Monroe County commissioners want convention center deal done sooner than end of year, Bloomington city council OKs revised food and beverage tax request

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Monroe County commissioners at their Dec. 4, 2019 meeting. From left: Lee Jones, Julie Thomas, Penny Githens. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Some increased pressure on Monroe County’s board of commissioners and Bloomington’s mayor generated some activity on Wednesday, if not progress, on the question of the stalled convention center expansion project.

In a week, it likely will be easier to tell how much of the activity counts as progress.

Late last week, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, and county elected officials started an extra push for a speedier resolution to the disagreements between the city and the county that have stalled the project since late May.

Part of Hamilton’s push included relenting on the question of equal representation for governance of the expansion project. Hamilton committed in writing to equal appointments by the city and county.

Hamilton’s effort can be analyzed as at least two-pronged.

Appropriation Ordinance

First, Hamilton initiated an appropriation ordinance, which taps $6 million of food and beverage tax funds, for the city council’s consideration at its Wednesday meeting. The money would go to pay architect fees for the planned expansion of the convention center. The expansion would include a new 30,000-square foot exhibit hall, to be located either north or east of the current facility at the corner of College Avenue and 3rd Street. The increased amount, which is tied to 5–10 percent of the estimated $59 million construction cost.

The appropriation ordinance served to highlight a procedural dispute between the county and the city—about how the city council is required under the state statue to request a recommendation from the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC).

That disagreement was solved at the city council’s Wednesday meeting through a resolution approved by the council, which replaced a general “standing request” of the FBTAC with a specific one that included a dollar amount.

The council also accommodated a request from county elected officials who attended the city council meeting, to amend the resolution with an explicit statement of intent—that the funds would not be expended until a design contract had been assigned and accepted by a governing entity for the project that was agreed upon by the city and the county.

Given a first reading at Wednesday’s city council meeting, the appropriation ordinance was postponed until Dec. 11, the council’s next meeting. The impact of postponement was moot, because no further action on a first-reading was required in any case. But the explicit postponement gave county officials some assurance that no action would take place until Dec. 11.

That date sets part of the time frame for expected progress on the project. County officials want to have a project governance agreement with the city completed by the time the appropriation ordinance is approved.

Agreement on Project Governance

In the amendment to the city council’s resolution on the request to the FBTAC, the mention of project governance related to the second part of Hamilton’s effort to generate some progress. He floated the idea of Dec. 31 as a deadline for resolving governance issues for the project.

What legal entity will make the final decision on the basic site plan, serve as the architect’s client and eventually own the expanded facility?

In a Tuesday letter to county elected officials, Hamilton said he wanted to get the question of project governance settled—capital improvement board (CIB) versus a non-profit organization—and an interlocal agreement signed by the end of the year. He allowed for the possibility of extending that deadline.

On Wednesday morning, Monroe County commissioners upped Hamilton’s ante of a year-end goal for an agreement, by reading aloud a statement at their regular meeting that says they want an agreement signed by noon Friday. The oral statement was followed by a formal letter. The county council and the county commissioners have a joint meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday.

After the city council revised its resolution during its Wednesday meeting to assure county commissioners that the funds would not be expended unilaterally by the city, Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie sought to get a concession from county commissioners. Guthrie wanted them to relax their Friday noon deadline.

President of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, said at the meeting they couldn’t make a new policy decision on the spot because they had not noticed a meeting of the commissioners to the public as would have been required under Indiana’s Open Door Law. But Thomas thanked Guthrie for the suggestion and said she and the other commissioners would take it under advisement.

Thomas told the city council during the meeting, “Thank you, we appreciate your cooperation and your assistance and your negotiation skills and we’re happy with this and we look forward to the next chapter.” After the council’s action, Thomas told The Beacon that the Friday noon deadline was “not an ultimatum.”

The Friday meeting of county electeds appeared initially to have been scheduled to raise the specter of enforcement of a Friday deadline through repeal of the food and beverage tax, which it enacted on a 4–3 vote in December 2017. Just two of the councilors who voted for the tax remain on the council. One of the votes against it, Lee Jones, now serves as one of three county commissioners.

Current county council president Eric Spoonmore voted against the tax in 2017. He’s told The Beacon he is not eager to re-visit the question of the tax itself. But he thinks it needs to be considered as a possibility, if that’s what it takes to push the project forward.

