Van Buren Township, which forms part of the western edge of Monroe County, sits at the southwest corner of the city of Bloomington.
The township’s trustee is Rita Barrow, who has been elected to the post by Van Buren voters.
But most Van Buren Township residents can’t vote for mayor, clerk, or councilmembers in Bloomington’s municipal elections. That’s because it’s only some small areas of Van Buren, with odd geometries, that currently are included inside city boundaries.
Under a current proposal by Bloomington to annex more township territory into the city, more denizens of the township would add city residency to their resumes in 2024, and get the right to vote in city elections.
But the next Bloomington election would not come around until four years later, in November 2027.
That’s a sore point with potential annexees. And Barrow raised the issue on Friday morning at a meeting of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.
Barrow was invited by the DWC to participate in Friday’s panel discussion about Bloomington’s planned annexation of land into the city, effective Jan. 1, 2024.
Making Barrow a logical choice of guest was the fact that Bloomington’s planned annexation—Areas 1A, 1B and 1C—includes some land inside the township’s territory
Barrow ticked through some of the concerns she’d heard from township residents. One highlight was the extra financial cost of city taxes.
According to Bloomington’s financial consultant, the median additional net cost in taxes for property owners will be several hundred dollars a year: $644 in Area 1A; $764 in Area 1B; and $408 in Area 1C.
That will be a hardship on residents who live on fixed incomes, Barrow said.
But according to Barrow, the first question people ask her about Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton is: “Why is he waiting till 2024? We can’t vote for him.”
The next city elections—for city council, clerk, and mayor—will be held in 2023. After annexation in 2024, residents would need to wait another four years, until 2027, to vote in Bloomington’s elections.
Barrow summed up that situation this way: “What I’m hearing from the residents is that’s taxation without representation.”
The effect of annexation on Van Buren Township made it natural to include Barrow on Friday’s panel. Not weighing in favor of Barrow’s inclusion was the fact that she’s a Republican.
County commissioner Penny Githens, who moderated the panel, said to her knowledge it was the first time a Republican had been invited to speak at a Democratic Women’s Caucus event. Githens highlighted the partisan angle. “In reaching across the aisle, something I think women are pretty good at, maybe we can teach the folks in Washington something about how things can get done,” Githens said.
Picking up the topic of the proposed annexation effective date, and its impact on the ability of newly annexed areas to vote, was another panelist at Friday’s DWC event. Bloomington city councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith told the group: “Philippa Guthrie, our corporation counsel, said making an effective date earlier, in 2023, would not leave enough time for planning and transition. So that’s why they made it January 1, 2024.”
The ability to vote in Bloomington elections factors into standard arguments in favor of annexation, which Piedmont-Smith recited on Friday. About residents in the proposed annexation areas, she said, “[T]hey’re impacted by the decisions that city government makes. And the city government is impacted by how these areas develop further.”
Piedmont-Smith continued, “These residents should be voting for city government leaders in the city. The city should be able to include these areas in its long term strategic planning.”
About the impact of Hamilton administration’s proposed effective date of Jan. 1, 2024, and its impact on the ability to vote, Piedmont-Smith said, “It is unfortunate. It bothers me. I don’t know what to do about that.”
The effective date for annexation is part of the annexation ordinance for a given area. The annexation ordinances, which were introduced in 2017, were all amended by the city council earlier this year, at its May 19 meeting. The amendments changed the effective dates from Jan. 1, 2020 to Jan. 1, 2024.
The amended dates were needed, because the Hamilton administration is now continuing with the same ordinances and the same annexation process that was suspended in 2017, through a law enacted by the state legislature that year. The law was ruled unconstitutional by Indiana’s supreme court on a 3–2 vote in late 2020.
Before voting to adopt the ordinances, the city council could further amend the ordinances to change their effective dates to Jan. 1, 2023. That would put residents of annexed areas in a position to participate in the municipal elections the same year they became city residents.
City council votes on the annexation ordinances are planned for Sept. 15, after the public hearing on Aug. 4.
At Friday’s DWC panel discussion, Barrow reported a response from Hamilton to a question she’d asked him directly, about the effective date of annexation. According to Barrow, Hamilton cited the time the city needs in order to make the transition. It’s the same explanation provided by the Hamilton administration at the city council’s May 19 meeting.
Barrow’s counter to that sentiment: “Well, he is using the past [proposed annexation] areas. That was in 2017. So I’m not clear on why they can’t go ahead and proceed with this prior to the  election, because if you’re going to annex people, then they should have a choice of their government.”
Barrow said on Friday she was not generally opposed to any annexation. She stated, “There are portions of this annexation that honestly should have been done years ago, and I’m all for them.” She added, “I grew up in a rural area, and I grew up in the city. And there’s no difference, if you just really take in consideration what people want.”
Besides Barrow and Piedmont-Smith, other DWC panelists on Friday morning included Monroe county councilors Kate Wiltz and Cheryl Munson, Monroe county commissioner Julie Thomas, and Bloomington city councilmember Susan Sandberg.
Sandberg recalled in 2017, when the state legislature enacted the legislation suspending Bloomington’s in-progress annexation process, that she was poised to start talking to county officials about the areas proposed to be annexed. She wanted to get a better understanding, from the perspective of county officials, what the impact would be on the county government, and which areas might make less sense to annex.
The impact on county government is something that will likely get additional scrutiny when Monroe County’s government receives its analysis of the impact on county government finances from its own consultant, Baker Tilly.
The county council is expected to receive the Baker Tilly report at a July 27 work session.
Additional meetings with the public to review the Baker Tilly material have been scheduled for July 28 at 6 p.m. at the Old State Road 37 Fire Station (5081 N Old State Road 37); Aug. 1 at 1 p.m. at the Fairgrounds (5700 W Airport Rd); and Aug. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Drive Fire Station (3953 S. Kennedy Dr.).
The impact of annexation on the city’s finances was summed up by Piedmont-Smith on Friday morning like this: “The overall gist is that it will cost the city more in the initial three to five years. And then we kind of catch it up with the tax income, to help us cover the increased cost of services.”
The breakdown from the city’s consultant, Reedy Financial Group, looks like this on the minimum and maximum cost scenarios:
Bloomington: Extra revenue due to annexation compared to extra costs
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||4-year net|
A topic that came up at Friday morning’s DWC panel discussion is the status of annexation remonstration waivers.
Waivers are legal documents signed by a property owner giving up the right to remonstrate against annexation, in consideration of the ability to purchase utilities service from the city.
The key question is: Which waivers are valid? Indiana’s state legislature enacted a law in 2019 that voids any remonstration waiver signed before July 1, 2003. The city of Bloomington says it is proceeding as if the older waivers are valid.
On Friday Piedmont-Smith characterized the Hamilton administration’s position on the waivers like this: “That  law was passed after our annexation process was started in 2017. So it is the Hamilton administration’s position that even waivers [that were voided by the 2019 law] are still valid, because they are contracts between the city and the property owner.”