Monroe County’s three county commissioners have made a joint statement opposing Bloomington’s annexation plan for all eight proposed areas.
The announcement came near the start of the board’s regular Wednesday meeting, after several weeks of remarks in public settings that indicated their individual opposition to Bloomington’s annexation proposal.
With Wednesday’s joint statement, the county commissioners as a group are opposed to annexation.
A few weeks ago, the formally and publicly established position of the board—that the body was opposed to annexation—was a missing element.
That’s when county attorney Jeff Cockerill concluded it had been inappropriate for county commissioners to have spent $300 of county money, to print a flyer that included a viewpoint opposing annexation.
It was in late June when commissioners paid for the informational flyer out of county funds. The $300 was reimbursed a week later, by Julie Thomas, president of county board.
Last month, the question of the county board’s formal position on Bloomington’s proposed annexation led to some brief discussion on rental property inspection programs, at a meeting of the county’s affordable housing advisory commission.
Until Wednesday morning, the official position of the Monroe County board of commissioners was neutral.
For example, at the July 14 meeting of the county’s environmental commission, commissioner Lee Jones said, “The county has nothing to do with annexation. All we can do is inform citizens about it.”
Jones added, “And we will be getting information out to citizens, so we are not going to try to influence how they think about it. We’re just going to give them information.”
County records show that a $300 invoice for a flyer, for distribution throughout the county, was paid on June 30. The amount was reimbursed on July 6, by Julie Thomas, president of the board of commissioners.
Why did the printing cost for the flyer have to be reimbursed?
According to county attorney Jeff Cockerill, it’s because the flyer was not viewpoint-neutral—and that was not consistent with the county’s stated neutral position. He pointed to contact information for a group opposing annexation as an indication of the flyer’s failure to be viewpoint neutral.
Cockerill said the county can pay for neutral informational efforts, giving as an example the Baker Tilly review of Bloomington’s fiscal plan for the annexation, which cost $50,000.
The commissioners could also pay for non-neutral information efforts, Cockerill said, but only if the viewpoint conveyed were the formally adopted position of the commissioners.
Before Wednesday, commissioners as a group had not adopted a formal position, even if they had conveyed as individuals that they did not support annexation.
When Cockerill saw the content of the flyer, which was paid for with county funds, he reacted: “I [said] Oh, no, this wasn’t what we thought it was.” That’s why the reimbursement had to be made, Cockerill said.
Commissioner Julie Thomas, who made the order for 6,000 copies with the print shop and paid the reimbursement, told The B Square that she agreed with the conclusion that the flyer was not viewpoint neutral. “It did direct people, if they wanted to sign a petition, who to contact to sign a petition.”
Thomas said she was not convinced that county funds could not be used for the message, but did not want to argue the point. She thinks it could have been justified, adding, “But I didn’t even want to go through it. I just was like: I’ll just pay for it.”
The recent historical backdrop to Bloomington’s annexation proposal factors into Thomas’s thinking about the importance of providing information to residents.
This year’s effort is a restart of Bloomington’s 2017 annexation process, which was interrupted by a new state law that year, which was found in late 2020 to be unconstitutional.
So Bloomington is treating any required statutory elements that it completed in 2017 as having already been completed for this year’s annexation process—because it’s the same process.
One of those required statutory elements is an outreach program that includes six public information meetings. The city has not hosted additional meetings this year, because the required meetings were held four years ago.
In an interview with The B Square, Thomas pointed to the lack of any city-hosted public information meetings this year as a reason why it was important to print information like the flyer, to alert county residents to the annexation plan. “We wanted to let people know that this was coming,” Thomas said.
Thomas rejected the idea that Wednesday morning’s announcement of opposition to annexation was a way to make the board’s official public position line up with the viewpoint of the flyer—so that county funds could have hypothetically paid for it.
“We’re not doing this because of the mailing. That money’s gone. I’m happy to pay it. That’s not what this is about at all.”
Thomas added, “I’m glad we got the letter done. I’m glad to have paid for it.”
Impact of annexation on renters
The question of the county board’s formal position on annexation made its way into last month’s meeting of Monroe County’s affordable housing advisory commission. That led to a quick discussion of rental property inspection programs.
County commissioner Penny Githens is liaison from the board of commissioners to the AHAC.
At one point during the AHAC meeting, Githens asked the affordable housing group to help fight against annexation. Her pitch was based on a standard affordability argument—increased city taxes would drive up costs for landlords, who would pass those costs on to renters.
Responding to Githens, AHAC chair Cathi Crabtree pushed back against the idea that it was the group’s role to fight annexation. Crabtree said, “I don’t see that fighting annexation falls within the purview of this commission. I would personally want to see some more information.”
AHAC member David Henry asked Githens if the county commissioners had adopted a formal position on annexation.
Githens first answered, “We don’t have any authority with regard to annexation.” Githens then highlighted a familiar talking point against annexation: “But [annexation] will impact the county’s coffers. We will still be expected to do things like provide the health department, provide community corrections, provide our own planning department, all kinds of things.”
Henry asked again about a formal position: Had commissioners adopted a resolution directing opposition to annexation. In response, Githens answered, “No, no, no.”
AHAC member Lisa Abbott, who is former director of Bloomington’s housing and neighborhood development (HAND) department, asked that more information, pro and con, be provided to AHAC.
Abbott said that if AHAC were to tell Bloomington that annexation should not be pursued, because of the impact on rent prices in annexed areas, that AHAC should at the same time challenge the county commissioners to “step up” and implement a rental property inspection program for non-city areas of Monroe County.
Abbott said, “I believe very strongly that [Bloomington’s] rental inspection program does more for low-income tenants than any other program.”
Asked by The B Square about Monroe County’s possible plans to add protections for renters with a rental property inspection program, commissioner Julie Thomas said discussions on the topic had been going on for about the last two years.
“Do we want to create a bureaucracy?” Thomas asked. A rental property inspection program would require ongoing administration, and the cost would be passed along to renters, Thomas said. Right now, the question of a rental property inspection program for the county is on the “back burner” because the county has so many urgent issues to deal with, Thomas said.
The continuation of Bloomington’s annexation hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 11, starts at 6 p.m. It’s accessible only through the Zoom video conferencing platform. Bloomington has announced it will set up Zoom access computers at city hall for those who do not have internet access.