Bloomington city council OKs symbolic amendment supporting police, adopts 2021 budget on 7–1 vote

On Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city budget got just seven votes of support from the nine-member city council.

In the approved budget, general fund expenditures for 2021 decreased to around $95 million, from around $99 million in 2020.

Nothing significant changed from the time the budget was first proposed in mid-August. The budget assumes a new engineering department, but that will require some future legislative action by the council.

Over the objections of some councilmembers, the new transportation demand management (TDM) position will have the economic and sustainable development department as a home, instead of the planning and transportation department.

The number of budgeted sworn police officers stayed the same as in the mid-August proposal—100, which is down from the 105 that are authorized this year. But on Wednesday night, the theoretical maximum was explicitly set at 105 through an amendment to the police and firefighter salary ordinance.

Matt Flaherty, one of four first-term councilmembers, cast votes against the salary ordinance that covers most city employees and against the basic appropriation ordinance. Those are two of the six pieces of legislation that make up the annual budget package.

About his dissent, Flaherty said, “I don’t feel like I’ve impacted this budget at all, in part because of the procedural shortcomings in how we approach budgeting and the fact that we don’t have a defined structure for collaboration and compromise.”

City council president Steve Volan was absent.

A highlight from the 2021 appropriation ordinance included a reduction in funding for sworn police officers, compared to 2020 budgeted numbers, from 105 to 100. The funding that would have paid for five police officers is allocated instead to non-sworn positions, which would be a mix of social workers, neighborhood resource specialists, and a data analyst.

A amendment sponsored by councilmembers Susan Sandberg and Sue Sgambelluri revised the salary ordinance covering police officers and firefighters to include a statement saying, “The maximum number of sworn officers within the Police Department for the year 2021 shall be set at 105.”

Because the amendment to the salary ordinance did not change the dollar amounts of any appropriations—those are made in a separate ordinance—Sandberg called the amendment “largely symbolic.” The amendment passed on a 5–3 vote, with Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger and Isabel Piedmont-Smith dissenting.

Amendment on 105 police officers: Flexibility?

Normally, the police and firefighter salary ordinance does not specify the number of sworn officers. It just sets forth ranges and schedules for how officers are to be paid. And the appropriation ordinance does not break down departmental expenditures in enough detail to discern how many sworn officers are funded.

So the amendment proposed by Sgambelluri and Sandberg did not adjust upwards an existing figure from 100 to 105. Instead, the amendment added a novel section to the police and firefighter salary ordinance—one that gave an upper bound for the number of sworn officers.

Sgambelluri and Sandberg pitched the amendment as providing “flexibility.” Sgambelluri said: “What it does do is provide administration and council with some flexibility as we think about staffing next year, I would agree with the mayor that we have some deeper questions to dive into. We have to acknowledge that our city is growing at the same time, we have to acknowledge that policing is changing.”

The visual highlight of Sgambelluri’s presentation of the amendment was a table showing historical staffing levels of different categories in the police department:

Dispatch Sworn
2015 82,813 33 15 100 148
2016 83,093 32 15 100 147
2017 83,636 33.5 25.5 100 159
2018 84,058 34.5 31.5 102 168
2019 85,511 37.5 34.5 103 175
2020 86,963 37.5 34.5 105 177
2021 88,416 43 38 100 181
% Increase
6.77% 30.30% 153.33% 0.00% 22.30%

Some councilmembers who dissented on the amendment contended that by setting an upper bound of 105, it provided less flexibility than an ordinance that is silent on the question of how many sworn personnel are authorized.

About the amendment, Flaherty said, “It affects the budget not at all. And it actually reduces flexibility, if for some reason we really wanted to change things.”

In late August, The Square Beacon asked the administration where the idea of an authorized number of sworn officers could be discerned in the budget documents approved by the city council—given that it’s not specified in either the salary ordinance or the appropriation ordinance.

Based on the response from city attorney Mike Rouker, it’s a matter of what number elected officials talked about and decided during the budget process.

It’s the board of public safety that approves hires of police officers, Rouker said. He said, “The Board has always been very conscious of its role and has never entertained hiring more sworn personnel in the Police or Fire Departments than the City Council and Mayor (the elected officials in this equation) decided upon during the budget process.”

