Herald Times Questionnaire Response from Geoff McKim

The Herald Times published the responses to their questionnaire on issues of local concern from all candidates for County Council in the upcoming Democratic primary. You can see the responses from all candidates here (behind a paywall).

Experience and Priorities

What is your occupation?

 

I have worked in the Information Technology field for my entire career and have worked as a contractor for the National Park Service for over 10 years, specializing in IT project management and cybersecurity. I also teach a course on systems analysis and design for government professionals at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

 

Why did you decide to run for office?

 

I originally ran for County Council because I wanted a way to serve the community, and friends and other elected officials suggested I run, because they thought that I had a skill set that would be useful on the County Council in particular. Since then, I have gained many years of experience in local government, and there are many important community issues which I am passionate about and can help find solutions for.

 

What are your top priorities if elected?

 

  • Recovery and resilience

  • Enabling and encouraging more affordable housing

  • Justice system reform, including more resources for treatment

  • Community and workforce development, including building walkable communities, increasing transit, and supporting broadband

  • Fiscally sound county government

 

What qualities/experience do you possess that makes you think you are the right pick for the office?

 

  • 12 years’ experience serving on the Monroe County Council, through good times and bad

  • Solid understanding of local government and the powers and resources that local government does and does not have to effect change and serve the community

  • Deep understanding of local government finance, budgeting, and revenues

  • Demonstrated ability to work collaboratively with other units of government, such as the City of Bloomington and Town of Ellettsville, along with the business and nonprofit communities

  • Demonstrated willingness to put in the hard work on behalf of my constituents

How can voters learn more about your campaign?

 

There are several ways to find out more about my campaign:

 

 

In addition, having served on the County Council for almost 12 years, voters can find extensive information on my votes and activities on the Council through the local media, including the Herald Times, the B-Square Beacon, and Community Access Television Service (CATS).

Budget

We are anticipating revenue loss due to the pandemic. What is your strategy for managing the county’s purse strings knowing this?

 

We have spent the past years carefully building up robust reserves (over $7M in the Rainy Day fund) in preparation for a downturn. We are currently working with department heads to pause hiring, flatten/reduce budgets in 2021 proposals, defer less essential projects, and use Rainy Day reserves to replace lost income and property taxes. County government must not cut back on essential services; those services are needed more than ever.

We began modeling the impact of the pandemic on local government immediately after the shutdown began, and are working with other resources in the state to have current information and approaches to managing reduced revenue. As some effects of the pandemic on county revenues will likely last for at least 3 years, we are developing revenue and budget projections out to 2023, and will use the best available data to ensure that we use reserves to preserve county government operations.

 

Given the impact of COVID-19, what would be your budget priorities going forward?

 

My top budgetary priority for the foreseeable future will be recovery and resilience, including:

 

  • Providing resources to the Health and Emergency Management departments, to continue to respond to this crisis and better prepare for the next

  • Using local resources such and Food and Beverage Tax to support the survival of local businesses and employees, to the extent allowed by law

  • Providing county resources for emergency relief, in the areas of housing and food security

  • Supporting County department heads in developing ways to deliver essential services in ways that do not put either county employees or members of the public at risk (for example, deploying an online permitting system)

  • Most importantly, maintaining the continuity of County government services during a time of increased need

What aspect of county government, if any, do you think we need to eliminate or reduce spending in because of the pandemic?

 

As we don’t yet know the full impact of the crisis on various revenue streams, we will continuously evaluate and make further reductions as needed. However, at this point we can anticipate:

 

  • Focusing highway spending on maintenance of pavement and matches for grants; highway revenue from the gas tax will be reduced substantially in the short run

  • Reducing spending of the Innkeeper’s Tax on marketing and convention center management, prioritizing service of existing debt

  • Deferring less essential capital projects

  • Deferring action on expansion of the Convention Center until the community can assess the recovery of the tourism industry

  • Suspending hiring of new county employees in budgets supported by income and property taxes, until we can better assess the economic recovery prospects

  • Other budgetary reductions to be made in partnership with county department heads, to give them maximum flexibility to carry out their statutory missions

 

What are other budget priorities you have?

