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OUCC Accepting Public Comments On Increased Utility Rates

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The Indiana office of utility consumer counselor is accepting public comment regarding a Vectren Energy request to increase utility rates for improvements in the transmission and storage of natural gas in Indiana. The OUCC is a separate agency from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission which oversees monopoly utilities in Indiana. When a regulated utility seeks a rate increase it brings its case to the IURC, which is required to balance utility interests with consumer interests. The OUCC has a team of attorneys economists and engineers to file testimony and make recommendations on behalf on consumers. Vectren has filed a request seeking approval of a seven year plan for infrastructure improvements and approval of rate adjustments every six months to reflect the costs of the project. OUCC spokesman

All consumer comments are reviewed by OUCC’s technical staff and attorneys, and the testimony of all public comments are filed into the formal case record as evidence. While government regulated utility companies do have the right under Indiana law to pass costs of infrastructure improvements on to the consumer, the IURC and the OUCC are tasked with making sure those rates remain fairly balanced.

Regulations on utility services began when nationwide railway networks were being developed. Utility companies are uniquely regulated because the unique nature of delivering their “product” typically ensures a monopoly on that service, and an opportunity for abusing that monopoly if the government does not ensure that prices remain fair.

Consumers can view Vectren utility’s full testimony and exhibits online on the OUCC website, under the heading “We are reviewing Vectren gas infrastructure plans.” Written comments can be submitted directly on the website, or by email, fax, and postal mail.

Bloomington Wants Public Feedback on ADA Transition Plan

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The City of Bloomington is seeking feedback from the public on a new update to its ADA Transition Plan, as part of a regular process to comply with the requirements and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires public agencies with more than fifty employees to maintain an up-to-date Transition Plan, which they say should survey accessibility barriers in programs and services and provide a plan to remove them. Bloomington prepared its first ADA Transition Plan in 1990, and has updated it several times since.

Barbara McKinney, Director of Human Rights and Assistant City Attorney for Bloomington says sidewalks and curbs often become a focus, due in part to shifting requirements. Public feedback, she says, is helpful for many of the small details around town that those working on the update might miss.

When cities like Bloomington don’t reach compliance for ADA regulations, McKinney says, the Department of Justice handles the response.

A draft version of the update is available now on the City of Bloomington’s website, at Bloomington.in.gov/planning.

Public comments will be collected, via email or by mail, until February 28th.

Daily Local News – February 5, 2013

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Emergency Management Director James Commerford announced an easement to “yellow” this afternoon; The City of Bloomington is seeking feedback from the public on a new update to its ADA Transition Plan; The Indiana office of utility consumer counselor is accepting public comment regarding a Vectren Energy request to increase utility rates for improvements in the transmission and storage of natural gas in Indiana.

FEATURE
Todd Young has thrown his hat into the ring for re-election to Indiana District 9 in the federal House of Representatives. Correspondent David Murphy spoke with Representative Young to ask him about his upcoming election campaign. He talked about potential challengers to his nomination for the Republican Party ticket in District 9 – which covers most of south-eastern Indiana including greater Bloomington – as well as his campaign platform. The issues he focused on included incentivizing job creation and work, proposals for reforming the financing, operation, and authority of the federal government, promoting non-governmental delivery of social services, and his criticism of Obamacare. We bring you that conversation now for today’s WFHB feature exclusive.

BLOOMINGTON BEWARE
Our weekly consumer watchdog segment Bloomington Beware!

CREDITS
Anchors: Cathi Norton, Kelly Wherley
Today’s headlines were written by Alycin Bektesh and Drew Daudelin,
Bloomington Beware was produced by Richard Fish,
Adam Reichle produced our feature.
Editor is Drew Daudelin,
Engineer and Executive Producer is Alycin Bektesh.

Interchange – Below Zero and Homeless

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Host Alycin Bektesh speaks with Police Chief Mike Diekoff, Forest Gilmore of the Shalom Center and Elaine Guinn of New Hope Family Shelter about options for warm shelter in Bloomington.

