Bumpy road for Bloomington mayor continues with initial debate on final 2021 budget, as city council gets jolted by surprise renaming of department

Two weeks ago, Bloomington’s city council handed mayor John Hamilton a rare if not unprecedented defeat in his nearly half decade as mayor, when it rejected a request for a quarter-point increase to the local income tax. Five of nine councilmembers voted against it.

Bloomington city council: In the last two weeks, eight of nine Bloomington city councilmembers have voted against at least one important request made by mayor John Hamilton. One of those votes—a straw poll on the 2021 salary ordinance covering most of the city’s employees—had no legal significance.

The administration’s rough patch continued on Wednesday when the council gave the 2021 budget legislation a first reading and subjected it to its traditional preliminary straw polls. The package of budget legislation consists of six different ordinances.

On the salary ordinance that covers most of the city’s roughly 750 employees, the straw poll tally was just 3–6 in favor.

Sticking points include the departmental placement of a new transportation demand management position and the the creation of a new, independent engineering department.

Also making for a big bump in the budgeting road is the swapping out of five sworn police officer positions for two additional social workers, two neighborhood resource specialists, and a data analyst. That would reduce the number of authorized sworn officers from 105 to 100. Only 95 of those positions are currently filled.

Those points of concern were already evident in mid-August during the council’s departmental budget hearings and in the written questions submitted by councilmembers to the administration.

On Wednesday night,  what might have caused some councilmembers to be more frank about their dissatisfaction with various aspects of the budget proposal was a surprise revelation during the meeting. The administration intends to delete the word “transportation” from the name of the planning and transportation department.

The set of councilmembers voting against the local income tax increase or against the straw poll on the salary ordinance includes eight of the nine local legislators. Dave Rollo was the only councilmember who didn’t vote against at least one of the two.

Rollo is in his 18th year of service on the council, which makes him the longest serving of current councilmembers.

Wednesday’s votes were made in the council’s guise as the committee of the whole, so they were just recommendations, or “straw polls” as councilmembers call them. The vote on final budget adoption is not scheduled until Oct. 14.

The possibilities for changes to the final budget between now and mid-October are limited, because the dollar amounts have already been advertised. They can be reduced, but not increased, except upon recommendation of the mayor.

Renaming a department?

Some councilmembers had already been chaffing on one point of the budget proposal, starting in mid-August when it was first presented. That was the proposal to house a new position for a transportation demand management (TDM) employee in the economic and sustainable develpment department. A TDM consultant’s study had recommended housing the position in either the public works department or the planning and transportation department.

During Wednesday’s city council meeting, a casual mention by the city’s head of human resources about the renaming of the planning and transportation department piqued the interest of councilmember Kate Rosenbarger.

Speaking to HR head Caroline Shaw, Rosenbarger said, “I thought I heard you say: ‘the planning and transportation department, soon to be the planning department.’ Is that right?”

Rosenbarger had heard it right.

Rosenbarger is one of two councilmembers with a family connection to the department. Her sister, Beth Rosenbarger, is the planning services manager. Beth Rosenbarger is married to councilmember Matt Flaherty.

Referring to himself, council president Steve Volan told HR director Caroline Shaw, “It’s coming as a surprise to this councilmember that the department was going to get renamed.”

Later in the meeting, Volan quizzed the mayor about the possible deletion of “transportation” from the department’s name: “The answer is yes? That you do intend to rename the department?”

Hamilton replied, “I think so. But I’m happy to talk about it. That’s not what’s really on the table tonight that we’re trying to get your support for.”

What was definitely on the table on Wednesday were a few other substantive features of the budget, about which some councilmembers had serious qualms.

The placement of the TDM employee in the economic and sustainable development department and moving the city engineer out of planning and transportation, to head up a new independent engineering department, were the two problematic aspects of the budget proposal that related to the renaming of the department.

Councilmember Ron Smith was unenthusiastic about hiring a new TDM position right now. “Is it necessary that we do this now during a pandemic?” he asked.

Volan identified what he called a “new and problematic fragmentation of authority over transportation policy.” He said, “The people who should have the last word in determining [transportation policy], besides the mayor, should be planners—not economic development officials, not public works officials, not engineers.”

Volan said, he was looking for a written statement of “administrative if not mayoral policy regarding how transportation decisions will be made.” Instead, Volan said, the news he’d heard that night, and absent any written statement about it, was: “The mayor is intending to remove the word ‘transportation’ from the title of any department.”

Volan wrapped up his remarks by saying, “And I’m very disappointed. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in it, except to say that I’m voting no right now on this ordinance.”

The ordinance in question was the salary ordinance setting the compensation for most of the employees of the city—all except sworn police, firefighters, and elected officials. The vote was on a recommendation, a so-called straw poll.

Police staffing

The other prominent feature of the budget that was problematic for some councilmembers was the swapping out of five sworn officer positions for two additional social workers, two neighborhood resource specialists, and a data analyst. That would reduce the number of authorized sworn officers from 105 to 100. Only 95 of those positions are currently filled.

Some councilmembers, like Sue Sgambelluri and Susan Sandberg, were not in favor of the reduction in sworn officers. Others, like Matt Flaherty and Isabel Piedmont-Smith, had concerns about embedding social workers in the police department.

One of the arguments for reducing the number of authorized sworn officers from 105 to 100 is that five open sworn officer positions would still be left to fill. In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton said realistically the police department cannot add more than a net of five sworn officers over the next 15 months. Hamilton said that factors in projected retirement attrition and limits on the state training academy.