 

Other budgetary priorities include:

 

  • Affordable Housing: Enabling and encouraging more affordable housing, including looking at new tools such as the Residential TIF, rewriting/modernizing our County Development Ordinance (zoning code), exploring tax abatements for affordable housing, and investing in infrastructure to increase our housing stock

  • A More Humane Justice System: Supporting the STRIDE crisis diversion center to help divert people having mental health/addictions crises away from incarceration and into treatment, supporting additional treatment options for addiction, continuing to support more alternatives to incarceration, reducing the dependence of the justice system on user fees, additional shifts of mental health support in the jail, and evaluating/prioritizing/funding the recommendations of the comprehensive study of the Monroe County justice system.

  • Workforce and Community Development, including additional transit options outside of the city limits, connecting communities with walking/bike trails, rural broadband expansion.

 

What aspect of county government do you believe we are currently not funding adequately and why?

 

We need to better fund treatment for addictions that reduces the need for incarceration. Lately addictions and the justice system seem to have been forgotten in light of the pandemic, but the epidemic of addiction still continues, and continues to contribute to the population of the jail. In collaboration with the ACLU, the County has engaged in a comprehensive assessment of our justice system oriented towards lowering the population of the jail and implementing best practices, and is currently awaiting the results. Once we have the results, we will systematically review, assess, and prioritize specific investments. This effort will require countywide partnership between the Council, the Commissioners, the Board of Judges, the Prosecutor, the Public Defender, the Sheriff, and other officials.

 

How do you propose we adequately fund the area described above?

 

We are not yet at a point where I can make specific recommendations for funding. We will explore all options, depending on the specific needs. The state provides an optional local income tax for corrections and rehabilitation, but it is oriented primarily towards facilities rather than services. A very successful public-private partnership initiated by Cook, but also including Centerstone, the Bloomington Health Foundation, IU Health, IU Health Foundation, and other organizations resulted in the creation of the STRIDE crisis diversion center. Existing public safety income tax proceeds can be invested in treatment options that reduce the burden on the jail and courts.

 

What lesson has the COVID-19 pandemic taught you about our local economy and workforce?

 

This applies not only about our local economy but the national/global economy in general, and that is how truly fragile our economy and the economic lives of so many residents is. Our just-in-time economy has turned out to be exactly the opposite of resilient. We need to work together to build in more safety nets, more buffers so that we can survive through not only this, but future shutdowns. Although this really does not come as a surprise, the pandemic has also reminded us that lower-income workers, people of color, and women bear the brunt of a severe economic downturn. Many of these people are also at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19.

 

What can the county council do to help restart and strengthen the local economy post-pandemic in the future?

 

The best thing that the County Council and the County in general can do is recognize that we cannot do it alone, and rather actively support and participate in broader efforts to strengthen the local economy. Efforts such as those lead by the City’s Economic Stabilization and Recovery program, the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, and the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation should be supported. Nobody can do this by themselves; we need to actively seek partnerships – at the local, regional, state, and national level totally focused on strengthening the local economy.

 

The tourism industry was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. How would you like to see food and beverage tax revenue invested in the short-, middle and long-term to rebuild our county’s tourism industry?

 

The top priority for both the short- and middle-term usage of the food and beverage tax revenue must be to ensure the survival of the businesses that sustain our local tourism industry, as well as commitments to our existing assets like the Convention Center. We need to pause on long-term planning for the local tourism industry vis a vis the food and beverage tax until we know more about the future. All options need to be on the table, including future expansion of the Convention Center and potential repeal of the food and beverage tax, if the travel industry does not rebound. In the short run, the food and beverage tax has proved to be a valuable buffer that allows us to invest in the survival of our existing tourism industry.

What support would you like to see provided at the local level to help those businesses outside of the tourism industry impacted by the pandemic?

 

The magnitude of the of the need, both by businesses and individuals is likely far greater than any local government can successfully ameliorate. The City of Bloomington was fortunate to have access to Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association (BUEA) funding that allowed it to provide support to non-profits and other businesses that are not necessarily in the tourism industry, but even that aid is small compared to the need. The county needs to be actively engaged with external relief funding opportunities, including programs from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) and the US Economic Development Administration, and partner with the City of Bloomington and other organizations to ensure the strongest case possible for support of our local businesses.

