers have been working under an “evergreen clause” that goes through the end of 2019.

Union officials have appeared at a couple of recent city council meetings to make their case to the council, and the chambers have been filled with supporters. On Wednesday, some firefighters were among those in attendance, out of solidarity with the police officers. Paul Post, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, and other union officials, addressed the council on Wednesday as they had on earlier occasions.

A recent statement to The Beacon from city attorney Mike Rouker, a member of city’s bargaining team, crystallized some of the key issues about which there’s disagreement: appropriate staffing levels; metrics of comparison for compensation; and whether there’s current an inappropriately high attrition rate or difficulty in recruiting officers.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, some details emerged about the process of the negotiations, which have lasted more than a year and half so far. The two sides have exchanged eight proposals, each with a counterproposal, for a total of 16 proposals.

At one point during the negotiations, Mayor Hamilton said, the two sides were within a five-figure dollar amount of an agreement on the multi-million-dollar contract. Based on the ballpark figures the city’s deputy mayor, Mick Renneisen, gave The Beacon, the two sides had about 97 percent agreement on the amount of the annual raise officers should get.

Standing at the speaker’s podium on Wednesday, the city’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie, said the city made the last proposal, which the union voted down. For the city to make another offer now would mean negotiating against itself, she said, so the ball was in the union’s court to make a new proposal. Post told The Beacon that the union has not yet heard a response from the city about holding a next meeting.

Councilmembers expressed frustration at the amount of conflicting information they’d received from the two sides. Councilmember Andy Ruff said he did not have the expertise to evaluate it. So he supported the idea that councilmember Susan Sandberg had floated—for the city to hire a consultant to evaluate appropriate staffing levels for sworn officers in Bloomington’s police department.

Guthrie responded to the idea of hiring a consultant at this point in the negotiations by saying it was late in the game to contemplate that approach.

Next Steps

The council’s vote on the 2020 budget is scheduled for Oct. 10. That’s a Thursday, which is not the council’s usual meeting day. But it’s the usual time and location: Council chambers in city hall at 6:30 p.m.