Daily Local News – February 4, 2014

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The latest forecast from the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service predicts that between one to two inches of snow and freezing rain will accumulate in south-central Indiana by midnight; Last Tuesday the Monroe County Council debated how it should appoint members to local boards and commissions; The Bloomington Board of Parks Commissioners gave permission last week for a new four-story building to use city property right next to the B-Line Trail, north of Kirkwood Avenue.

FEATURE
Demonstrators holding signs reading “No KXL” and holding model wind turbines held a rally on the courthouse square yesterday evening, as part of a nationwide demonstration against the Keystone XL pipeline. Jack Brubaker, the local contact for the nationwide resistance group, introduced speaker Rabbi Brian Besser to speak about the power of many voices coming together to form a resistance, and encouraged those present to write to the State Department, which is taking public comment now that their latest review of the construction project has been released. WFHB News Director Alycin Bektesh was on hand to bring us this report for today’s WFHB feature exclusive.

INS AND OUTS OF MONEY
Coming up next–the Monroe County Public Library has over four hundred personal finance books to help you with budgeting, investing, saving, and retiring. Learn how to find the right book for you and discover some of the most popular financial authors, for WFHB’s weekly financial segment The Ins and Outs of Money.

CREDITS
Anchors: Hondo Thompson, Alycin Bektesh
Today’s headlines were written by David Murphy,
Along with Joe Crawford for CATSweek, a partnership with Community Access Television Services.
Our feature was produced by Alycin Bektesh.
The Ins and Outs of Money is produced by Dan Withered, in partnership with the Monroe County Public Library and The United Way of Monroe County.
Editor and engineer is Drew Daudelin,
Executive Producer is Alycin Bektesh.

“Bamboozled”: Prospect Hill and McDoel Gardens Neighborhoods Caught In Legal, Political Dilemma

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Last year an attorney for the city of Bloomington discovered what she said was a problematic piece of city code, a law that she said was itself illegal. The clause was in the city’s rules governing historic districts, and within a few months the City Council corrected the glitch.

There was relatively little debate at the time, but in the months since the correction, it’s become clear the change could have longstanding effects on property rights, particularly in two city neighborhoods.

WFHB looked into the history of the error and how it led residents to spend years organizing, campaigning and voting for ways to protect their neighborhoods, ways that, according to the city, never technically existed. Assistant News Director Joe Crawford brought us that story, including ongoing questions about how the city has dealt with the issue, for a WFHB feature exclusive.

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Maybe the strangest part of the convoluted changes to Bloomington’s Historic Preservation code is that they fundamentally alter decisions made years ago, decisions that have since been used as the basis for many, many more decisions. Last November, when Elizabeth Cox-Ash first began to understand what was in store for her McDoel Gardens Neighborhood she said she felt duped.

I really feel that we’ve been bamboozled,” Cox-Ash said.

Cox Ash has been an active member of the McDoel Gardens neighborhood association for years and she fought hard to get the area designated as a historic conservation district in 2001. The idea was to prevent radical changes to that area just south of downtown by setting limits on what could be built there and what could be torn down.

But by November, when she attended a meeting of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, she was learning that even though she lobbied and voted for a conservation district, and the city council had approved a conservation district, 13 years later she was not living in a conservation district.

In all the time that I’ve been on the Commission, I’ve never seen anything that has so offended me,” said Commission member Sandi Clothier, speaking at the same meeting in November.

Clothier had just been officially informed of the amendments to city code, which the City Council had already approved. She was frustrated the city administration didn’t consult with the Commission before making the changes, which she said were misguided.

I don’t know how it’s even legal,” she said. “You can go back and say ‘Oh well, we didn’t do this right and we didn’t do that right,’ but there are other ways to fix laws. And I think this is just outrageous.”

To understand the revisions that made Cox-Ash and Clothier so angry, you have to know that until recently, there were two distinct options for residents who wanted to set limits on development in their neighborhoods in hopes of preserving their historic character.

Those residents could try to get the city to designate their areas as a full-blown historic districts. That would mean Clothier’s group, the Historic Preservation Commission, would review almost any changes they and their neighbors wanted to make to the outsides of their homes.