Rouker added, “I think you have to get into some very unlikely scenarios to imagine a situation where the Board of Public Safety would go rogue and hire additional officers and/or firefighters against the explicit statements of our community’s elected leaders.”

Based on Rouker’s assessment, even if the salary ordinance had not been amended to say the maximum number of sworn police officers is 105—leaving the ordinance without explicit wording about any upper bound—the maximum would still have been 100. That’s the number of sworn officers the administration has said are funded in the appropriation ordinance.

So the amendment could be analyzed as adding an explicit upper bound that is higher than an implicit upper bound, thus in some sense increasing flexibility.

Amendment on 105 officers: Funding impact

About the fact that the amendment to the salary ordinance did not also appropriate the funds for the 105 officers, Piedmont-Smith said, “It won’t do anything. I’m sorry. I mean…it kind of maybe makes the police feel better. But it’s not going to actually do anything…If you want more police officers, then I think the issue is with the budget and not with the salary ordinance.”

Paul Post, who’s president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, the bargaining unit for BPD, confirmed during public commentary that he supported the amendment. He told the sponsors, “Thank you for bringing it up. I will relay it to my officers and we appreciate hearing it.”

Flaherty said, “As noted, this amendment doesn’t do anything, so I’ll be voting no on it.”

Amendment on 105 officers: Substance

Flaherty said that in addition to opposing the amendment on grounds of flexibility and its lack of impact on the budget, he was also against the idea of increasing the number of sworn officers to 105.

Some of the stresses that officers are under, Flaherty said, could be addressed with a recommendation from a recent study completed by the Novak Consulting Group. The recommendation is to alter the shift schedules, so that more officers are on shifts corresponding to those periods during the day with the highest call volumes.

Flaherty said that the amendment seemed like an effort to preserve the status quo, when significant changes are needed.

Flaherty said: “So what we need to be doing is looking at alternatives and looking at how to address the very substantial racial disparities and socio-economic disparities we have in this town, in Bloomington, based on our data. And simply replicating the status quo is not going to do that.”

Councilmember Kate Rosenbarger was also against the idea of 105 sworn officers as opposed to the 100 that are budgeted for 2021. Rosenbarger said: “I think it’s true that we have to challenge the status quo here. And instead of adding folks to fight crime, we need to be looking at the root causes of why folks get into the criminal justice system. And we need to be devoting our resources towards supportive services to help folks stay out of the system. So I think I think this first step in decreasing our number of sworn officers by five is the right step.”

Councilmember Dave Rollo supported the amendment.  He drew a distinction between Bloomington’s police department and other departments across the country: “I’m very much aware of the problems with various police forces around the country. Ours is a model police force. I’m really proud of the sworn officers and what they have to do. I think they deserve the support of the community and the support of the council.”

Rollo added, “They have my support. They’re expertly trained, they’re well disciplined. And I think that they’re a model for other communities. And so I will commit to adding more sworn officers in the future.”

Vice president of the city council, Jim Sims, who chaired the proceedings in Steve Volan’s absence, supported the amendment. But Sims did not agree with Rollo’s description of Bloomington’s police force as a “model.”

Sims said, “I do not feel that it is a ‘model’ police department. There are some things that we need to work on, and I think we have been working on. But what I think BPD is, is a very good police department, that can be improved and will be improved.”

About the disparate arrest and incarceration rates locally, Sims said, “I’m gonna simply say: That is true and that is not acceptable. I will also say that through community work and involvement, I think those numbers have been improved over the years. So it is not acceptable.”

Sims then widened his scope: “Now, I know we’re talking about the budget. But let’s look at a broader picture there. You know what else is not acceptable? It’s not acceptable for me to be called a dumbass N-word while I’m getting gas this afternoon, because I chose to wear a mask. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable for the disparate numbers and expulsions and suspensions that we have in our school system, right here in Monroe County—don’t make them a bad school system. But those numbers are disparate.”

Budget process

Several councilmembers voted no or abstained in the straw polls they took two weeks ago on different elements of the budget.

