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Habitat for Humanity Pushing to Develop on Controversial Land

The Bloomington Plan Commission voted February 24 to fast-track approval for a 35 home subdivision in what is currently an urban forest along the B-Line Trail.

Habitat for Humanity is seeking to develop the wooded area north of downtown between the B-Line and Reverend Ernest D. Butler Park.

Kerry Thompson, the president of Monroe County Habitat for Humanity, said her organization is running out of spaces to build in Bloomington.

“The largest obstacle for Habitat in recent years has been land,” Thompson said, “There simply are not enough infill lots remaining in the city of BLoomington to meet the needs of families. There is no affordable home ownership option close to the city center.”

The project would require the organization to cut down 64 percent of the trees in the area, which concerned many neighbors who attended the meeting. Some also questioned the high density of the proposed neighborhood and the revelation that soil is contaminated with lead, coal ash and other pollutants.

Marti Crouch, a biologist who lives near the site, said some might undervalue the wooded area in its current state.

“We have very little of that type of diverse native, urban forest in contiguous pieces in our city,” Crouch said, “I’m not sure what the definition of infill is, but I’m concerned that if the planning department thinks that every little green space needs to be turned into buildings and structures because that will somehow save outer areas from being developed, I’d like to see some facts on that.”

Crouch was referring to comments by local developer Matt Press, who described himself as a proponent of “good urban infill the right way.”

Press said denying Habitat this development would just force it to build houses on the outskirts of Bloomington.

“Nothing in the real world happens in a vacuum,” Press said, “The homeowners are already here in our community. If we say no to this project they will either continue to live in sub-standard housing or they will move into a new Habitat home, now likely built on a larger lot on the edge of town. That lot, in turn, would displace a market-rate home that will inevitably be built on yet a bigger piece of land on yet another former farm or forest.”

One major dispute involved Habitat’s request that the commission waive the requirement for a second hearing on the development.

Thompson said the organization wanted to speed up the city’s approval process so it could clear the forest by an April 1 deadline.

“Our request was made after we discovered that the Indiana bat could come to roost in the area,” Thompson said, “We had no intention to rush this process, in fact we have engaged pretty fully in the public comment process. We build by federal environmental regulations and unfortunately we have never encountered this stipulation for tree-clearing prior to April 1.”

Federal guidelines prohibit clearing trees from April through October to prevent disturbing roosting Indiana bats, which are endangered.

But several neighbors said they had just recently heard about Habitat’s plans, and they want more time to consider the implications of the new subdivision. Ruth Beasley was one of those neighbors.

“Finally, tonight, I’m getting bits and pieces of what I consider very complicated information,” Beasley said, “I want to read the documents for myself before I make a decision. I too have worked on Habitat houses. I love my Habitat neighbors. My daughter’s best friend has worked so hard to get her Habitat House. But I feel cheated in time to think, time to talk to my neighbors about what they think and I strongly urge you not to do away with the second hearing.”

Despite concerns from neighbors, the commission voted to waive the second hearing and forward the development to the City Council.

The council will hold two meetings on the issue before voting to approve to reject the proposal.

New Area Code Coming to Bloomington Area

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A new ten-digit area code system will be implemented for residents in Indiana’s 812 area code region on September 6, 2014.

On March 1, residents will still be able to use the 812 area code, but should start using 10 digits when they make a call.

Spokesman for the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor Anthony Swinger explains why a new area code change is being implemented.

“It’s important to keep in mind that 930 is just being added to the 812 area,” Swinger says, “Anyone with an 812 number right now will keep his or her number after the change. The 930 numbers are going to be added after October 6. The reason for the new area code is because the 812 area code, which has stayed unchanged since 1947, is close to running out of numbers. The industry projects that in the middle of 2015, 812 will no longer have any numbers for new phones and customers. So, it’s necessary to add the new area code so there’s a large enough pool of numbers.”

The dialing system will help usher in the new 930 area code, which will take effect in the fall.

The new area code is being added using what is called the overlay method. Swinger says this method has been used by 37 states in the U.S. for area code change-overs since 2008.

The discussion to use an overlay or a split method was a year-long case that the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission ordered in July 2013.

After the case closed, the IURC decided that the overlay method would be the least disruptive. Swinger explains how the new system will affect residents in the 812 region.

“The changes will affect everyone to one degree or another,” Swinger says, “The main way the changes will affect folks in Bloomington and south central Indiana will be the need for 10 digit dialing for local calls. Instead of just dialing 7 digits, it will be necessary to dial 812 than the seven digits. What begins Saturday is a six month period to adjust to 10 digit dialing. If the old habit comes up in this grace period, the number will still go through.”

On September 6, residents can continue to use the 812 area code but will have to use ten digits to make a call. When October 6 rolls around, residents will have to begin using the new 930 area code and continue to use ten digits to place a call.

