Joint city-county convention center meeting: Financial analysis predicts smooth sailing, procedural pitch-and-yaw scuttles key agenda topic

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A second joint meeting of city and county elected officials about the planned convention center expansion was held on Tuesday night, this time at the county courthouse. The first such meeting was held a month and a half ago, at the existing convention center.

For roughly the first hour and a half of Tuesday’s meeting, the group’s focus was on the planned funding sources for the convention center expansion (food and beverage tax) and its related parking garage (TIF revenue).

The overall consensus of the group was: The presentation showed the food and beverage tax would generate sufficient revenue to pay for a 30,000-square-foot project, estimated to cost around $44 million. Previous questions about the adequacy of the city’s TIF district to pay for an expanded center’s separate 550-space parking garage got positive answers.

When the discussion of finances was concluded, Geoff McKim said about the city’s presentation, “It really was absolutely spot-on…all these questions—asked and answered.”

But the meeting concluded without a focused discussion about the third agenda topic, which was the formation of a capital improvement board. The unanswered questions indicated on the agenda were: When should a CIB be created? Which properties should the CIB own? Which units of government should make appointments to the CIB?

It’s possible the topic could surface again, at the next meeting of the city and county councils, plus the mayor and the board of county commissioners. It was tentatively scheduled for Nov. 21.

Scheduled for the Nov. 12 regular meeting of the county council is a presentation by county legal staff about CIBs.

CIB vs. Steering Committee

Some additional questions about CIBs are crucial, even if they were not printed on the Tuesday agenda: Should it be a CIB or a nine-member steering committee that is given the authority to move the project forward to a final design and construction phase? By how much would the project’s timeline be extended if a CIB were created to handle design and construction?

Whatever entity moves it forward, from the time a site plan settled, there’s probably about a three year timeline until a ribbon cutting, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen told The Beacon on Thursday.

The three county commissioners think it should be a CIB that moves the project forward. The city administration thinks it should be the nine-member steering committee.

For the steering committee to continue the work, it would need the agreement of the county commissioners. They take the position that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) defining the committee’s scope doesn’t cover any additional work.

The nine-member steering committee was established in an October 2018 MOU between Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, and the county’s board of commissioners. The committee moved the project through selection of an architect, public engagement and preliminary site plan.

The committee voted at a public meeting on May 23 of this year to recommend an new configuration that expands to the north of the existing facility, which sits at 3rd Street and College Avenue.

CIBs made it into the Tuesday meeting wrap-up—which was an around-the-table thumbs-up-thumbs down opinion from each person on three items: encouragement for the steering committee to reconvene; to move forward with the northward expansion site plan, which was already recommended by the committee; encourage the mayor and board of commissioners to pursue the CIB governance question.

If opinions were counted the tally would show most, but not all, of the officials around the table in agreement with those ideas.

President of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, offered “no comment” on the exercise. She stated at the meeting her previous position, which was that a CIB should be the vehicle that drives the project forward from this point.

What is Bloomington’s position on a CIB?

Based on followup interviews by The Beacon, the city administration sees the formation of a CIB as relatively complex, potentially taking as long as a year, and coming possibly only after a building corporation is created, to hold the land and the bonds. That’s why the city doesn’t think it’s feasible to first establish a CIB, and only then continue with the project.

According to deputy mayor Mick Renneisen, county and city legal staff have already been working on the issue of creating a CIB and its proper sequencing with the creation of a building corporation. They have a standing weekly phone meeting.

One key challenge, Renneisen said, is the appointments to the seven-member board. Under the state statute, it’s the county commissioners who have the power to establish the board and decide which “which units within the county shall make appointments to the board.” An added wrinkle is that no more than four members can be of the same political party.

On the county’s side, attorney Margie Rice said forming a CIB might look legislatively simple—it’s an ordinance passed by county commissioners. But the work that goes into deciding the details of the ordinance is challenging, she said.

In July, the county commissioners released a public memo to other elected officials pitching the idea of moving the convention center forward with a CIB. According to Renneisen, it was two years ago when Mayor Hamilton mentioned the idea of forming a CIB—so the potential utility of that governance structure is recognized by the city.

It’s just that a CIB is not necessary for moving the project ahead to design and construction, Renneisen told The Beacon.

Change of Meeting Course: Add presentations

Hamilton had occasion at Tuesday’s meeting to state his preference for moving ahead with the steering committee for design and construction “in parallel” with the work on forming a CIB.

But the chance to draw into public view a more detailed understanding of administration’s perspective on a CIB—its role and why it would take a long while to create one—began to sink from view at Tuesday’s meeting about 25 minutes before scheduled adjournment.

The meeting departed from the published agenda when city councilmember Dave Rollo got enough consensus from the group to allow two members of the steering committee—Jim Murphy and Val Peña—to talk for 15 minutes about the project.

