Monroe County’s council loads legislative gun, levels it at food-and-beverage tax as prelude to Wednesday’s convention center negotiations

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Monroe County’s council on Dec. 10, 2019. From left: Cheryl Munson, Peter Iversen, Trent Deckard, Eric Spoonmore, Kate Wiltz, Geoff McKim, and Marty Hawk. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

[Update at 1:18 p.m. Dec. 11, 2019: This piece has been updated at the end to include action from Wednesday morning]

At their Tuesday night meeting, Monroe County councilors helped set the stage for Wednesday morning’s negotiations between county commissioners and Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, about the governance of the convention center expansion project.

Will it be a statutorily-enabled capital improvement board (CIB) or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that decides the site plan, acts as the architect’s client, and eventually owns the facility?

The county council’s stage-setting work included approval of a resolution that expresses the council’s support for the CIB option, with a 3-3-1 split of appointments between the city and the county on the seven-member board. The county and city would get three appointment apiece, with the seventh member appointed by the first six.

But on Tuesday, the county council also set in motion what had previously been more or less an implicit threat: If the county commissioners cannot agree on a governance model and put it in place to implement the $59 million project, the county council will exercise its power to sunset the food and beverage tax. The county council enacted the tax two years ago on a 4–3 vote.

Two alternatives were given a first reading on Tuesday to sunset the tax. No votes were taken. [Ordinance A] [Ordinance B]

The project has been stalled since late May, when a nine-member steering committee wrapped up a public engagement process that ended with a recommendation for a northward expansion. In addition to the ongoing dispute about the project’s governance, county officials don’t agree with the site plan recommendation. They still want an eastward expansion to be considered.

Two alternative ordinances were added to Tuesday’s agenda at the request of councilor Cheryl Munson. The “soft” ordinance, Munson said, would trigger a sunsetting of the tax, if the city moved ahead on any of the decisions related to the convention center expansion in an unilateral way, before a governance model has been adopted.

The “hard” ordinance would set Feb. 28, 2020 as a date for the sunsetting of the food and beverage tax, unless the county council takes action to continue collection of the tax. That continuation would, presumably, be prompted by agreement by the city and the county to a governance model for the expansion project.

No vote was taken Tuesday night. Under the county council’s rules, for an ordinance to be adopted the same night when it’s introduced, it needs majority support on the council, and the unanimous support of those present.

Councilor Geoff McKim effectively ended speculation about the question of unanimity by stating the vote would not be unanimous. McKim would not support either ordinance, if the vote were taken that night.

McKim’s was the sole dissenting vote on the amendment of the agenda to allow the ordinances to be considered Tuesday night. He wanted to see what would happen the following day during the scheduled negotiations.

Munson said she wanted to get the ordinances introduced so that if they needed to be considered at a subsequent meeting, they would not need unanimous support. (The county council’s Tuesday meeting was continued until Thursday morning, and when it resumes it will count as the same meeting. So if a vote were taken Thursday, it would still need to be unanimous in order to pass.)

Up and down the dais on Tuesday night, councilors expressed a lot of optimism that the following day’s negotiations would yield significant progress on the governance question.

And based on last Friday’s meeting of the county commission and county council, which was attended by city council member Steve Volan and deputy mayor Mick Renneisen, decision makers think a deal is doable by the end of the year.

Why threaten to sunset the tax?

So what led county councilors on Tuesday night to start considering ordinances to sunset the tax? That can be traced to events of Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning, a funding request from Bloomington for about $6 million was given a favorable recommendation by the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC). The FBTAC is a seven-member group that includes the mayor, a city councilmember (Steve Volan), two county government representatives (commissioner Julie Thomas and councilor Cheryl Munson), and three merchants who are collectors of the tax.

The FBTAC’s Tuesday approval sets up Bloomington’s city council at its regular Wednesday meeting to consider an appropriation ordinance that will tap some food and beverage tax money, which will go towards the architect’s fees for the convention center expansion project.

But the vote on the FBTAC—which under state statute has to approve requests from the city council for use of the tax money—was just 5–2. The two dissenting votes belonged to the county’s representatives on the FBTAC, Thomas and Munson.

The reason for their dissent was a failed motion that preceded the successful 5–2 vote. The failed motion would have made the FBTAC’s recommendation “contingent upon a mutually-negotiated and agreed upon, written contract or agreement between the City and the County, evidencing their mutual support for the expense.”

