$29.5 million in bonds OK’d by Bloomington city council, decision on building purchase to come later

Bloomington’s city council voted 8–1 on Wednesday night to approve the issuance of $29.5 million in general revenue bonds, to pay for public safety projects—including the purchase and renovation of the western part of the former Showers Brothers Furniture building that houses city hall.

But the purchase of the western part of the historic Showers building was not included in the city council’s Wednesday approval. That vote is expected on Dec. 21.

The western part of the Showers building is where Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration is proposing to construct a replacement for the 3rd Street police station, and a new fire department administrative headquarters.

Also included in the bond proposal is the reconstruction of Fire Station #1 and the remodel of Fire Station #3, among other projects, for around $10.5 million.

The appropriation for the expenditure of $8.75 million for the building purchase, plus about $15 million in renovations, will get a first reading at next Wednesday’s (Dec. 14) meeting of the council, with a final vote expected the following week, on Dec. 21.

Together with the appropriation ordinance, the council will be asked to approve the Bloomington redevelopment commission’s purchase agreement for the Showers building.

Dissenting on the bond issuance vote was city council president Susan Sandberg.

Based on remarks from councilmembers on Wednesday, the Showers building purchase might not get the same level of support as the bond issuance, but seems likely to have the five votes it would need to win approval from the nine-member council.

Under state law, it’s because the RDC is playing the role of the purchaser that the purchase price of the building can exceed the average of two fair market appraisals of the property—$5.5 million and $7.69 million.

It’s because the purchase price is greater than $5 million that the city council, under state law, has to approve the RDC’s purchase agreement.

Concern about the choice of the location for Bloomington’s new main police station was the main cause for the hesitancy of councilmembers to support the bond issuance, even if they wound up voting for it.

At last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, president of Bloomington’s police union Paul Post expressed opposition to the Showers building location, in part because of challenges related to vehicular access—ingress and egress.  Post also spoke at Wednesday’s regular meeting.

At Wednesday’s regular meeting, councilmember Dave Rollo said he is tending against a vote for the Showers building purchase. Rollo pointed to the results of a survey of officers that had been done, showing no support among the rank-and-file for the Showers location.

Councilmember Matt Flaherty countered by saying that while the information from officers is useful, their responses depended in part on how the question was posed. Officers were just asked if they think the Showers building is a good location, Flaherty said—so the question didn’t include the same kind of constraints the council had to weigh, like the cost of other alternatives.

Councilmember Steve Volan asked what the administration would plan to do if the council approved the bond issuance, but two weeks from now does not approve the Showers building purchase. Mayor John Hamilton responded by saying that “Option B” would be pursued. That means the fire stations would get re-built and remodeled, and the fire administration headquarters would be incorporated into a new fire training/logistics center.

For the police station, Hamilton said, the existing station on 3rd Street would be rehabbed, within the existing square footage.

Councilmember Jim Sims called that option “a joke,” but said he is interested in hearing more about the administration’s preferred option. Sims said that he does not want the administration to have to say to the council eight years from now: We need more space.

Volan said that he is “ultimately agnostic” about the choice of the Showers building as a location. But he said he is “absolutely opposed” to using CRED (Community Revitalization Enhancement District) funds on the public safety improvements.

The total balance in Bloomington’s two CRED funds is around $17 million. The administration’s plan calls for the use of around $5 million in CRED funds, in addition to the bond proceeds.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith shared Volan’s view that the public safety projects are not an appropriate use of CRED funds.

Councilmember Ron Smith said, “No matter what options we choose, I want to vote for something that’s going to meet the department’s modern day needs and modern day use designs for these two vital agencies.” Smith said he’s not convinced that the Showers building option is the best one.

Councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said she favors investments like those being proposed by the administration, and thinks that consolidation of city functions in one place is a good idea. She distinguished between an “ideal” option and the “optimal” option. The Showers building might not be an ideal option, but it might be the optimal one, Sgambelluri said.

Sandberg stated that she is not in favor of buying the Showers building. She does not appreciate being asked to vote to issue a bond “without having the best path forward,” she said. Citing the idea of “not about us, without us,” Sandberg indicated that the view of rank-and-file officers against the Showers location is a key consideration.