IU Students Form ‘March Madness’ Volunteer Group to Spread Information on Obamacare

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The Indiana University and Ivy Tech students of the Affordable Care Act Volunteers of Monroe County are starting a new campus organization.

The group is launching a March healthcare campaign called “Madness” that will help students learn more about health insurance and the Affordable Care Act.

David Meyer, president of the ACA Volunteers of Monroe County, says this campaign will have campus-wide events, but want to focus on social media.

“We have a couple of students who are co-leads on the campaign,” Meyer says, “They divide up the responsibilities between social media and public events and direct outreach. Since so many students are deeply involved in social media, that’s a major way to provide them with information.  It’s still in the early stages, but we’re focused on getting this going right now because the deadline for signing up for coverage is March 31.”

Meyer says the cost of health insurance may be less expensive than the penalty students will have to pay if they do not get health insurance by March 31.

Students who are claimed as a dependent on their parents taxes will not have to pay the penalty, but their parents will.

Meyer says he hopes the campaign will help answer questions about the ACA that differ from questions that older adults may have about healthcare.

“We have a couple of students who are co-leads on the campaign,” Meyers says, “They divide up the responsibilities between social media and public events and direct outreach. Since so many students are deeply involved in social media, that’s a major way to provide them with information.  It’s still in the early stages, but we’re focused on getting this going right now because the deadline for signing up for coverage is March 31.”

The next event for the ACA Volunteers of Monroe County is the Health Insurance Community Fair. The fair is next Thursday, March 6 at the Monroe County Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Meyer says the event will give students and community members a chance to pair with trained volunteers that will help them answer questions they have concerning the ACA.

Aerial Photos of Bloomington Approved for Property Assessment

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The Monroe County Commission approved a $271,000 contract on February 21 with a company that plans to take aerial photographs of the entire County.

The company, Pictometry International Corporation, would fly over the area to take high-resolution pictures for the County Assessor’s office.

Assessor Judy Sharp said one way her staff uses images like these is to detect changes in properties, which can affect their assessed value and in turn their property taxes.

“This is the third time we’ve done this,” Sharp said, “We fly over every three years because Monroe County is such a fast-growing community. In three years, you have a lot of new product out there. This company can actually tell us the changes, good or bad, to a piece of property”

Sharp said the contract, which covers three years, includes a stipulation that prevents the public from accessing the photographs.

“It is strictly in the assessor’s office,” Sharp said, “The city police could use this, but it isn’t a tool just anyone use because it’s licensed. You can go online at our 39 degrees GIS website which does something very similar, but it isn’t what we use.”

The commission voted unanimously to approve the agreement.

Water Pumping Project Finishes $250,000 Under Budget

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The construction of a new water pumping station came in at about $260,000 under budget, according to officials at a Bloomington Utilities Service Board meeting on Feb. 24.

Michael Hicks, the Utilities Department’s capital projects manager, submitted a change order on the $6.5 million project.

“The project is complete and with the approval of this change order we can close out the project with our contractor,” Hicks said.

The construction was performed by the Orleans-based company Layne Incorporated, but the engineering was done by the Kansas-based company Black and Veatch.

Adam Westerman, from Black and Veatch, said the project did not cost as much as expected, in part because the contractor didn’t spend its full budget for items like office supplies, equipment, and furniture.

Board member Jason Banach asked Westerman about the city paying for a contractor’s supplies.

“Is this something we typically pay for, their pens and pencils?” Banach asked.

“We’ve handled it different ways historically, but for the past eight years we’ve taken on the cost of that,” Westerman said, “And anything left comes back to the city.”

The board later voted unanimously to approve the change order.

MCCSC Board of Trustees open meeting to discuss local ‘F’ grade schools

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Members of the public will get to hear and comment on proposals to address the “F” grades given by the state to Fairview and Highland Park schools.

The opportunity will come this evening, when the Board of Trustees of the Monroe County Community School Corporation opens its regular meeting.

The principals of the two elementary schools will present their proposals for improvement, and then the public will be able to respond and offer suggestions to the Board.

Fairview School has been in the news over the last couple months, following initial changes proposed by interim principal Tammy Miller that resulted in an uproar from some pupils and their parents.

Parental pressure and the accompanying publicity prompted the board and the principal to hold several Focus Group meetings with parents, teachers, and administrators.

Amanda Nickey is a parent of a Fairview student, was involved in the initial protests, and attended one of these focus group meetings.

“The meetings are structured and led by a staff member,” Nickey says, “They led us through big picture questions with Fairview and the community and then getting more specific about programs important to us parents. We were able to share our perspectives and opinions.”

There were two other focus group sessions, and no more of these or other parent-staff meetings have been scheduled by the school or the board. Nickey says she is taking a wait-and-see position on Fairview’s response to the public’s concern.

