Editor’s note: Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton spoke to the community via a video presentation, his fourth major address of the year, on Thursday, July 16. Here is the transcript of his address.
That’s what I’d like to focus on today: how we best meet the challenges of what’s to come. How to RECOVER FORWARD. By that I mean recover from the pandemic and economic collapse FORWARD into the future we need – climbing our way out of trouble with our eyes firmly on the horizon, and explicitly with the goal of building the community we want – racially more just, economically more fair, and environmentally more sustainable.
Our pandemic response began with a sprint, which we have run well, and now has become a marathon. And let’s be clear: Recover forward — recovering the right way — is not a return to some pre-pandemic normal, it is recovering into a community consistent with our values.
Before delving into the details of Recover Forward, however, permit me three points. First, managing the continuing health threats of the pandemic is critical with the imminent return of tens of thousands of IU students and in light of national facts showing the dangers of a resurgence. I expect very soon we will have local mandatory face coverings and more controls over potential super-spreader events, such as requiring table seating at bars, and smaller social event maximums. I expect that these protocols will be adopted very soon at the county health level or independently at the city level if need be.
Second, I want directly to address the issue of racial justice we face in Bloomington, pain felt by all of us, but particularly people of color, from racism’s ugly, far-too-familiar face. We need justice done in each local case, yes, to be sure. We need justice done for Mr. Booker, for those experiencing racial profiling by sheriff deputies, conservation officers, or any law enforcement personnel, for the victims of the hit-and-run driver. We also need structural reform. One area is in continuing the evolution of our Bloomington Police Department. Several actions are already underway: Our five-resident Board of Public Safety is reviewing all police policies, again, as in 2016, to assure they are consistent with our values and goals, using the 21st Century Policing Report, Eight Can’t Wait, Campaign Zero and other guides. I have directed that review to be complete, with a public report within 90 days. The review has already prompted changes, such as a clarified and strengthened duty to report misconduct among our officers. Other issues will be considered, such as investigatory stops and 911 protocols. Our budget for 2021 will propose significant changes in the police department, including reductions in funding of badged officer positions and increases in non-badged positions building on our past successes with the hiring of neighborhood resource officers and social workers. We will continue to review other changes to recommend to city council and the community in the coming weeks.
And third, while we confront all these major challenges, city government also has to just keep our community functioning day to day, with the basic city services we all rely on every day: clean water, sanitation, public safety, upkeep of our basic infrastructure, transit, public housing and decent, safe private housing, parks, playgrounds and trails, animal control, and so many other aspects of our quality of life. We will see lower revenues in the coming years – we’ve already seen them — so we’ll need to tighten our belt to keep these basics going. Since March, a city team has overseen changes to our work in the new pandemic conditions, like no-fare and rear-door loading for Bloomington Transit, or new online parking permit applications, or Zoom board meetings, or suspending in-person apartment inspections and freezing reversion spending.
Countercyclical Government and Forward Progress
Now as to Recover Forward. City government must do more than just protect our basic, essential operations. When our community is reeling, government should also help us recover. To reduce human suffering. To avoid job losses.To preserve local institutions we depend upon that enrich our community. To restore and increase racial justice, economic equity, and climate progress.
That’s Recovering Forward. Leaning into the future. We have already begun this work.
On Jobs and the Economy, early in the pandemic I established the Economic Stabilization and Recovery task force, which pushed 1.6 million dollars in emergency help out the door in record time, to scores of nonprofits and businesses, to help them survive the storm — and provided advice and counseling, to help struggling entrepreneurs stay afloat.
On Racial Justice, we’ve begun work on policing referenced earlier, but also recently completed a city-wide affordable housing report, and a first-ever digital-equity survey, both of which will help us identify areas of need. We’re continuing our investment in the Bridge Initiative, to sponsor a community wide task force exploring how to attack structural racism, and advocating for new city programs in housing, jobs, mobility, quality of life, and more, with an anti-racism filter applied. It’s worth noting that County-wide areas of impact are key for review too, including public education, public health, and of course criminal justice, including our county jail and juvenile justice systems.
On Climate Justice, we have continued major investments in mobility for walkers, bikers and transit riders, such as the planned 7-Line and other trails; we’re implementing the new Transportation Demand Management study; and we continue essential research to assess our climate vulnerability and assemble the data to inform our work ahead.