Hamilton said, “We have funded the 100 officer positions fully for 2021 that we believe are possible to fill.”

Hamilton described some incentive programs that are meant to address problems with retention and attraction of sworn officers—housing allowances and take-home vehicles.

During public commentary, Paul Post, who’s president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, told councilmembers the assumption that only five additional officers could be hired in the next year was based on the idea of hiring brand new untrained officers that would have to be put through a full police academy.

Post said, “The reality is, if we had a highly competitive pay and benefits package, we would be able to attract high-quality candidates from other agencies, which is where we’re losing people to right now.” Post added, “If we were able to hire lateral transfer officers, we could certainly fill up to 105 officers. But we have to be attractive in that regard to do so.”

In his remarks, Flaherty championed the policy position expressed by Donyel Byrd, who spoke during public commentary. She introduced herself as a social worker in Bloomington, but said she was not speaking on behalf of the entire profession or any employer.

Byrd pointed to a petition that had been signed by over 150 people that says they do not want to see the power and scope of policing increased in the way that’s currently proposed.” The social worker positions are proposed to be embedded in the police department.

The administration’s response to the idea that social workers should not report to the police chief has been that the existing social worker, who’s embedded inside the police department, has been effective. Police chief Mike Diekhoff said on Wednesday, “It’s been a huge, huge benefit to us having that social worker embedded with the police. And the work that she’s doing, I actually believe is really changing people’s lives.”

Diekhoff also said he was not opposed to looking at an alternative approach in the future.

Flaherty said he was concerned that by embedding additional social workers in the police department now, it would decrease the chances that a review of policing policy would ever result in moving the social workers to a different department.

Council’s general frustration with mayor’s administration

A question from Flaherty to Hamilton signaled a basic dissatisfaction with the process that had unfolded for the development of the 2021 budget. Flaherty asked Hamilton, “Between the budget hearings in August, and now, have there been any changes to the budget proposal that are a result of councilmember concerns and requests for a change?”

When no immediate answer came, after about five seconds, Flaherty added, “That’s the whole question.”

Hamilton responded by describing some of the topic areas on which he’d heard feedback from councilmembers and the minor numerical changes that the controller had made.

Flaherty pressed on: “What I meant in my question was: Between the proposal that we heard at the budget hearings in August, and now, have there been any changes? And I guess I feel like maybe your initial remarks, Mayor Hamilton, were responsive to a different question, if that makes sense.”

In Hamilton’s second try, he described the 142 written questions that councilmembers had posed to the administration and how the main themes were three: departmental assignment of the TDM position; the creation of an engineering department; and various aspects of the police budget.

In her summary, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith gave her own answer to Flaherty’s question about what changes had been made between the time of the budget hearings and the final version of the budget.

“There are no changes that reflect concerns of councilmembers,” Piedmont-Smith said. She added, “The only change is because of Duke Energy increasing rates and a few adjustments of payroll, because of longevity, turnover and stuff like that.”

Piedmont-Smith continued, “But there’s no change that was requested by any colleagues, as far as I know, certainly not those that were requested by me.” She described sending the mayor an email after receiving the petition objecting to embedding social workers in the police department. “But I did not receive any response from the mayor to my email message,” Piedmont-Smith said.

The response Hamilton gave Flaherty to his question on Wednesday might have been typical for the sorts of responses Flaherty had received over the longer course of the budget process: “I will say, I’ve been generally disappointed with the answers to the questions that I’ve posed, both in meetings and written questions.”

Flaherty added, “I feel like a lot of questions I’ve asked simply don’t get answered. They’re sort of answered with a different answer to a different question, or they’re only partially answered.”

Flaherty spoke at length about the budget process:

The issues for me are largely structural. You know, as far as I can tell, and I asked this question, the budget, as presented today, is a representation solely of the mayor’s vision and priorities. Zero changes were made between the budget hearings, and now in response to councilmember concerns and requests. And nor do I, in addition to my colleagues, feel like our requests and our preferences and policy priorities as laid out in the budget advance meeting were taken seriously. …

And I don’t feel like this budget reflects a lot of those priorities that were stated by councilmembers. Mayor Hamilton has said that the city budget is the biggest and most important policy document the city has. I agree. And a final yes or no vote is simply not an adequate level of input for the city’s elected fiscal body.

All of us on the council have policy priorities and views that deserve meaningful collaboration, and some measure of compromise from the mayoral administration in reaching a consensus budget, even if it’s not the preferred outcome of the mayor. And we simply haven’t seen that. And that’s true of other appropriation ordinances as well.

So there are broader takeaways here, substantial and fundamental changes that I think we need to make regarding our budgeting process going forward. Some of those are timing and simply allowing more time and clarifying timelines for the council and for public about how to do things….

Rosenbarger also lamented the lack of collaboration:

Now there’s been a lot of talk of collaborating together. But so far, in the 10 months, nine months, I haven’t I haven’t seen that. And I think maybe the only way to get something to change is to make big moves. So for this ordinance tonight, my plan is to vote no. I’m hoping between now and when we actually vote on the budget, some changes could be made. Because I think we all want to pass the budget for the city.

Sue Sgambelluri, who was chairing the session, gave Hamilton a chance to respond to the complaints about the lack of collaboration.

Hamilton said in part: “So I certainly welcome more input. I just want to make clear that we do adjust the budget based upon that input. We have adjusted the budget, we continue to adjust the budget. We welcome input on this budget.”

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