“It’s not over yet, and I don’t know if I’m satisfied,” Nickey says.

She says she is waiting to see if parental input gathered at the focus groups sessions will be incorporated in any plans addressing Fairview’s academic performance problems. Nickey also says there was another private meeting, called by the school board, in which a State Department of Education official was in attendance.

However, she has not seen nor heard what was addressed or proposed. Some leaders of the Fairview Parent-Teacher Organization also organized a more open meeting at Crestmont. One of the main topics was the lack of official communication with parents. This shortcoming, and a perceived lack of consultation with parents, provided the initial impetus for the protests back in January.

Nevertheless, Nickey doesn’t think that school and board communication with parents has significantly improved.

“I just got an email and phone call today about the meeting today,” Nickey says, “For a lot of parents, that’s just not enough time to know about something like that.”

The open portion of tonight’s board meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

Aside from academic performance issues at Fairview and Highland Park elementary schools, the agenda also includes proposals for next year’s class pupil-to-teacher ratios, and a board resolution opposing the Indiana government’s proposal to eliminate Indiana Business Personal Property Tax. The class ratio proposal will offer a range of sizes from kindergarten through to grade 12 for the various schools.

The resolution on the business tax arises from the potential negative impact on the MCCSC budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, if the tax is eliminated.

Critical discussion on ISTEP and standardized testing this Sunday at YMCA

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The Indiana Coalition for Public Education is holding a discussion about ISTEP and other standardized testing this Sunday at the YMCA.

Parents, teachers, and members of the community are invited to attend the discussion. The event is free for everyone. Phil and Joan Harris, authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do, will lead the discussion.

Phil Harris was once a member of the faculty at Indiana University. The two do not agree with how standardized testing is used in Indiana, and believe it distorts education systems. Jennifer Livesay, a board member for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, talks about the event.

“We want to look at the role ISTEP is playing on the eve of ISTEP testing at local schools,” Livesay says, “The writers of the book are very critical of the role of standardized testing, so they’ll share their perspective.”

This discussion will be held the day before ISTEP testing starts in Indiana, on March 2nd, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the new YMCA on the northwest side of town. Livesay says she hopes the event will serve as a platform for future discussions on the topic.

 

Senate Bill 340 passes, changing Indiana’s energy saving program

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The Indiana State Senate voted 37 to 1 to pass Senate Bill 340 earlier this month, a bill that would ultimately change Indiana’s statewide energy saving program. Jodi Perras, Indiana Representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, further explains what effect the bill will have.

“As it’s written now, big business can withdraw from the energy efficiency programs,” Perras says, “That means the rest of us will pay for the programs and the large facilities opting out is like us taking our two best players off the basketball floor.”

These utility programs seek to create less demand for energy, and Perras says they ultimately save everyone money. She says that passing Senate Bill 340 would benefit big industries, but hurt citizens along the way.

“We see big utilities that don’t like energy efficiency, and they have a lot of voice in the statehouse,” Perras says, “We need voters across the state to voice their opinion.”

According to Perras, utilities were forced to participate in these programs beginning in 2009, leading to energy efficiency. She says that efficiency is now under attack at the statehouse.

“People need to wake up and know that big utilities are trying to fight energy efficiency,” Perras says, “These are programs that keep our electricity rates down for schools, universities and we need to make sure these programs keep going.”

Perras says The Sierra Club stresses the importance of the public’s voice in dealing with Indiana’s environmental issues.

The Strike Mic – February 25, 2014

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This week on The Strike Mic—A new conference, planned to be held this spring, will host groups from university campuses around the country to compare struggles and prepare for action in the fall of 2014.

 

Parking Stays Un-Privatized at Indiana University

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Indiana University Treasurer Mary Frances McCourt has estimated that parking operations on campus could generate a $43 million profit over the next twenty years. She presented her findings to the IU Board of Trustees on Friday.

McCourt recommended in October that the university should control its own revenue stream, and the board accepted. McCourt said parking prices will be determined by market peer-rate settings and suggests the funds go to building and repairing facilities on campus.

Parking revenue and expenses currently balance out, but McCourt said sometimes expenses can exceed revenue when facility upgrades are required. The university is considering putting automated parking equipment in garages on some campuses, which would be a one-point-nine million dollar investment.

IU Trustee Patrick Shoulders approved of the board’s decision to control revenue, but disagreed about where the funds should go.

“First of all, I’m glad that the decision has been made NOT to privatize parking operations and that parking will remain a function of the university,” Shoulders says, “We retain the flexibility and ability to maintain those lots to the standards we demand. To the extent that parking rates are increased, I hope nay excess revenue is invested in our people. I think that some of our employees start at hourly wages that simply don’t pay a living wage.”

Details about the reformed parking rate structure will be released by IU officials in the spring.

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