A look ahead to 2022: Bloomington area local government stories

North Walnut Street Lamp on Christmas Eve

Last year’s lead art for The B Square’s look ahead to 2021 featured this caption: “These numerals began life as a photograph of the sidewalk around the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington, where the crows like to crap. It was that kind of year.”

Arguably a worse year was 2021. So this year’s art includes an actual crow and a built-in sense of foreboding. Is that kid going to land his jump over the crow to get to next year?

Here’s an incomplete roundup of stories to watch in 2022

COVID-19 pandemic The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be a dominant topic in the news at least through the first half of 2022 and maybe longer.

The prevalence of the disease is one angle. The year’s final update to Indiana’s COVID-19 dashboard and datasets showed a record number of daily cases since the pandemic started.

A second angle on the pandemic will be legislative wrangling over health regulations and local restrictions.

In connection with local restrictions, litigation arose in 2021 out of a citation of Seven Oaks Classical School by Monroe County for the school’s failure to comply with the county’s mask mandate. That lawsuit will continue at least through the first part of 2022.

The most recent activity in that case was an order issued by the judge on Dec. 28, which sets Jan. 11 as a date for a telephonic conference between plaintiff (Seven Oaks) and defendant (Monroe County) and the judge, who is Erik Allen out of Greene County.

One motion currently pending is by Monroe County for a partial summary judgement—it is waiting for a response from Seven Oaks.

One of the allegations by Seven Oaks is that the county commissioners violated Indiana’s Open Door Law. It is one of the odd wrinkles in the case, because the county commissioners sought the advice of Indiana public access counselor Luke Britt before deliberating about the school’s appeal out of public view.

Britt has admitted that his advice to the commissioners, that they could deliberate out of public view on the appeal, might have been wrong.

Annexation litigation Jan. 6 is the deadline for property owners to remonstrate against the seven separate annexation ordinances that Bloomington’s city council voted to approve in late September.

Based on the raw numbers that Monroe County’s auditor’s office provided to The B Square on Dec. 23, 2021 the remonstration efforts in Area 3, Area 4, Area 5, and 1C have potentially enough property owner remonstrance signatures to exceed the 65-percent threshold that would automatically stop Bloomington’s annexation effort in those areas.

In Area 1A and Area 2, potentially enough remonstrance signatures have been submitted to exceed at least the 50-percent threshold that would force Bloomington to argue its case for annexation in front of a judge.

Area Unique Owners Waivers* Sigs Raw %
1-A 1,479 782 956 64.64%
1-B 2,104 1,307 769 36.55%
1-C 105 102 92 87.62%
2 1,403 941 880 62.72%
3 101 32 71 70.30%
4 92 19 65 70.65%
5 91 37 62 68.13%

The uncertain piece of the remonstrance puzzle is how a court might rule on the question of the validity of remonstrance waivers that are attached to many of the properties. In 2019 the Indiana state legislature passed a law that invalidates any waiver signed before 2003. Bloomington has taken the legal position that the waivers are still valid.

Litigation is expected on the question of remonstrance to the annexations, and could easily remain unresolved even by the end of 2022.

Redrawing Bloomington city council district boundaries The annexations approved by the Bloomington city council have an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024, which means that those areas, if they survive remonstrance, won’t factor into the 2023 city elections.

But sometime in 2022, the city council will have to redraw the boundaries for the six city council districts. That’s because the result of Bloomington’s 2020 Census count put the council districts out of population balance.

Based on an ordinance that the city council passed in late 2020, before it can make a decision on the new district boundaries, the council will need to review the recommendation from a newly established redistricting advisory commission.

Under the ordinance, the redistricting advisory commission was supposed to have been seated at the start of 2021. That’s because the city’s redistricting advisory commission was conceived as giving the city a way to express a view on the county’s redrawing of precinct boundaries.

The county’s redrawing of precinct boundaries takes place in the year immediately following the decennial census, which was 2021. So the county’s redrawing efforts have been wrapped up.

The city council office has seen a shortage of eligible applicants for the commission, which means that no members of the commission have yet been appointed. Recruiting and appointing members to the redistricting commission will be the first order of business in the city council’s redistricting process.

An aid to proposing new city council districts, available for any member of the public to use, are the online geographic tools that the Monroe County GIS staff left in place for the county’s redistricting process.

Tussling with U.S. Census Bureau? The 2020 census showed a 1.5-percent decrease in Bloomington’s population since the previous decennial census. In 2020, Bloomington’s census was counted at 79,168, which is 1,237 fewer than the 80,405 Bloomington residents who were counted ten years ago.

Among city officials, the 2020 census outcome generated a lot of skepticism about the accuracy of the count.

The city has hired the law firm of Dentons Bingham Greenebaum to look into various options that might be available for convincing the U.S. Census Bureau to adjust Bloomington’s census count. Dentons is the same firm the city used for its rate case in front of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC).

Bloomington’s online financial system shows $15,000 worth of payments to Dentons in the last quarter of 2021, for federal advocacy and public policy advice.

Elections The field for local races for offices like county council, county commissioner, judge, sheriff, and recorder, among several others, will start to come into focus on Jan. 5. That is the first day when candidates can file their official declarations.

Those early declarations will be for candidates in the primaries for either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. The date of the primaries is set for May 3.

Another key date, which is just three months away, is April 5. It’s the first day that someone can vote an absentee ballot in the office of the circuit court clerk or satellite office.