Rollo didn’t say at the meeting on Tuesday that he’d tried without success to have the steering committee presentations added, when he was working with Yoder and county staff to build the agenda. Yoder told The Beacon she and Rollo had met twice in person on the topic. “We worked closely to create the agenda. I appreciated his hard work very much,” she said.

County commissioner Lee Jones told The Beacon on Wednesday she saw the change to the agenda in the middle of the meeting as unusual—typically the proposal to change the agenda would come at the start of the meeting. County councilor Eric Spoonmore echoed that sentiment. He said he abstained from the voice vote that was taken to alter the agenda.

Spoonmore said, “What I regret most is that there were two topics that we didn’t get to touch on.” The material covered by Murphy and Peña had been heard several times over the last four to five months, he said.

Asked by the Beacon about the possible benefit to the public, who might not have heard Murphy’s history of the project or Peña’s description of how downtown parcels can be connected, Spoonmore said it was a fair point. But typically the agenda change is done at the start, “so that you can adjust your time going forward,” Spoonmore said.

Asked by The Beacon why he waited until the middle of the meeting, Rollo said, “The reason I waited was to keep cognizant of the time. I wanted to see if we could get through the financing—arguably the most important part—before adding more to the agenda.”

It meant the other two major agenda items would get a total of maybe 20 minutes, if the meeting was to adjourn by the planned time of 8:30 p.m. About the time press that created for the other two agenda items, Rollo said, “It was a tough call.”

Second Deviation from Course: A call for a vote

If Murphy and Peña’s presentations were a slight detour from the agenda’s roadmap, what came next was a significant change of course. County councilor Shelli Yoder, who was chairing the meeting, indicated some uncertainty about how to continue after the detour of the committee presentations.

As Yoder paused, city councilmember Chris Sturbaum, who’s a member of the nine-member steering committee, said he wanted the David Greusel, with the project’s architect firm, Convergence Design, to give a presentation. As Sturbaum pointed out, the content of an architect’s presentation would be consistent with the next scheduled item on the agenda: “Rough Site Plan, Location of Project Components.”

It’s not clear how that item on the agenda would have been handled, absent Sturbaum’s pitch. But it was Sturbaum’s comment about what should come after the architect’s presentation that eventually plunged the conversation into deep procedural waters: “I think then we could move on very quickly to a possible motion…”

After some others had spoken, Steve Volan appeared to pick up on Sturbaum’s implication—with the word “motion”—that Sturbaum wanted the group to take a vote on something: “Are we being asked to vote on something tonight, madam chair?”

Sturbaum interjected, “Yes!” but Yoder said, “I didn’t realize we had any [votes].” Volan said he was fine with hearing from the architects. “However, I did not expect to vote on anything tonight,” Volan said.

The group managed to agree in a couple minutes that Greusel should give a 5-minute presentation. After Greusel finished, he answered questions from elected officials. When that wrapped up, city councilmember Susan Sandberg praised the work of the steering committee and said, “If any votes are to be taken tonight I would vote to put it back in the hands of the nine-member steering committee …”

Not long after that, Sturbaum made a statement in the form of a motion: “I move that we re-engage the steering committee and affirm the recommendation of the community and the steering committee with the northern site. If we don’t keep moving, this is going to stop. We have to move and that is my motion. Do I have a second?” Councilmember Jim Sims said, “Second.”

The gambit to hold a vote was fraught with procedural flaws on which it eventually foundered, leading Sturbaum to withdraw it around 25 minutes later. Several people spoke against the idea of voting on anything for which no vote had been planned. County councilor Marty Hawk said, “Anybody who feels like they’re getting caught up in being forced to make a decision they weren’t prepared to make, that doesn’t make good relations for us.”

City councilmember Steve Volan said that a future third meeting would be the appropriate place “to make motions, to prepare them, to have them on the agenda so that they could be in the packet. Normally, our council is very careful about having everything in the packet, everything ready and written out.”

Aside from the objections based on proper preparation, Sturbaum’s attempt to have a vote was problematic in other ways.  It’s only the two parties to the MOU—the mayor and the commissioners—who can have an effect on the steering committee’s status. That was a point made to the group by county attorney Margie Rice. So Sturbaum inserted “recommend” as way to address that issue.

A different issue was identified for the group by city council attorney/administrator Dan Sherman. A vote among the city councilmembers present, when tallied among them, would pass or fail based on a five-vote majority on the nine-member council, Sherman said.

Based on their comments throughout the meeting, Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith could have been analyzed as possible No votes among the six councilmembers who attended. A 4–2 vote on Sturbaum’s motion would have counted as a failed motion of the council.

When Sturbaum abandoned the motion, Sherman suggested that an alternative would be to go around the room and have people give a brief indication of how they felt about the issue. That’s how the meeting wrapped up.