And on the Pandemic and Public Health, the Social Services task force that I assembled has protected our community safety net, in areas of food security, emergency housing, child care, and mental health.
This work in these four big areas has been part of our 2020 sprint. And we’ve only scratched the surface on so much being done by so many in our community. To carry this on, to truly Recover Forward, will take resources, some of which will come from state and federal sources. But not enough.
Summary of Financial Condition and Plan
We have to ask what resources do we have at our disposal in city government, to do our part to help meet these big challenges. Every day I thank our people, our 750-plus dedicated public servants, who keep our city going. Most of our revenue keeps our people on the job — trained, equipped, and compensated — to deliver essential services. Other revenue goes to partners, contractors, supplies, upkeep and maintenance, and capital costs.
Our city government today has strong financial reserves, built up over years with city council support during healthy economic times, and designed for rainy days. And the rain is here, with thousands still unemployed and many businesses and organizations struggling for their lives. The state recommends that Indiana cities set aside at least 2 months of operating expenses in reserves. Bloomington has over 4 months in reserve. Amid our belt-tightening, it is prudent to invest some of our rainy day reserves over the next two budget years, to protect those key services and help our community climb out of these tough times. I don’t want to go all the way down to the state’s recommended minimum, but I will ask the city council to target ending the year 2022 — two and a half years from now — with a still-prudent 3-month reserve.
This approach allows us to respond to the crises ahead of us with about $8MM of surplus reserves over the next 30 months. I will ask the city council to invest these reserves in two ways: first, one half to protect our basic city operations, 2 million per year in the next two years, to assure we avoid lay-offs and sustain essential operations, through 2022. And the second half — invest another $4 million, for recovery forward, to help accelerate community and household recovery and reduce the pain and damage of the pandemic, using 2 million this year and 2 million the next.
After providing financing for basic operations through 2022, the question is how do we best help our community Recover Forward? For in the decade of the 2020s, we simply must do the right things. The stakes are high. Candidate Joe Biden says we must “Build Back Better.” I agree. We have to build a better Bloomington – RECOVER FORWARD, through the decade of the 2020s, to Repair and Reform. Toward Climate justice. And Racial justice. And Economic justice. To climb out of this hole, that like our health emergency, is particularly harmful to racial and economic minorities.
We should think of Recover Forward as coming in three phases, with phase one, immediate steps to get our recovery going during the remainder of this very challenging year. Second, for 2021, fashion the right budget reflecting our values and priorities. And third, for 2022 and thereafter, hit our stride for the rest of this all-important decade.
How to Recover Forward in 2020
For phase 1, last week I sent the city council a special appropriation request for immediate investments to help our community climb out of the deep hole we are in. In the great tradition of our governments – federal, state and local – helping us get through tough times, I will ask the council to appropriate 2 million dollars in three basic areas of support:
First, commit more than one million dollars toward a more equitable, sustainable recovery, funding a special round of Jack Hopkins social service grants to help those with great needs, and more arts funding to revive a sector hit especially hard by the pandemic. Also investing in improved non-auto mobility with sidewalks and transit stops, in more energy conservation in buildings, and in a stronger local food economy. All of this will also support much-needed jobs and speed our recovery forward.
Second, about half a million in direct support to grow jobs: helping smaller local firms and nonprofits hire people, particularly hard-to-employ or underemployed individuals. Job growth will be essential to our long-term healthy recovery.
And third, another half a million for affordable housing recovery: as we continue current strong efforts for affordable rental housing, we will invest in new homeownership opportunities for working families and others, assuring that people from all walks of life can live and thrive and build wealth in Bloomington.
These funds are available immediately, from 2019 appropriations we did not spend and have protected during the pandemic. Investing them yet this year will help us Recover Forward. I’ll note that the City’s recovery investment can and I believe should be in parallel with a similar county government investment in recovery, with their also-healthy financial reserves. I’ve urged our colleagues in county government to expand their support for eviction protection, for our public health system, for the criminal justice system reforms so sorely needed, and for other recovery needs.
