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Is it time for a Bloomington Tea Party?
In 1997, county government took control of the "two mile fringe" outside of the city of Bloomington. Property-rights advocates in the county were concerned about the fact that city government had planning jurisdiction over areas where the residents did not have the right to vote in city elections. Just as the "taxation without representation" was a major grievance for the American colonists who declared independence from England in 1776, local residents were opposed to the concept of "regulation without representation".
Fundamentally, it is morally imperative that those being regulated by government have a voice in that government. But the City of Bloomington is seeking regulatory authority over sewer extensions outside of city limits. Currently, the county Planning Commission and the County Commissioners have review power over whether utilities are extended in areas outside the corporate boundaries of Bloomington. But a proposal set to go before the city Utilities Board on April 7 would unilaterally remove this power from the county and place it in the hands of the Mayor of Bloomington.
The proposal has not been received well by county officials. Jeff Ellington accused the city of trying to undo the results of the 2002 elections, where Republicans with a philosophy of less restrictive planning and zoning took office, defeating "Green Democrats" Brian O'Neill, Lucille Bertuccio and Bill Hayden. Even "Green Democrat" Scott Wells voiced concern about the plan in the March 6 Herald-Times, saying this proposal "can pit the city versus the county again ... Instead of working together, you've got a mechanism where the city can hold the county hostage." County Commissioner Iris Kiesling, a liberal Democrat and former member of the City Council, also voiced concerns about the proposal.
While the Utilities Board is officially a separate entity from the City, city government appoints its nine board members. The Mayor appoints six board members while the City Council appoints three. Republican mayoral candidate Fred Prall suggested in a press release "a restructuring of the Utilities Service Board to include calling for representatives of the mayor, the city council, the county, and utility rate payers including outlying water districts that buy their water from the city".
Prall's position has merit. It would make sure that city government is not in sole control of the Utilities Board. While it is true that the sewer system is primarily a city utility, people outside the city limits should have representation on the board as a voice in matters like this.
The importance of this "regulation without representation" cannot be dismissed. This plan would place veto power over sewer extensions outside of city limits into the hands of one person, the mayor of Bloomington. While the mayor would have input form city legal, economic development and planning departments, he would make the final decision. Instead of spreading this power over the County Commissioners and Plan Commission, the city's plan would concentrate it into the hands of one person, someone who would make decisions affecting people who are unable to vote for him.
This proposal also represents poor policy. Adding more users may increase volume, but it will also increase the rate base for future expansion. In addition, if sewers are denied, then developments will necessarily have to include larger lot sizes, increasing urban sprawl. The city's own Growth Policies Plan includes measures to limit urban sprawl by promoting "compact urban form". The city's move for unilateral control will not only fail to limit development, instead it will actually make the development of areas denied sewers the type of growth the city ostensibly wants to avoid.
It is reasonable to conclude that the city should not have some voice in where and when this primarily city utility should expand. The Commissioners and Plan Commission should be in communication with the city on these matters and take seriously advice from the city. However, this power grab is not the answer. Decisions made about development should be made by those who are accountable to the voters. Mayor Fernandez and his eventual successor are not accountable to county voters. Perhaps it's time for a Bloomington Tea Party, where county residents would send tea bags to City Hall in protest of this measure.