 

What can the county council do to help the local workforce that was also impacted by the pandemic?

 

The need is so overwhelming that the County’s ability to provide significant material aid is limited. We need to leverage and support the core capabilities of organizations that are best equipped to support the local workforce, including:

  • Seek and apply for community development and recovery grants (such as those from Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the US Economic Development Administration, etc.) that focus on assistance to individuals harmed by the pandemic

  • Continue to support nonprofit partners, such as United Way, Hoosier Hills Food Bank, and Shalom Center, to strengthen our social safety net, with respect to shelter and food

  • Support townships, potentially with direct aid, in the prevention of evictions and utility disconnections, once the emergency orders expire
     

Affordable Housing

What did we learn, if anything, about our housing market due to the pandemic?

 

Clearly it is too soon to know for sure about the long-term effects of the pandemic on the local housing market. However, early observations and data from the local real estate sector indicate that the housing market remains extremely tight, with very little inventory available. The more affordable the house, the less availability. A short-term dip in sales in April has already rebounded in May. These circumstances keep housing prices high and make it difficult for people to buy homes. Efforts to continue to add to our housing stock and make housing more affordable are still critically important, perhaps even more important than before the pandemic. Further, we have learned how important the continuity of core county government services (such as those provided by the Recorder, Auditor, and Building departments) during a shutdown are to allow residents to continue to buy and sell their homes.

The term affordable housing means different things to different people. What type of affordable housing do you believe is needed most in Monroe County?

 

There are technical definitions of affordable housing, critical for specific projects involving tax credits and other funding sources. Regardless of technical definition, more housing is needed at varying income levels, particularly from very low to moderate (up to approximately 120% of Area Median Income). Too many residents are cost-burdened (spending more than 30% of household income on housing). Data from the local real estate sector indicates that inventory of low- and moderately priced houses remains low.

 

We need to allow and encourage more housing to be built, removing regulatory barriers, modernizing our zoning code and creating a “fast track to affordable housing” program that streamlines the process for developing affordable properties. We need to work closely with city utilities and the regional sewer district to extend sewer, essential for larger numbers of houses to be built. We need to align our affordable housing strategy with the County’s Affordable Housing Commission.

How does taxpayer funding (land purchases, tax abatements, a local housing fund, etc.) factor into your plans to expand affordable housing in the county?

 

County funding is scarce and must be deployed strategically. There are several options with promise for expanding affordable housing, though: 

 

  • Tax abatements for affordable housing: As a member of the City’s Economic Development Commission, I proposed a structure for the City’s abatement policy that puts affordable housing on equal footing with job creation. We can adopt similar criteria for abatements in the county.

  • Land ownership: The county owns property acquired for potential Convention Center expansion. Once the direction of expansion, if any, is determined, I support working with the Commissioners to redevelop for workforce housing.

  • Residential TIF: new tool provides the county with ability to deploy infrastructure that enables workforce housing, using property tax increment to finance it.

  • County housing program: Using general funds, develop a housing development program in partnership with existing organizations like South Central Indiana Housing Opportunities (SCIHO), leveraging the expertise of the county Affordable Housing Commission.

 

Part of the equation of living affordably is earning enough money to cover housing expenses. What can the county council do to help bring more high-paying jobs to the community?

 

In Indiana specifically, and in an open economy in general, the ability of local governments to determine wages is very limited. However, the County Council should:

 

  • Support modernizing the planning and zoning process to reduce the delays and uncertainties in developing properties for employment

  • Continue to support and encourage tax abatements and other economic development incentive tools for businesses, both new and existing, that create living wage jobs

  • Maintain partnerships with other local organizations that support creation and retention of jobs and workforce development

  • Work with the Redevelopment Commission to provide infrastructure to enable the development of appropriate land for employment

  • Actively work with broadband providers and funders to ensure that every residence and business has access to broadband Internet

 

Climate

Do you agree that something should be done at the county level to address climate change and why?