Full historic districts can prevent property owners from destroying or altering historic architecture, from doing about anything that would be out of character with the surrounding houses. But some neighborhoods, although they wanted some rules, didn’t want to go quite that far. And there was an alternative, a lighter form of regulation, what were called conservation districts. In conservation districts, the Commission only has a say when buildings are constructed, demolished or moved.

Cynthia Bretheim helped draft the guidelines for the conservation district in the Prospect Hill neighborhood, which was approved in 2008.

People who lived here could modify their homes as needed,” Bretheim said. “We wanted people to have freedom to do that. But at the same time we didn’t want that to get out of hand so that we’d have a 3,600-square-foot house next to an 800-square-foot house. Then the 800-square-foot house would look really stupid.”

When the city changed the rules last year, it did away with the city’s two conservation districts in Prospect Hill and McDoel Gardens. It turns out, as city attorney Patty Mulvehill discovered, state law is very specific about how cities can form those districts.

If you establish a conservation district, that district automatically expires on its three-year anniversary date unless a majority of the property owners in the district object to the elevation in writing,” Mulvehill said. “While we polled both of those historic districts at the three-year mark, we didn’t hear back from at least 50 percent of the property owners.”

Mulvehill requested an opinion from the state attorney general, who confirmed in August that the city’s law was indeed invalid.

And there’s not much debate about that point: the ordinance the city council passed during a six-hour-long meeting in April of 1995 was wrong. What’s more controversial is what the city administration did with that information.

State law says that once a conservation district expires, things don’t go back to the way they were before. If a majority of property owners don’t vote to keep the conservation district, the area automatically elevates to a full-blown historic district. Suddenly property owners are forced to go before a city commission if they want to add on to their houses or do renovations or, in some cases, make simple changes like paint color.

And so according to Mulvehill, both McDoel Gardens and Prospect Hill neighborhoods are now full-blown historic districts.

“The elevation occurred,” she said. “The city can’t undo that because state law has already required that to happen.”

But, of course, state law doesn’t specifically address circumstances in which residents are led to believe they are lobbying and voting for a conservation district, and the city council approves a conservation district, and no one is apparently any the wiser that they’re all actually voting and lobbying and approving something else entirely. The opinion from the attorney general doesn’t address that either.

Some, including Sarah Ryterband, a member of the Prospect Hill Conservation District Review Committee, have suggested the decision to retroactively elevate the two conservation districts might been due to fear of lawsuits.

The fear in this case, like so much in our society, is imaginary,” Ryterband said.

The city has been sued over conservation districts in the past. In 2001 property owner Robert Shaw tried to prevent the City Council from approving the McDoel Gardens designation, but a court dismissed the suit because Shaw couldn’t prove he’d been damaged by the restrictions, which hadn’t taken effect yet. WFHB reached out to Shaw and his attorney, but neither returned calls for this story.

Mulvehill said city staff did consider the city’s legal liability as it considered its options last year.

It’s always possible for the city to be sued, regardless of the context,” she said.

Residents of both Prospect Hill and McDoel Gardens have been asked before whether they’d like their neighborhoods elevated to full-blown historic districts. They were given that option during referendums in 2004 and 2011.

And they overwhelmingly refused. In 2004, of the 126 property owners in McDoel Gardens who gave their opinions, only five people said they wanted the elevation. That’s just less than 4 percent.

In Prospect Hill’s referendum in 2011, it was closer. About 27 percent of those respondents were in favor, leaving 73 percent opposed.

During both referendums, most voters wanted to simply keep the conservation districts they already had. But, as they found out years later, state law required support from a majority of property owners, not a majority of voters. Because too few property owners voted, the referendums didn’t mean much in the eyes of state law.

But they did mean something to some members of the Historic Preservation Commission, who voiced anger during the meeting in November. Member and Prospect Hill resident Doug Wissing said the owners should be given a second chance to vote.

There had to have been an option, a choice made by somebody that we didn’t go to the neighborhoods, we didn’t want to talk to them,” Wissing said. “This, again, runs so counter to my sense of grassroots democracy, what this institution is about, what this community is about, what this Commission is about.”