Those votes in most cases were based on concerns about a lack of collaboration and cooperation from mayor John Hamilton on the creation of the budget. On Wednesday, some councilmembers repeated the same kind of sentiments, but wound up voting for the budget.

Controller Jeff Underwood pointed out that a failure to adopt the 2021 budget, would mean living with the previous year’s property tax levy. That is, in 2021 Bloomington would have to make do with the same property tax levy as in 2020. [IC 36-4-7-11]

If attention is confined to just the general fund levy, a failure to adopt the budget would mean accepting just $23,384,919 compared to $24,292,466, which is $907,547 less.

Matt Flaherty was the only councilmember whose discontentedness with the budget process translated into a vote against the budget on Wednesday night.

Flaherty framed the issue in terms of his reasons for wanting to serve on the city council: “When I ran for council, I ran to try to effect change, change in line with the values that I campaigned on. To shift away meaningfully from the status quo and to really start to tackle some of these challenges in our adopted plans and goals more aggressively than we have been.”

That’s tied to the budget, Flaherty said: “For the council as the city’s fiscal body, appropriations like the city budget are one of the ways that we can effect change in line with our policy priorities as elected officials.”

But the budget process had not allowed him to have the kind of impact he wanted: “And I guess my disappointment is that I don’t feel like I’ve impacted this budget at all, in part because of the procedural shortcomings in how we approach budgeting and the fact that we don’t have a defined structure for collaboration and compromise. Of the six or seven specific items or changes that I’ve asked for, none were incorporated, or really meaningfully discussed.”

Flaherty said he’d talked to mayor John Hamilton about his disappointment that the mayor’s budget had not incorporated more of Flaherty’s ideas. Flaherty said he disagreed with Hamilton’s perspective that the budget generally reflects some of the broader priorities that Flaherty had talked about in the budget advance meeting in April.

Councilmember Ron Smith said, “It really is a good budget. Keeping the big picture, it is a good budget. It does address a lot of the things we think are important in reflecting the values that we have in Bloomington. And it’s OK, too, that we disagree. It’s fine. I think that’s part of what democracy is all about.”

Piedmont-Smith voted for the budget, but talked about her intent to work to improve the process: “I think there needs to be more transparency. I would appreciate hearing from the mayor between the budget advance and August, following up on the things that we said at the budget advance.”

Piedmont-Smith added, “I think that we need some kind of mechanism to do a straw poll vote to say…five of us want this change, and to do that in a public setting.” She wrapped up by saying, “I do intend to follow through and work with my council colleagues and with the mayor to improve this process for the future.”

Sandberg said, “We always must keep the big picture in mind. And so in spite of my differences with what had been proposed, I will make it my responsibility to continue to work on those things throughout the year and throughout the next budget cycles. But I’m certainly not going to vote no on the budget as a whole.”

Rollo gave the strongest expression of support by any councilmember. He said: “This is a fiscally sound budget, which it’s our fiduciary responsibility to oversee. This administration still keeps to its commitments of infrastructure, social service funding and its commitment to climate.”

Rollo praised the administration’s record over the nearly five years of Hamilton’s service, pointing to the work that’s been done to solarize city buildings and to increase Jack Hopkins social services funding. Rollo said, “We get lost, I think, in the weeds, when we talk about specific things like $15,000, for gas masks for the police department….So I think I think this is a very good budget. I think it deserves our support.”

Petition objecting to 2021 budget

In the public discussion leading up to the adoption of the 2021 budget, a petition organized by Donyel Byrd was submitted to the city. During public commentary at the Sept. 30 hearing, Byrd introduced herself as a social worker in Bloomington, but said she was not speaking on behalf of the entire profession or any employer.

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

Under state law, if ten or more taxpayers object to a budget, tax rate, or tax levy by filing an objection petition, the city must adopt a finding concerning the objections in the petition.

So on Wednesday, in a separate vote, the council adopted a finding that read: “The council finds that it has received the document titled ‘Letter opposing 2021 proposed police budget’ and accompanying signature page and has duly considered the recommendations contained therein, as well as public comments provided at meetings related to the 2021 budget, while considering the 2021 budget tax rates and tax levy.”