Capital improvement board created, convention center expansion takes small step forward

A seven-member capital improvement board (CIB) has finally been created to provide the governance for a long-planned expansion of the Monroe Convention Center.

The unanimous vote by the three county commissioners to create the CIB came at their regular Wednesday meeting. Their vote was greeted with a rare round of applause in the Nat U. Hill room at the county courthouse.

Clapping enthusiastically in the audience for the vote were county councilors Geoff McKim, and Peter Iversen, as well as Eric Spoonmore, who is a former county councilor and now CEO of the Great Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

That appears to end the wrangling between the county commissioners and Bloomington mayor John Hamilton, over the governance of the expansion project, which has stalled the joint city-county effort since early March 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Hamilton’s preferred way of handling the tasks that the CIB will oversee would have been through a nonprofit. A CIB is a public body, which the county commissioners can create under state law.

Still to be negotiated are the details of an interlocal agreement between the city and the county governments, which would lay out, among other things, the way that any land now owned by the city or the county will be incorporated into the expansion project.

It’s not clear if the city administration has provided written feedback to the county on a draft of the interlocal agreement, which the county provided at a city council work session held in the second week of June.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioner Julie Thomas encouraged county residents who are interested in serving on the CIB to go ahead and fill out an application.

Under the ordinance approved by commissioners, they will be making just two of the appointments to the seven-member group. The county council will make one appointment, for a total of three made by county government.

City government also gets three appointments—two for the mayor and one for the city council. That makes for a total of six appointments by city and government officials.

Those six will decide the seventh seat.

The section of the ordinance covering the appointments was singled out by Iversen for praise. “One of the reasons why I wanted to stand up in support of this legislation is the collaborative nature found in Section 2,” Iversen said.

Under state law, a CIB has to be partisan balanced—no more than four members can be affiliated with the same political party. In the ordinance approved by commissioners on Wednesday, that is handled by requiring that the pair of appointments made by the commissioners have a partisan split. The same goes for the pair of appointments made by the mayor.

That means the six picks by city and county government would have no worse than a 4–2 imbalance. The ordinance requires that the seventh seat conform with the state statute, which means the six appointees just have to make sure their choice doesn’t tip the CIB membership over the partisan limit.

From the public mic at Wednesday’s meeting, Spoonmore said the way the CIB membership had been structured is fair. He said, “I don’t know how this could be any more fair, between the county and the city.”

About the CIB’s role in the convention center expansion, Spoonmore said, “I know this is just one component. But I think it’s a very momentous component that is being established here today.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Bloomington Chamber issued a news release about the CIB, quoting Spoonmore saying, “We could not be any more excited for the future of our downtown and our convention and hospitality sectors.”

President of the county board of commissioners Penny Githens responded to Spoonmore’s comments. She noted that Spoonmore was serving on the county council in 2017, when the council voted to enact the 1-percent food and beverage tax, which is supposed to provide the funding for the convention center expansion.

The county council’s vote to approve the tax was 4–3. Spoonmore was part of the minority who opposed the tax. Geoff McKim and Cheryl Munson are the only two county councilors who voted in support of the food and beverage tax, and who are still serving on the council.

On Wednesday, both McKim and Munson spoke in favor of the creation of the CIB. Also speaking in favor of the CIB was county councilor Peter Iversen, who was not serving on the council in 2017, when the food and beverage tax was enacted.

County commissioner Lee Jones was serving on the county council in 2017, and voted against the tax.

On Wednesday, Jones said, “Since that time, I’ve come to realize that this is something that really will benefit our community. And I was reassured, even though I voted against it, that we would have the city’s cooperation, and that they would work with us to improve the convention center.”

The history of the controversy over the tax, when it was enacted in 2017, factored into the remarks made by commissioners on Wednesday.

Commissioners cited the minutes from the Dec. 13, 2017 county council meeting, when Hamilton talked about the convention center expansion as a collaboration between the city and the county.

Commissioner Penny Githens said Hamilton had pled with the county council to pass the food and beverage tax, then read aloud some of Hamilton’s remarks as recorded in the meeting minutes: “Well first, I’d say it’s something we’d expect to work with you on. This is not just a city project; this is a joint project.”

At the city council’s work session in the second week of June, which was attended by county officials and representatives from the mayor’s office, Bloomington corporation counsel Beth Cate had floated the idea that the city would handle the construction of the project.

On Wednesday, Githens said about Cate’s idea: “That’s not collaboration, in my view. And it also is not something I’m ready to turn over.” It’s the CIB that should handle the decisions on construction, Githens said.

On Wednesday, commissioner Julie Thomas responded to a question asked from the public mic by The B Square about the timeframe for negotiating the details of the interlocal agreement. Thomas cited an end-of-year deadline that is set out in new state legislation, which was passed earlier this year. She indicated she hoped it would be done sooner than that.

If the mayor does not make his two appointments, that would leave the CIB with just five members, assuming the four who are appointed by the city council and county government choose the fifth. Githens said at Wednesday’s meeting, “We can move forward, if there were only five members.”

The lack of progress by Bloomington and Monroe County on the convention center expansion—despite the fact that the tax has been collected for a half decade—has attracted the attention of the state legislature.

The state legislature passed HB 1454,  which uses the local food and beverage tax as a prod, to require Bloomington and Monroe County to show some progress on the convention center project.

The new state legislation requires the city of Bloomington and Monroe County to show some specific signs of progress. One requirement is the development of a plan to spend food and beverage tax revenue by Dec. 1 of this year. That plan has to be filed with the state by year’s end.

A second requirement is that by July 1, 2025, the city and the county have to actually spend some food and beverage tax money, as described in the required plan [HB 1454]. If those requirements aren’t met, the legislation ends Monroe County’s ability to collect a food and beverage tax.

The revenue from the food and beverage tax is divided between the city and the county governments, based on the location of the establishment that collects the tax. While the city has pledged its revenue from the food and beverage tax to the convention center expansion, the county has not.

Projects that are being considered by the county government for potential funding by food and beverage tax revenue include the creation of a limestone heritage tourist destination, and the installation of synthetic turf soccer fields at Karst Farm Park.

Based on the 2022 year-end food and beverage fund balances for the two governmental units—$1.1 million for the county and $13.1 million for the city—plus the roughly $1.5 million that has been collected through the first four months of this year, there’s nearly $16 million in food and beverage tax revenue that is currently sitting waiting to be spent.

One thought on “Capital improvement board created, convention center expansion takes small step forward

  1. Hurrah for keeping a public body subject to the Open Door law, unlike the mayor’s private entity!

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