Wissing and Clothier made their statements of frustration at a small meeting in the McCloskey Room at City Hall in what they might have assumed would be a relatively private conversation. There were apparently no reporters present and the meeting wasn’t being filmed.

WFHB only obtained the recording last week through a public records request to City Legal. Since that meeting, those two, as well as former Commission member Danielle Bachant Bell, who also spoke out at the meeting, have declined to comment to WFHB.

And after that meeting there was a major shakeup on the Commission. Mayor Mark Kruzan, whose administration’s actions were the subject of much of the criticism, removed Wissing from the Commission in December. The mayor appoints the entire commission, and he also chose not to renew the term of Bachant-Bell. And at the end of the year Clothier left on her own accord, ending a 13-year stint on the Commission.

WFHB asked Kruzan to comment about the exodus, but he referred all questions to City Legal.

One member of the Commission who did speak to WFHB was Duncan Campbell, a longtime preservation scholar and advocate who has been on the Commission for decades. Campbell said the Commission has worked hard over the years to make residents and neighborhoods comfortable with historic protection.

This was a blow to the Commission because it makes it look as if the Commission kind of side-swiped the neighborhoods, or had some evil intent, and tricked them into becoming historic districts,” Campbell said. “That just feeds into the hands of people who are against historic preservation and particularly people have interests in developing those neighborhoods for other uses.”

So far, Mulvehill said she isn’t aware of any lawsuits challenging the new rules in McDoel Gardens and Prospect Hill. Nancy Hiestand, the city staff member who works most closely with the districts, said she will be working with the neighborhoods in the coming months to draft new rules for what are now full historic districts.

Hiestand said she hopes to get as close as possible to what residents wanted when they supported the conservation districts, what she called a “light touch on their regulation”

 

Medicaid Expansion Proposal Blocked

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As many as 400,00 Hoosiers will not be getting new Medicaid health care coverage, despite efforts from State Senator Karen Tallian to expand the program. Her proposal was turned down and blocked on a party line vote last Monday.

“We have proposed a compromise plan. It is a plan that’s been proposed by Republican states and approved by the Democratic administration, and it’s generally known as the Premium Assistance Plan. Very simply, it takes federal dollars and uses them to buy private insurance policies for people who are in the Medicaid eligibility range,” said Tallian.

Tallian began her proposal by mentioning the people of Indiana and their thoughts on Medicaid expansion. Expanding the program to include more Hoosiers, she said, should be one the most pressing issues to be considered by the Indiana General Assembly.

“Medicaid expansion means insurance for 400,000 people,” said Tallian. “Medicaid expansion means 30,000 jobs. And Medicaid expansion means bringing Indiana’s share of the federal tax dollars back to Indiana to be spent for healthcare for Hoosiers.”

Some other states, such as Arkansas and Iowa, have approved programs similar to the one Senator Tallian proposed.

Daily Local News – February 3, 2014

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The national weather service office has released data that places the mean average temperature for January at 23.1 degrees, as recorded at its Bloomington station; As many as four hundred thousand Hoosiers will not be getting new Medicaid health care coverage, despite efforts from State Senator Karen Tallian to expand the program; Purdue University has created an online series to show how some rural communities are striving to improve their quality of life.

FEATURE
“Bamboozled: “Prospect Hill and McDoel Gardens Neighborhoods Caught In Legal, Political Dilemma

Last year an attorney for the city of Bloomington discovered what she called a problematic piece of city code, a law she said was itself illegal. The clause was in the city’s rules governing historic districts, and within a few months the City Council corrected the glitch. There was relatively little debate at the time, but in the months since the correction it’s become clear that the change could have long-term effects on property rights, particularly in two city neighborhoods. WFHB looked into the history of the error and how it led residents to spend years organizing, campaigning, and voting for ways to protect their neighborhoods–ways that, according to the city, never technically existed. Assistant News Director Joe Crawford brings us that story, including ongoing questions about how the city has dealt with the issue, for today’s WFHB feature exclusive.

