From police, to parking, to public works, to bidets: Bloomington 2021 budget Q&A flush with facts

Late August marked the conclusion of a four-night series of city council hearings on Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s proposed 2021 budget. Shortly after that, councilmembers submitted written questions to city staff.

In the second week of September, staff responses to councilmember questions were posted in a Q&A document on the city’s budget web page.

Whether the concerns expressed in the written questions or during the budget hearings will result in changes to the budget won’t be known for sure until the final budget is presented to the city council on Sept. 30.

A vote to adopt Bloomington’s city budget is set for Oct. 14.

Several of the written questions related to the police department staffing and policies.

Among the facts drawn out by questions from councilmember Matt Flaherty was the geographic distribution of sworn officers. Just 15 percent of sworn officers live inside Bloomington city limits. Another 60 percent live outside the city but inside Monroe County boundaries. The remaining 25 percent live outside Monroe County.

Among the retention numbers included in written responses was this fact: About 59 percent of sworn officers employed by the department in 2015 were still serving in 2020.

The changes to shift length that were recommended for consideration in a recent consultant’s study would be subject to collective bargaining, which means any of those changes would have to wait a couple of year at least.

The mayor’s proposed budget reduces the number of budgeted sworn officers from 105 to 100 and swaps in two social workers, two neighborhood resource specialists and a data analyst. The department currently has just 95 sworn officers, which means five more would need to be hired to reach the authorized level, even if it’s reduced to 100.

Based on the proposed reduction in sworn officers, and the interest expressed by councilmembers during the departmental hearings, a large number of written questions about the police department could have been predicted.

Not necessarily predictable was a written question from city council president Steve Volan, who wanted to know what the impact would be on the wastewater treatment system, if all Bloomington residents stopped using toilet paper and adopted bidets instead. The effect would be “a small increase in metered water usage.” The staff response concludes: “Overall, the impacts would be small.”

Several of the questions from councilmembers focused on issues of organizational structure.

Part of the budget proposal includes a reshuffling involving several departments—planning and transportation, public works, the police department, and a new engineering department. Parking enforcement would move out of the police department into the parking services division of public works. The city engineer would move out of planning and transportation and head up a new engineering department.  The city engineer is a mayoral appointment under state law.

Questions about that re-shuffling centered on the impact of the reorganization on transportation policy and the control of the alternative transportation budget.

Volan prefaced a question with a potential problem he identified: “I see a new and problematic fragmentation of authority over transportation policy. The people who should have the last word on determining it (besides the mayor) should be planners—not economic-development officials, not public-works officials, not engineers.”

Volan’s question: “…[Why should we] support this significant erosion of authority of the Planning and Transportation Department?”

The administration’s response did not accept the premise of the question: “The suggestion that there is any ‘erosion of authority’ in the placement of a position in a department assumes that each department is autonomous and only provides input and expertise on a narrow focus related to the name of that department. The administration does not view any of our departments as silos.”

Another question from Volan was in a similar vein: “What’s to stop Engineering from overriding [Planning and Transportation] on transportation policy, as they used to when they were under the aegis of Public Works?”

The administration’s answer again identified a premise that it did not accept: “This question appears to assume that an Engineering Director would not follow the City’s goals and plans for multimodal transportation infrastructure, but that a Planning & Transportation Director would. This is an incorrect assumption.”

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith asked how decisions on expenditures out of the alternative transportation fund will be made, given that the fund is moving to the domain of the new engineering department, but the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator will stay in the planning and transportation department.

The administration’s answer started with a description of how things currently work: “Engineering Services staff currently administers these funds and coordinates with Planning Services staff. Engineering staff makes decisions on issuing bids and awarding contracts through the Board of Public Works. This allows them to allocate staff resources accordingly and to manage all project funding sources…”

That same team approach would continue even after engineering is its own separate department, according to the administration.

Another organizational issue identified in councilmember questions focused on the single new position proposed in the 2021 budget—one for transportation demand management. The questions centered not on whether the position should be created, but rather on which department would house it.

The 2021 budget proposal puts the new TDM position in the economic and sustainable development department. That’s a controversial choice for some councilmembers, because a transportation demand management program plan, delivered by a consultant earlier this year, recommends that the position be housed in either the public works department or the planning and transportation department.

The consultant for the TDM program plan was Wells + Associates. The initial contract was for  $97,950 and it was subsequently amended for $9,625, a total of $107,575.

A question from Volan about putting the TDM employee in the economic and sustainability department, instead of in planning and transportation, was prefaced with his view on the topic: “I have strong misgivings about this move. The position literally has the word ‘Transportation’ in its title, as does our planning department, for a reason.” Volan’s question: “How can you justify it not being in [planning and transportation]?”

The administration’s response reads in part: “[T]he primary activities of the TDM effort for the foreseeable future include promotion and communications, including outreach to employers and residents. This type of activity is solidly within [economic and sustainable development’s] existing strengths, including the department’s focus on sustainability engagement with the public and employer relationships.”

Responding to a similar question from councilmembers Kate Rosenbarger and Matt Flaherty, the administration’s answer expanded on the idea of employer relationships: “[Economic and sustainable development’s] role goes well beyond just employer/employee relationships. The department’s efforts reach across the spectrum of Bloomington residents, including its very substantial sustainability efforts. Unlike many other cities, Bloomington has a progressive organizational structure in combining sustainability, business relations and the arts under a unified effort.”

Bloomington’s city council typical budget process does not include voting on amendments to the administration’s proposal and returning the document to the administration with the amendments it wants to see in the final budget.

But based on the questions asked during the hearings and in writing, and the “straw polls” on each of the hearings, the administration could make revisions to the final budget before it’s presented to the city council on Sept. 30.

The vote to adopt the budget is scheduled for Oct. 14, at which point dollar amounts will have been advertised to the public, which locks them in as maximums. The council has little latitude left at that point to make budget amendments except to reduce amounts.

Last year there were no changes between the numbers presented to the council in late August and the final presentation in late September. This year there will likely at least be a change to local income tax revenue estimates, which recently came back from the state’s department of revenue better than initially budgeted.

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