Special interests, including the Cook Group, played a significant role in a surprise reversal of the city of Bloomington’s annexation plans. That’s according to officials at City Hall and the Statehouse today.
A last-minute effort to kill the controversial annexation succeeded on Friday night, as state lawmakers approved a budget bill with language that makes it illegal for the city to proceed with its plans for at least five years. The measure only affects Bloomington and will not prevent any other cities from annexing properties.
Before the legislature approved the bill on Friday night, State Representative Matt Pierce, of Bloomington, confronted the bill’s author, Representative Tim Brown, of Crawfordsville.
“Who requested that we put this provision in the budget bill that had not passed either house?” Pierce asked.
Brown responded: “It was brought by some citizens and…one of the other state representatives that represents Monroe County and some of the businesses of Monroe County.”
Pierce replied: “That’s kind of curious because I hadn’t had anybody approach me about putting a provision in the budget bill. Did it occur to you maybe to check in with the person who represents most of the City of Bloomington, and get some feedback on what people were thinking?”
Brown did not respond to that question.
Pierce went on to say he had concerns himself about the city’s annexation plan. But he said Representative Brown’s last-minute maneuver was undemocratic: “These provisions don’t get put into the budget bill just by anyone… I’m really more concerned about the process. What does it really take to get it in the budget? How much influence and power do you have to have? How much power do you have to have to get that influence?”
One of the property owners that would have been most affected by the annexation was the Cook Group, the largest manufacturer in Monroe County. The company expected to pay about a half million dollars a year in additional property taxes if the annexation was approved.
The communications director at the city of Bloomington, Mary Catherine Carmichael, says the city had been in negotiations with the medical device manufacturer prior to Friday’s vote: “We had sat down with representatives from Cook, including (Board chairperson) Steve Ferguson, and said ‘How can we make this ok for you and for us?’ Those discussions were aborted because they chose not to discuss, but just to go ahead up to the legislature and get it shut down.”
The headquarters for the Cook Group, on Daniels Way, was slated to be annexed into the city under a plan announced in February by Mayor John Hamilton.
State Representative Jeff Ellington, who supported the last-minute budget bill language, says he heard others at the Statehouse talking about Cook’s concerns: “I’ve heard in the hallways that, yeah, Cook was trying to protect their infrastructure out there. But for me, it’s about protecting my district.”
Ellington represents part of the area that had been proposed for annexation. The plan would have resulted in higher taxes for many of the roughly 15,000 people who would have been annexed into the city under the mayor’s plan. In exchange those taxpayers would have received services from the city, including police, trash and fire.
Ellington was an opponent of the city’s annexation plan for months and he made multiple attempts this year to pass legislation that would undermine the proposal.
“I’ve been talking about this issue at the Statehouse since the first week of February,” Ellington said.
Ellington was one of the property owners who would have paid higher taxes under the mayor’s plan. His business, J.R. Ellington Tree Experts, is located in an area that had been slated for annexation.
Among other affected groups, Monroe County officials have voiced relief about the cancelled plans in recent days. The County budget was set to take a major hit if the annexation went through.
But County Council member Geoff McKim says the issue is not settled: “A lot of it has to do with the provision of services: fire protection and police protection. And that’s the sort of thing we need to gather additional data about. Is the city subsidizing parts of the county in the provision of services, or vice versa? Clearly, there’s a concern, or the city would not have brought the proposal forward.”
McKim says he would like the state to overhaul its laws regarding annexation.
Representatives of Cook Group did not agree to an interview this afternoon but the Chairman of the Board at the company, Steve Ferguson, issued a statement explaining his opposition to annexation. Ferguson states: “Many residents throughout the county, including many Cook employees, spoke up and made it clear to their local and state legislators that they were surprised and dismayed by the annexation proposal. They asked for help.”