ACTIVATE
Our weekly segment spotlighting people working for positive change in our community.

CREDITS
Anchors: Ally Tsimekles; Doug Storm
Today’s headlines were written by David Murphy and Ally Tsimekles. Our feature was produced by Joe Crawford.Activate! is produced by Jennifer Whitaker,
Our engineer today is Chris Martin,
Editor is Drew Daudelin, Executive producer is Alycin Bektesh.

Cold Wet Indiana Weather to Continue

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It’s been an unusually cold winter so far, and that is expected to continue for the next couple of weeks. The national weather service office has released data that places the mean average temperature for January at twenty-three-point-one degrees, as recorded at its Bloomington station. This average was over six degrees below the long-term average for the month, and Bloomington had less than average precipitation. However, as the local station does not  differentiate between rain and snow forms of precipitation, snow probably dominated as temperatures were lower than average, and as it stayed on the ground for longer than usual. Dave Tusek, at the Indianapolis office of the weather service, explains that this cold weather has been here since the Fall.

“We started that pattern really back in November time frame. It kind of reached a crescendo during the month of January in which the polar vortex, or the coldest air in the northern hemisphere, ended up over on our side of the hemisphere. So we were below normal for, I believe, the month of November, below normal for December, and here again below normal for the month of January, so more or less a continuation, just an amplification and deepening of that trough as we went on through the winter months,” said Tusek.

Tusek mentioned the polar vortex, which has been responsible for this year’s cold pattern. This has brought the coldest temperatures in the northern hemisphere down to the region, between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. While we did experience some brief breaks of unseasonably warm weather, the extremely low positioning of the arctic vortex over the U.S. midwest has persisted for the last several months.

“That’s not uncommon to see kind of an up and down ride, if you will, in regard to your temperatures from day to day,” said Tusek. “And that was simply tied to a likely weather system that moved across the southern Great Lakes and drew warm air up from the south. But that was also, if you continue looking at the daily records, we eventually dropped back to highs around freezing and lows in the teens or a little below normal. So it’s not unusual to see this pattern persist, but to that extent in time, that’s not all that common.”

He explains that the arctic vortex has been pulled far south by the jet stream. This upper atmospheric, fast moving stream of air follows a wave pattern across the northern hemisphere. Weather systems tend to be trapped on either side of the stream. Unfortunately for us, the wave sitting over the continental U.S. had dipped unusually far to the south, and it has not moved east as it usually does. This trough has drawn cold air from the arctic to the south. By contrast, the unusually high ridge of this wave is sitting to the far north over the western part of North America, bringing that region unseasonably warm temperatures with much less than normal precipitation. The historic drought happening in California is a manifestation of this pattern. Unusually, this wave is moving a little to the west, which will bring some intermittent periods of warmer, wetter weather. Tusek provides us with weather predictions for February:

“For the month of February, expect to see our conditions more or less near normal. As we look at this larger-scale pattern that I referenced before, it’s undergoing a de-amplification. So that means instead of having really sharp ridges and troughs with extremes underneath the ridge in the way of warm and dry and in the trough cold and wet, it’s becoming what we refer to as a more zonal pattern, and with that, that means that our air will be arriving more often from the Pacific Ocean with each weather system that comes in, as opposed to coming in with arctic air. Now, that’s not to say the arctic air won’t follow on its heels because that is going to continue to happen. We certainly have some cold ahead of us here in the coming week or so, but that is expected to transition.”

So, Hoosiers will continue to experience colder and wetter weather during February, broken up by more frequent and longer episodes of warm and dry conditions, as daylight increases and the sun moves north.

Residents Resist the Keystone XL Pipeline

Locals joined demonstrators nationwide to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Participants held signs and listened as speakers led by Jack Brubaker warned of climate change and other environmental hazards of the tar sands process for extracting oil. The Bloomington Pledge of Resistance group  that is spearheading action in protest of the pipeline has a Facebook group at Bloomington no kxl. You can hear the full report Tuesday, February 4th on the Daily Local News at 5:30pm. 

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