That means any remodeling and renovation of the former NAPA building at 3rd and Walnut streets for county election division use, will likely need to get started early in 2022.

Local income tax (LIT) increase? GO bond spending?

After a failed attempt in 2020 to convince the city council to increase the countywide local income tax, there was no followup attempt by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton in 2021.

But based on city controller Jeff Underwood’s remarks to the city council on Sept. 29, 2021 as a part of the 2022 budget presentation, it would not come as a surprise if a request for a LIT increase came to the council sometime in 2022.

Underwood didn’t talk explicitly about raising the local income tax. But here’s what he did say: “I’m comfortable that we still have good reserves. I’m cautiously optimistic, I think. But certainly, additional revenues are going to be something that will be on the plate of the administration and the council as we move forward, especially to fund needed expenditures.”

Key to any successful argument for increasing the LIT will be some kind of plan for spending the additional money.

Even if they don’t have to consider a request for a LIT increase in 2022, Bloomington’s city councilmembers will be asked to approve $10 million worth of general obligation GO bonds. Hamilton announced in late October that he’d be asking the council to approve bonds “to advance climate-related infrastructure goals.”

When $10 million in GO bonds were issued in 2018, some city councilmembers chaffed at certain aspects of the request, because they had not been consulted on the specific projects, or the composition of the three different bond packages.

In 2022, the bond issuance could play out a few different ways. If the council is inclined to assert itself ahead of time, a resolution could be adopted that would set out the parameters for the kind of expenditures that have majority support. Hamilton’s administration could then incorporate those suggestions into the bond proposal.

The council could also wait for Hamilton to put forth a specific proposal for bond issuance and react to Hamilton’s proposal.

Criminal justice system reform? On the plate of Monroe County officials for 2022 will be continued followup on the reports from two consultants—RJS Justice Services and Inclusivity Strategic Consulting—which highlighted a number of challenges in Monroe County’s criminal justice system.

Farmers market lawsuit In February 2020, Schooner Creek Farm (SCF), a Bloomington farmers market vendor, filed a lawsuit against the city in federal district court, because of the way the city handled protests against SCF, based on the vendor’s ties to white supremacist groups.

SCF made six separate claims under the U.S. Constitution: two involving free-speech, one under the free association clause, one under the equal protection clause, and two under the due process clause. In response, the city of Bloomington filed counterclaims.

That lawsuit is still grinding along. In early July of 2021, the court denied Bloomington’s motion to compel SCF to produce information about money and cryptocurrency that SCF’s received from soliciting funds via its website and Facebook page, a GoFundMe campaign, and television interviews.

On July 14, 2021 SCF filed a motion for oral arguments on the motions the two sides have made for summary judgment. Two days later, on July 16, 2021, Bloomington filed a response in opposition to SCF’s motion for oral arguments. The docket for the case does not show any activity since July 16, 2021.

It’s possible that the case will see some progress in 2022, but it would not be a surprise if it remains unresolved at the end of the year.

Technology center A $3.5-million award from the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help Bloomington build a technology center in the Trades District was finalized in September. According to Bloomington’s economic development director Alex Crowley, the tech center will likely break ground mid-2022.

That depends on some back-and-forth the city is having with the EDA. Crowley wrote in a late-December email to The B Square that the tech center is hoped to be open by early- to mid-2024.

The location is north of Bloomington’s city hall building in the Trades District, which is a certified technology park.

Showers administration building? In mid-August, a preliminary understanding of a deal for the sale of the Showers administration building was reached, so that it could become the headquarters building for a company called Fine Tune. The deal has not yet been finalized.

There was a 120-day feasibility period that could be extended by 60 days, during which the Fine Tune representatives could “pursue examination of all matters relating to the property,” and determine at their sole discretion if the property is suitable for use as Fine Tune’s headquarters.

According to Bloomington’s economic development director Alex Crowley, writing in a late-December email to The B Square, the situation is “in flux” and it’s not clear what the next steps are.

Who gets the Bloomington plan commission seat? A lower court stayed its ruling that Andrew Guenther is the rightful appointee to Bloomington’s plan commission instead of Chris Cockerham. That means Cockerham will continue to serve on Bloomington’s plan commission in 2022. Based on the pace of the litigation, which is now in front of the Indiana court of appeals, the question might not be settled even by the end of 2022.

Raised in a B Square column published two years ago—which was a few months before the circumstances arose that led to the lawsuit—was a key question of law in the case. Question: Does the partisan balancing requirement for a plan commission mean that a plan commission has to be affiliated with some political party or other?

Convention center progress? In early March of 2020, the city of Bloomington and Monroe County officials had reached another rough patch in their effort to build an expansion to the Monroe County convention center. When the pandemic arrived, that was a project easy to put aside for a while.

After nearly a two-year break, sometime in 2022 it is possible that there will be an effort to restart the convention center expansion project. That effort could be pushed along by the fact that food and beverage tax revenues, which were impacted in 2022 by the pandemic, have made a strong rebound. That’s the tax that is supposed to pay for the convention center expansion.

High-speed fiber network? In mid-November, Bloomington announced that the city and Meridiam, an infrastructure development company, had signed a letter of intent for the firm to build and operate an open-access fiber network that would bring high-speed internet access to Bloomington. An agreement was supposed to be finalized by the end of the year.

Writing in a late-December email to The B Square, Bloomington’s IT director Rick Dietz said that no agreement had been finalized yet, but one is expected in the first three months of 2022.

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