 

In short, yes. Climate change is an existential threat to human life and society (as is a global pandemic). We need to address climate change at the county level from two different perspectives: First, we need to look for efficiencies in the operations of county government that reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. Second, we need to work to build a more resilient community that can withstand potential impacts of global climate change. Investments in mitigating or responding to climate change should be shaped by a data-driven county climate resilience Plan, allowing us to choose the most effective investments. Examples include: energy-efficient fleet for county government, expansion of transit, adoption of efficiency standards for county buildings, zoning that encourages access to transit and walkable neighborhoods, employee cash-out benefit that encourages county employees to carpool, walk, bike, or take transit to work, weatherization grants, and conservation greenspace and tree cover.

From expanding public transit to installing solar, there are different proposals to mitigate the impact of climate change. If the county council is going to invest in addressing climate change in the future, what is one area it should focus its efforts and why?

 

Expanding the availability of public transportation, in areas where density is appropriate, has the potential both of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and better allowing individuals of all abilities and income levels to participate in the workforce. While the pandemic will undoubtedly make the economics of public transportation more challenging until large numbers of riders feel safe again, demand will grow long-term, and we need to continue to plan for improved transit. There are several areas of the unincorporated county that have or will have enough density to benefit from fixed-route transit (including the County’s westside economic development area, and the Fullerton Pike corridor). The county should work with Bloomington Transit and the Bloomington City Council to explore an equitable arrangement for providing service to urbanized areas. The county also needs to provide increased funding for Rural Transit to support social equity in the rural areas of the county.

How would you pay for it?

 

When appropriate, a public-private partnership could potentially support transit expansion to certain high-density employment areas in the county.  I would also suggest working closely with the Redevelopment Commission to see if TIF revenue might play a role. Finally, I would support consideration of a small economic development income tax increase to support transit, if the plan were well-developed in advance, enjoyed extensive community support, and was strongly equity focused. However, any consideration of an income tax increase would need to be deferred until the economy stabilizes and rebounds post-COVID.

 

Raising the county’s local income tax to address climate change and equity issues was a dividing topic among county residents. Do you agree with raising the county’s local income tax to finance climate change and equity initiatives in the county? Explain.

 

When unemployment is skyrocketing and we still do not know whether we have even hit bottom economically, a new tax proposal that isn’t highly progressive would not be acceptable. And as a local income tax cannot be made to be progressive, this is clearly not the time to even be considering the proposal. I doubt that this proposal will receive further serious discussion until the pandemic and the resultant economic crash is behind us. I would only support a future similar tax proposal if (a) a strong plan for use of the revenue were provided to the public in advance; (b) there is broad public support; and (c) it can be demonstrated that the effects of the tax would accrue more to lower-income residents. I would support a small income tax increase to finance fare-free and improved public transit, however.

 

If raising the LIT is not publicly supported, what other potential ways can we finance climate change initiatives locally, if we decide to tackle the issue?

 

The impacts of climate change needs to be part of the decision-making process for all budgetary and policy decisions. Each initiative should be evaluated on its own merits, with respect to costs and benefits. Initiatives should be shaped by a data-driven county climate resilience plan, allowing us to evaluate and choose the most effective investments with the greatest payoff.

 

Discussion of raising the LIT to support climate change and equity initiatives led to officials evaluating the current local income tax system in Indiana. Do you believe the existing system needs to be changed? If yes, what changes would you advocate for and why? If no, please explain your answer.

 

Yes, I have been advocating for reform of the local income tax system in Indiana since 2014.  That said, I strongly support the approach reflected in House Bill 1033 of 2019, which would have made the County Council the adopting body for county-wide income taxes, but also allowed municipalities (e.g., Bloomington, Ellettsville, and Stinesville) to adopt their own local income tax on top of the county-wide income tax, similar to the way in which property taxes are adopted. This approach allows all residents to be adequately represented in taxation decisions, and also reflects the difference in intensity and character of services required in urbanized areas vs. unurbanized areas. Although it didn’t pass at the time (partially because of software limitations), I anticipate something similar to be proposed again, and will continue to advocate for it, and am working with statewide with other officials to support such reforms.

Paid for by McKim for County Council, Sue Sgambelluri, Treasurer