Mayor Hamilton, who sits as a member of the FBTAC saw that condition as unnecessary and not a part of the FBTAC’s role  to intercede in the relationship between the city and the county.

Hamilton pointed out that the funding request that was in front of the FBTAC on Tuesday morning had been postponed from the previous week, in order to give the Bloomington city council  a chance to pass a resolution to provide a technical fix to the funding request. That fix had been made, which removed the sole obstacle to the FBTAC’s recommendation, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said several times he was looking forward to the following morning’s “multifaceted” negotiations with the county commissioners. They’re scheduled for 11 a.m. after the regular meeting of the commissioners.

County officials wanted the “mutually-negotiated and agreed upon” language as a condition on the FBTAC’s recommendation, in order to guard against unilateral action by the city to contract with the architect on the next phase of the project.

Convergence Design was the selected architect for the initial phase of the project, which produced preliminary site plan alternatives in late May. And Convergence will be the architect for the project’s next phase as well, even though no contract for that work is yet in place. It was the city of Bloomington that initially contracted with Convergence.

On Tuesday morning, during public commentary given to the FBTAC, county commissioner Lee Jones said gave some background on the reason the county was worried about the possibility that Mayor Hamilton would go ahead with a unilateral contract with the architect. Two years ago, at the time the food and beverage tax was being debated, Hamilton had talked about the convention center expansion being a joint project, Jones said.

Here’s one example of that, from the transcript of the Dec. 13, 2017 county council meeting:

(Hamilton): Well first, I’d say it’s something we’d expect to work with you on. This is not just a city project; this is a joint project.

But for one of the first significant steps of the project, Hamilton had pursued a unilateral contract with the architect, Jones said.

Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie, later took the public podium on Tuesday to rebut Jones’s remark. Guthrie pointed out that the initial contracting with the architect had been spelled out in a memorandum of understanding between the city and the county as a city responsibility. From the MOU:

Section 7 City and County Responsibilities

The City will be responsible for the following:
1. Contracting and the payment for appropriate expense for the Architect.
2. Providing list of stakeholders and other relevant entities that should provide input during the design phase of the Project.

The County will be responsible for the following:
1. Provide list of stakeholders and other relevant entities that should provide input during the design phase of the Project.
2. Proving Staff for the Steering Committee.

The three merchant representatives to the FBTAC agreed with Hamilton’s position on the conditional recommendation. Lennie Busch (One World Enterprises), Tony Suttile, (Fourwinds Lakeside Inn & Marina), and Susan Bright (Nick’s) didn’t want to get drawn into the city-county dispute.

City councilmember Steve Volan, who’s served over the last several days as a kind of de facto mediator between the mayor and county officials, said he would be adding the requested condition, forcing all future decisions to be bilateral, to the city council’s appropriation ordinance to be considered Wednesday night.

Volan said he would abstain from the vote on the FBTAC’s conditioned recommendation, in order to convey to both sides that he is eager to work with both of them to reach some kind of agreement. So the vote on the conditioned recommendation was 2–4–1, with support only from Thomas and Munson.

Without the guarantee provided by a conditioned FBTAC approval, Munson was prompted to put the two sunsetting resolutions in front of the county council, she said. Munson told The Beacon after Tuesday night’s meeting, that the sunsetting ordinances would not have been necessary, if the FBTAC had approved the funding recommendation with the condition the county wanted.

Now, county councilors will be watching the city council on Wednesday night. They want the city council to adopt the kind of amendment for its appropriation ordinance that the FBTAC declined to make on Tuesday morning. And county councillors will be watching for signs of progress on Wednesday morning in the negotiations between the mayor and county commissioners.

The commissioners heard a first reading of an ordinance to establish a CIB at its Dec. 4 meeting.

Referring to the sheaf of documents making up the two sunsetting ordinances, Trent Deckard said he thought there were options that would “put these papers in a very healthy Monroe County recycling bin.”

Updated at 1:18 p.m. Dec. 11, 2019: At a meeting that got started around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Blooomington’s mayor, John Hamilton presented county officials with a document that begins, “The City continues to support consideration of two choices for a governance body; however,we would accept a Capital Improvement Board with the following elements: …” [Dec. 11, 2019 city CIB proposal]

The resulting discussion did not reveal any deal-breaking points among the elements, and the mood in the room by the end was cheerful. A next meeting is to start hammering out the interlocal agreement based on the bullet points is set for Thursday, Dec. 19.