Bloomington budget advance session swapped out for talk about American Rescue Plan, same time as separate county meeting

Historically, April’s annual “budget advance” for Bloomington’s city council has been an occasion when councilmembers sketch out their aspirations for the next budget year.

The idea is to try to influence the mayor’s budget proposal, which is presented in August.

Based on “city council” by Thomas Deckert from the Noun Project

This year’s budget advance was set for April 27 at 6 p.m., when the city council adopted its calendar for the year.

Now, instead of using that slot on the next week’s calendar for the budget advance, Bloomington’s city council will use the time to get an initial briefing from mayor Hamilton’s administration on the city’s estimated $22-million share of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) .

Also on Tuesday (April 27), the county council and the county commissioners are convening a joint work session about ARPA  funding. The county’s meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.

The estimated Monroe County share of the total $1.9-trillion federal package is about $29 million.

The announcement about the change in topic for next Tuesday’s city council session came from council administrator/attorney Stephen Lucas towards the end of Wednesday’s regular city council meeting.

Lucas said, “Rather than hold that budget advance next week, [the administration] would like to instead provide you all with some information about [ARPA] funding.” Lucas added that the budget advance would be held in early June.

According to Lucas, the administration feels the later date, in June, would be more beneficial for a discussion about budget priorities and goals, because the administration might have more information then than it does now.

The delayed timing of the budget advance was not unexpected, even without the wrinkle of ARPA funding.

A shift from spring towards the summer for the budget advance is consistent with a December 2020 city council work session discussion, about revising the basic approach to the annual budget process.

ARPA funding

The Bloomington and Monroe County estimated shares of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) are $22 million and $29 million, respectively.

The county commissioners are due to join the county council at the council’s April 27 work session to kick off discussion of how the ARPA money should be spent. The text of the bill outlines how cities and counties can use the money.

In an April 5 Herald-Times column by Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, he wrote, “We will work closely with county and state government (which is getting $3 billion) to coordinate our efforts.”

Hamilton continued, “We will collaborate intensively with employers, nonprofits, civic organizations, and our residents to identify the best way to improve lives and brighten our future.”

When he described the city and county shares of the ARPA money, Hamilton added the two shares together: “Fifty million dollars locally, leveraged with state and private partners, can be transformative.”

President of the county board of commissioners, Julie Thomas, told The Square Beacon a lot of details on possible use of the funds are still missing. She thinks the first priority will be to recover any lost tax revenue. The first step will be to approve an ordinance that establishes a fund to receive the money, Thomas said.

President of the county council, Eric Spoonmore, told The Square Beacon that the Association of Indiana Counties (AIC) is providing guidance on ARPA spending. And AIC is stressing that county commissioners and county councilors have a plan in place, and they’ve got to really be working in concert with the cities.

For communities like Monroe County and Bloomington, where there’s a large city in the county it’s important for the city and the county to be working together, identifying shared objectives, Spoonmore said.  “That’s what [AIC] is advising, pretty intensely for the officials in the localities, so we’ll take that to heart,” Spoonmore said.

In the text of the ARPA, one broad category of possible uses includes efforts to respond to the COVID-19 health emergency or its “negative economic impacts.” Specific examples mentioned in the text of the bill include: “assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality.”

Another category of possible use is to provide premium pay for government employees doing essential work. A third category involves making up for revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic so that government services can be provided.

Finally, the bill allows the funds to be spent on water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

ARPA Text: Possible uses of American Rescue Plan funding

(1) USE OF FUNDS.—Subject to paragraph (2), and except as provided in paragraphs (3) and (4), a metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county shall only use the funds provided under a payment made under this section to cover costs incurred by the metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county, by December 31, 2024—
(A) to respond to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19) or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality; H. R. 1319—229
(B) to respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID–19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers of the metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county that are performing such essential work, or by providing grants to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work;
(C) for the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county due to the COVID–19 public health emergency relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year of the metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county prior to the emergency; or
(D) to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

Budget advance

By way of background, late August has been the traditional time when the Bloomington city council holds its hearings on the administration’s draft budget. At the end of September is when the administration presents the final version to the council. In early October, the budget gets adopted.

Sometime in the spring, the city council has typically held a meeting known as the “budget advance,” when councilmembers talk about their priorities for the next year’s budget.

Last year, some councilmembers expressed frustration that their suggestions for the budget were not reflected in any changes made by the administration. Councilmembers Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Matt Flaherty made explicit comments about their frustration. Flaherty went as far as to vote against the annual budget.

At the Dec. 11 city council work session last year, councilmember Jim Sims (now president of the council) said he did not think the budget advance meeting could have much of an effect on planning, because solid revenue projections are not known that early in the year. Sims said, “I’m not so sure how important the budget advance meeting is, with the exception of setting a broad outline.”

At that session, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen commented on the significance of the budget advance city council meeting. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’ve been a part of the development of 25 budgets in my city career.”

Renneisen did not mince words when he continued, “Now, do not take this the wrong way: I’ve yet to hear anything in the budget advance that has significantly impacted our budget. It’s too general and it’s too soon.”

At the budget advance meeting, Renneisen said, the council typically expresses priorities in such general terms that “No wonder you’re disappointed.” Renneisen suggested moving the budget advance meeting to a point later in the year that is closer to the time when city staff are working on actual budget numbers.

Since the council’s December 2020 work session, councilmembers have held no discussions at regular meetings or committee sessions, about ways to alter the budget process.