Post-primary: Work continues on Monroe County election operations building, prep for fall election

view of the corner of a concrete block building in the process of getting painted. The left wall is beige. The right wall is the original color, which was blue.
View to the northwest of the Monroe County’s election operations building at the corner of 3rd and Walnut streets around midday on May 12, 2022.

A little more than a week after Tuesday’s primary elections concluded in Monroe County, work has started on preparation for voting in the Nov. 8 general election.

On Thursday morning, the county’s new election operations building, at the corner of 3rd and Walnut streets, started a planned cosmetic change.

By midday on Thursday, the building was halfway through its transformation from an iconic blue, reflecting its heritage as a NAPA auto parts store, to a more subdued earth tone.

The painting work is being done by Premier Painting, under a $9,850 contract approved by county commissioners in early March.

The hope had been that the painting work, along with some other cosmetic improvements, would be completed before the primary elections were held.

But county fleet and facilities manager Greg Crohn, and chief technology officer Eric Evans focused on the bare essentials for converting the previously vacant building into a site for early voting, which started on April 5. The building also served as an Election Day voting location for several precincts.

The work that was completed before any voting started included: adding one more bathroom; creating a secure ballot room; and installing a computer network.

Other work yet to be done includes adding an exterior awning, signs, interior painting, flooring, and window treatments.

At its regular Tuesday meeting, the seven-member county council approved an additional appropriation of $260,000 to cover costs associated with the building conversion.

On that occasion, Crohn and Evans won praise from county commissioner Julie Thomas, who attended the county council’s Tuesday meeting. Crohn and Evans had done a lot of work under “very challenging time-constrained circumstances to make that…work as well as it did,” Thomas said.

The time constraints arose out of months-long friction between the county commissioners and the election board over the physical space allocation. It was not until mid-December 2021, when the former NAPA building was finally settled as the location for in-person early voting for this year’s election cycle.

Just like for the primaries, for the Nov. 8 general elections, some voting is planned to take place at 3rd and Walnut

The real estate was originally purchased by Monroe County as part of the land that is supposed to be used towards the joint effort by Bloomington and Monroe County to build an expansion of the convention center, which sits a block away.

The building at 3rd and Walnut is owned by Monroe County Convention Center Building Corporation.

The convention center expansion project had stalled even before the pandemic hit in early 2020, as city and county officials wrangled over the governance of the project.

The connection of the former NAPA building to the convention center plans was included in the additional $260,000 appropriation approved by county councilors on Tuesday. County attorney Jeff Cockerill told councilors that the amount includes a monthly payment of $4,800 to the convention and visitors commission (CVC) to cover the gap in revenue that would ordinarily go to the CVC from a potential tenant of the building.

The convention center expansion is planned to be funded with Bloomington’s share of a 1-percent food and beverage tax, which is paid on prepared food and beverages sold at businesses in Monroe County.

Monroe County’s share of the food and beverage tax is planned to be spent on a limestone heritage designation site, among other projects.

The tax revenue is distributed to the city of Bloomington if the business collecting the tax is located inside city limits. Otherwise, the money goes to the county government.

The tax started getting collected in March 2018. During the pandemic, both Bloomington and Monroe County used some of the accumulated funds to support businesses who were impacted by lost revenue during that period. Food and beverage tax revenue also took a hit during the pandemic.

But food and beverage tax revenues rebounded quickly and have continued to accumulate for both the city and the county.

Bloomington’s food and beverage tax fund balance at the end of 2021 was $9,022,600.77. Adding the revenue from this year’s food and beverage tax distributions so far would bring that amount to about $10 million.

Monroe County’s food and beverage tax fund balance at the end of 2021 was $752,917.03. Adding the revenue from this year’s food and beverage tax distributions so far would bring that amount to about $900,000

Based on lack of progress towards the convention center expansion up to now, it’s somewhat likely that the building at 3rd and Walnut would be available for use in the 2023 municipal election cycle.

For the 2024 elections, that’s not as clear. And there’s some interest in making sure that the logistics for 2023 are the same as for 2024, so that 2023 can be used as a dress rehearsal for the 2024 presidential elections—when turnout is expected to be especially heavy.

In the immediate future, though, Monroe County’s three-person election board will be focused on wrapping up the final procedural bits from the primaries.

On Friday (May 13) at 12:01 p.m. the board will meet to review the 32 provisional ballots that were cast last Tuesday. The board’s meeting will be held at Election Central, which is the old Johnson’s Hardware building at the corner of 7th and Madison streets.