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s action by the city council, Spoonmore took the podium to thank the city council: “Just, thank you all so much for your patience and your collaboration and your cooperation and your willingness to understand the concerns. We really do appreciate it, thank you so much.”

The county council’s Friday session will be a continuation of a meeting that it recessed on Tuesday night, which started after a meeting of the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC).

As part of their response to Hamilton’s Tuesday letter, at their Wednesday morning meeting county commissioners underscored their preference for a CIB as the governing entity of the expansion. It’s the commissioners who have the statutory power to create a CIB.

At their meeting they heard a first reading of an ordinance that would establish a CIB.  No vote was taken. The draft CIB ordinance would include three appointments apiece for the county commission and the city council, with the seventh member to be recommended by the initial six, subject to confirmation by the county commission and the city council.

The first reading of was a step that went too far for a couple of city councilmembers on Wednesday—like Chris Sturbaum, who told county commissioners, “Suddenly your position is CIB or nothing!”

As a part of his Tuesday letter, Hamilton agreed to equal representation on either a CIB or a non-profit organization, without committing to one of those governance types. The city has a stated preference for a non-profit model.

The question of governance remains as a hurdle to be cleared.

What’s Next?

The timeframe for the next step appears now tied more closely to the next meeting of the FBTAC, on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 9 a.m, than it is to Friday at noon.

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, it was councilmember Steve Volan who introduced and explained the new resolution on requesting funds from the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC). Volan is the city council’s representative to the FBTAC. Duties for chairing the previous day’s FBTAC meeting, on Tuesday, had fallen to Volan, because the previous chair, Shelli Yoder resigned from the county council and was no longer a member of FBTAC.

The new requesting resolution arose out of the FBTAC’s 5–2 vote on Tuesday to postpone the city’s request for an additional $2.35 million of tax money to go with the $4 million that FBTAC approved in January of this year. That vote was based on a couple of factors. One was that it gave time for the city council to patch the procedural disagreement between city and county legal staff through the resolution that the council approved on Wednesday.

Another argument for postponement was the lack of any decision on project governance.

While county commissioners had hoped through their Friday noon deadline to get a decision on project governance by week’s end, Volan said at Wednesday’s city council meeting that he felt next Monday was a more realistic target, and he anticipated working with county colleagues over the weekend.

City staff reminded the city council that Mayor Hamilton was currently away and would not return over the weekend. Volan said that he felt it would necessary for the council and city administration to work through the issues even in the mayor’s absence.

Here’s how events appear to be cued up, starting with some that have already taken place.

Potential Convention Center Expansion Timeline

  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners give a response to Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s Dec. 3 letter committing to equal representation. [Link to: Statement read aloud by commissioners at Wednesday’s regular meeting. Link to: Formal Dec. 4 Letter]
  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. A first reading for an ordinance to create a capital improvement board was given. No vote was taken. [Link to: Ordinance introduced at first reading at Wednesday’s regular meeting.]
  • Wednesday (Dec. 4) evening. Bloomington City Council. An appropriation ordinance is given first reading, but immediately postponed to Dec. 11. A resolution is passed making a specific dollar-amount request of the FBTAC for a recommendation on food and beverage expenditures. [Link to: City Council’s Dec. 4 resolution with request to FBTAC]
  • Wednesday–Friday (Dec. 4–6). Mayor of Bloomington. Response to commissioners? This now appears somewhat unlikely given the revelation on Wednesday that Hamilton is away for this time period. [Update Dec. 5 9:57 p.m.: The Beacon’s assessment was wrong. Link to: Hamilton and Rollo’s Dec. 5 letter to all parties  Link to: City staff’s Dec. 5 memo to mayor]
  • Friday (Dec. 6) afternoon. Monroe County Council and County Commissioners. Response to mayor  with more deadlines or expressions of intent? Part of the mix for the county council could be a draft resolution expressing support for a CIB on which it’s never acted.
  • Tuesday (Dec. 10) morning. Food and Beverage Tax Advisory Commission. The FBTA will consider the city council’s new resolution that makes a request, and will likely approve a recommendation for a total $6 million expenditure for architectural fees.
  • Wednesday (Dec. 11) morning. Monroe County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners could act on a CIB ordinance or some interlocal agreement on governance. Final action on a CIB would be unlikely unless it’s clear that the action has support from the city’s side.
  • Wednesday (Dec. 11) evening. Bloomington City Council. The council could approve the appropriation ordinance for a total of $6 million in food and beverage tax money.