Evansville Courier & Press (IN) - June 12, 2016
Author/Byline: Thomas B. Langhorne Edition: A Section: Local Page: 1A
Possibly because the numbers stretch into seven digits, Evansville city officials haven’t talked much about the long-range cost of their plan for a blight-fighting land bank.
The prospective cost of the war on housing blight is plain enough — up to $8 million through 2019, the end of Mayor Lloyd Winnecke’s second term. But that money — and the land bank program itself — has to be sold to the City Council year-by-year as Winnecke administration officials seek allotments of up to $2 million in each year. The city budget, after all, is done on an annual basis.
The program has strong supporters on City Council who are open to funding it year after year, assuming it is doing what city officials say it will do.
“I feel it’s critical to the health of our city,” said Republican at-large Councilwoman Michelle Mercer.
Democrat Missy Mosby, president of the council, said one year won’t cut it.
“I think this is something we have to do for the city. It’s a quality-of-life issue,” Mosby said.
The land bank, intended as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization administered by the city Department of Metropolitan Development, would acquire vacant and blighted structures, demolish them and market the land for new development to get it back on tax rolls. If City Council members believe the program deserves renewal, that could plunge Evansville into an intense, years-long demolition campaign that ultimately could take down as many as 2,000 vacant and blighted structures.
But it will require the political will of Republican Winnecke’s administration to keep pushing it — and of a Democratic City Council to keep approving it.
Winnecke’s men got the first year’s $1.7 million allotment from City Council last
month only after tangling with Democratic Councilman H. Dan Adams over the planned use of $190,000 in riverboat money for the land bank’s administrative expenses.
And even getting to that point required a citywide election last year to replace several other Democratic council members who had flatly refused to dip into the city’s riverboat fund for the project.
They argued that the riverboat fund — the city tax revenue pulled in from Tropicana Evansville and the primary funding source for city government capital projects — must be protected so it is available to absorb such capital expenses as fire equipment, fire apparatus and police cars. They said the land bank would not be a capital investment, a requirement that City Council members imposed in 1996 upon the use of riverboat money.
Winnecke administration officials counter that the purchase and acquisition of real property is a capital expense appropriate for riverboat funding. The argument has not been resolved — except by last year’s election and the changes it brought to the City Council.
‘Economies of scale’
Like it or not, politics — the craft of accusations, finger pointing and name-calling — is a defining factor in setting blight policy. Policymakers make policy, and they are elected.
Last year’s election increased Republican representation on the City Council to four of the body’s nine members and elevated into leadership positions Democrats who largely share Winnecke’s objectives. Four of the Republican mayor’s strongest critics on the council departed.
The current City Council will be in place for at least the next four years, right alongside Winnecke.
But Kelley Coures, Winnecke’s point man for the land bank project, knows he will have to prove to budget-conscious and re-election-minded council members that it is taking a bite out of blight.
Coures, director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, also will have to prove the money is being spent wisely. He’s got some ideas.
“I anticipate achieving economies of scale by doing cluster demolitions,” he said. “We’ll be able to reduce the cost of each individual razing by clustering them together so that the contractor who wins the bid to do, say, 10 of them at a time, doesn’t have to mobilize and remobilize and break down and remobilize and move around town.”
Coures believes the economies will allow the land bank to carry out more demolitions and faster demolitions than are now foreseen, which he said will become clear over the next two years.
“But I don’t know. It’s not an exact science. It’s an ongoing process. We’ll tend to learn as we go,” he said.
Mosby said waging war on housing blight is an imperative.
“As long as (the land bank) is working and we’re seeing great things happening — which I don’t see why it wouldn’t — I’m definitely open to funding it again,” the 2nd Ward councilwoman said.
But Mosby holds her seat on the City Council only because she won an election by 15 votes. That was her victory margin in the 2015 Democratic primary against challenger Steve Davis.
Mercer said blight is enough of a plague in Evansville that policymakers can only take the long view.
“The properties that are identified to be razed and put into the land bank until private developers can come along and develop quality affordable housing, those are properties that cannot be rehabbed because it would be too expensive,” Mercer said. “It costs the city a great deal of money in police and fire runs. They’re havens for crime.
“That’s one reason (the land bank) is critical.”
But Mercer lost several elections before finally breaking through with her victory last year. Had she fallen short again, her opinion might not matter to anyone but her.
Democratic City Councilman Jim Brinkmeyer praised Coures for his attention to the blight issue. Brinkmeyer said he would consult his 6th Ward constituents, but he is open to the idea of funding the land bank in multiple years. He is keenly aware that the land bank’s focus area includes lower regions of the Howell neighborhood, located in his West Side ward.
“(Coures) is right, it’s a multiyear process,” Brinkmeyer said. “It’s not something that’s done one time, and it’s one shot and you’re done.”
But Brinkmeyer ascended to the City Council because he defeated incumbent 6th Ward Democrat Al Lindsey last year. Lindsey, a vociferous critic of Winnecke, voted for the 2016 budget that eliminated the mayor’s first land bank funding request.
The first year’s allotment of $1.7 million — the money City Council approved last month — will be doled out in monthly distributions to the land bank or the Evansville Brownfields Corp., which will act in the land bank’s stead until the new nonprofit can be created by ordinance. That can’t happen until enabling legislation takes effect July 1.
All finance ordinances involving cash balance transfers must be approved by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, a step crossed off the list with the state’s notification of approval on June 6.
Having enough money in the riverboat fund to fund the land bank year after year through 2019 shouldn’t be a problem, said City Controller Russ Lloyd Jr.
As of April 30, the city’s riverboat fund held just shy of $18.8 million, about $13 million of which is uncommitted. That doesn’t count the newly appropriated $1.7 million.
“(The four-year plan) is doable if that’s what the administration desires and that’s what council agrees to,” Lloyd said. “Obviously, there’s always demands for the riverboat money. The demands are almost infinite.”
Coures is acutely aware that parsing through those demands and deciding how — or whether — to spend the money is a matter for elected officials to decide. Winnecke hasn’t said whether he will seek a third term in 2019, if he has even decided.
The DMD director knows he may have no more than one year — or four — to make the land bank work. Then it’s up to the voters.
“If Lloyd (Winnecke) runs for a third term, or if someone else comes in as mayor that has a different vision — if there’s a different City Council in place four years from now that doesn’t support land banking, or whatever — we can only plan so far ahead,” he said.
“We can only plan so far ahead, because the election cycle runs on a four-year basis.”