How to Recover Forward in 2021
The second phase of Recover Forward is our 2021 budget request, presented to city council next month. We will import the Recover Forward priorities into every part of the city budget, asking for another two million dollars from surplus reserves to be invested in the same three key areas: One, Sustainable and Equitable recovery, with major investments for mobility, energy efficiency, local food and the safety net, Two, Jobs and Economic recovery. And three, Affordable Housing recovery. In all these efforts, and throughout the 2021 budget, we will be working toward racial justice, climate justice, and economic justice, including reforms as previously mentioned in public safety, new investments in Transportation Demand Management and non-auto infrastructure, and a more equitable housing market, a stronger local food sector, and continued support for child care and job opportunities for all.
How to Recover Forward in 2022 and Beyond
The third phase of Recover Forward is year 2022 and beyond, through the decade of the 20s. The reality is that, in order to invest significantly in climate justice, racial justice, and economic justice beyond 2021, we will need additional revenue. I spoke of this back in January and February, and the importance of investing in our future. COVID has challenged us to respond, in the interim, which we will. But the long term needs have not gone away.
I wish we had more revenue options, with local fiscal home rule. But the state legislature has tied our hands, with property tax caps and very few options. And nothing suggests the legislature will change this. We cannot count on or plan for major investments or support from the state or federal government, given their inclinations and their fiscal capacities. We need to control our own fiscal destiny.
Context is important when talking about taxes. We must remember that our country has low tax levels overall. The United States’ overall tax burden among 30 industrialized countries is near the very lowest. And among the 50 states in our very low-tax country, Indiana is a relatively low-tax state overall. And among the 20 largest cities in this low-tax state in a low-tax country, yes, Bloomington is among the lowest tax cities. It is striking that in this most progressive, ambitious, caring community, we find ourselves among the lowest-tax cities, in a low-tax state, in a very low-tax country. Put plainly, this prevents us from having the resources we need to make the kinds of long-term investments that align with our values. As has been said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” I’d amend to say taxes are what we pay for a just and a humane society.
Earlier this year, and in this light, I urged that to achieve big things for climate justice and for economic and racial justice, we needed to invest more in our own community. Something government can do uniquely. I suggested a half of one percent local income tax to raise 8 million dollars per year, for critical investments in our future. After COVID and its challenges, and in light of economic pressures, I suggest we cut that in half, to one quarter of one percent, to fund the critical Recovery Forward investments we will need throughout this decade, to reflect our values.
I know it is rarely popular to raise revenues, and that it is not easy during times of economic pressure. But we cannot Recover Forward without it. Without it, we will shortchange our future and Bloomington’s potential. And, being one of the lowest-tax cities in a low-tax state in one of the lowest-tax countries, we have fiscal room to do so. Recover Forward lets us dedicate these resources toward those most in need, and toward the Bloomington we want to become.
If we say that racial and economic justice are critically important, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. We cannot achieve dramatic improvements without new investments: in housing, in job training, in our social safety net, in equal opportunity.
If we say that climate action is critically important, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. We cannot achieve sustainability without new investments in mobility options, in infrastructure, in energy efficiency, in local food, in our lower carbon future.
If we say that Bloomington is a progressive community, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and invest in our future.
Communities all across the country face these challenges. I believe it is the bold and progressive communities who will realize the brighter future we want for our next generations. Investments in climate, racial, and economic justice will pay off. They will return benefits several-fold, as we revive and reform our Bloomington, to build the community we want to be.
Our year that began with a sprint is now a marathon. If we prepare and run that race well, we can together achieve great things in the next decade. I believe that we can, indeed, bring climate justice, and racial justice, and economic justice to our Bloomington.
Our Recover Forward begins one step at a time. We know we’ll have tons of discussions and ideas to share. But let’s begin. First, recovery investments for 2020, to help us dig out of this hole, and reorient ourselves toward the future. Then our budget for 2021, to reform our operations and reaffirm our directions. Reflecting our community values in our budget.
And then, we’ll consider how to invest in the long-term and long-haul ways that will move us toward our highest community aspirations. In all of this, we will be affirming the worth of every person, the belonging of every person. Affirming the imperative to confront racial and economic justice together, with energy and purpose. And affirming the need to deal with our climate emergency, with resolve and commitment.
The year 2020 has taught us that we can change. We can respond dramatically to dramatic challenges. The decade of the 2020s calls us to do the same, to meet these long-term, hard challenges with the same fervor and dedication. That is how we will Recover Forward. And I’m confident Bloomington is ready. I look forward to doing that with you all, and I ask your engagement as we chart the path. Thank you so much for your attention, and your care for each other and Bloomington.