$2.2M in food and beverage tax money now queued up for Bloomington, Monroe County COVID-19 economic relief, pending guidance from state’s board of accounts

FABTAC Screen Shot 2020-03-27 at 5.31.15 PM
Screen grab of the March 27, 2020 meeting of the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FABTAC), which was conducted on the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

At its Friday afternoon meeting, the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FABTAC) unanimously approved a request to use $2 million in already-collected tax money to assist businesses inside the city of Bloomington that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The request came from Bloomington’s city council, which voted unanimously on Wednesday to make the request of the FABTAC.

Friday’s vote by the FABTAC concludes, for now, its role in the effort to use proceeds of the 1-percent tax to provide economic support to businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Previously, the FABTAC had approved a request from Monroe County commissioners to use $200,000 of the county’s share of the money to assist businesses outside the city of Bloomington.

Details on the distribution of the money will now be sorted out by the city and the county for their respective shares.

For the city council, the next step on the eventual distribution of funds is a meeting next Wednesday, April 1, to give a first reading to an appropriation ordinance. Some additional details on the county’s approach could come at the regular meeting of the commissioners next Wednesday.

The FABTAC could be called on for additional action, if either Bloomington or Monroe County decide to tap additional food and beverage tax money that has already been collected but not yet expended. The total amount in that category is around $5.7 million. Of that, Bloomington’s share is around $5 million.

The money has accumulated from the 1-percent tax that was enacted in late 2017 and began collection in early 2018. It was enacted in order “to finance, refinance, construct, operate, or maintain a convention center, a conference center, or related tourism or economic development projects.”

The convention center expansion has been stalled for nearly a year due to disagreements between the Bloomington and Monroe County. It’s the “related tourism or economic development projects” that city and county officials think qualify the funds for the currently planned use—economic relief of businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s some possibly lingering doubt about whether the funds can be expended in the way that Bloomington and Monroe County want.

At Friday’s FABTAC meeting, Bloomington’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie said there was ongoing conversation between local officials and Indiana’s State Board of Accounts (SBOA) on the allowable-use question. But Bloomington is assuming that the word it receives Monday will be confirmation that the use is allowable.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill said that SBOA was reviewing the proposed use again—he’d gotten a previous indication the SBOA agreed the use was OK. He had no indication that SBOA would now say the food and beverage tax money we can’t be used for COVID-19 economic relief, but thought some guidance would be provided on Monday.

Action by city and county officials has come in response to an online petition authored by Switchyard Brewing Company’s Kurtis Cummings, calling for the use of already accumulated food and beverage tax revenue to go towards relief of small independent Monroe County businesses. The petition suggests that support could come in the form of grants or zero-interest loans.

It’s not yet clear which businesses would be eligible for county and city support, or what form the support would take.

On Friday, FABTAC member Susan Bright, owner of Nick’s, pitched the idea that while all business should be considered fairly, restaurants should be considered in a separate category. That’s because their business relies on buying perishable goods. Selling those goods requires being creative with those perishables and putting them on a plate, she said.

Nick’s buys about $77,000 in perishables every month, Bright said. Because of the loss of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bright said she’s given away or thrown away around $10,000 worth of perishables.

Bright and Lennie Busch, co-owner of One World Enterprises, recused themselves from FABTAC’s Friday vote, because their businesses are inside the Bloomington city limits, and they could benefit from the eventual distribution of the funds.

FABTAC member Tony Suttile, of Fourwinds Lakeside Inn & Marina, participated in Friday’s vote, because his business is outside Bloomington city limits. Suttile did not attend Tuesday’s FABTAC meeting, but presumably would have needed to recuse himself from the vote on the county’s proposal.

The scale of the pandemic continues to increase in the state of Indiana. On Friday morning (March 27) ,the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indiana had doubled in the last two days, from 477 on March 25 to 981 on March 27, including 8 in Monroe County. The disease so far has claimed 24 lives in the state.

Restaurants are now shut down for dine-in service under an order issued by the governor on March 16. Initial unemployment claims in Monroe county last week totaled 934, more than twice the peak number filed in any week since 2008, including that year’s economic downturn.

R-OUT Unemployment Initial Claims Monroe County 2008-2020