Election preview: City Council District 5 candidates on housing, collaboration

"I Voted Today!" stickers at the vote center for Bloomington precincts 3, 7, and 22 as well as Perry precincts 6, 8, 15 and 31 on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
"I Voted Today!" stickers at the vote center for Bloomington precincts 3, 7, and 22 as well as Perry precincts 6, 8, 15 and 31 on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

District 5 of the Bloomington City Council will get a new council member next year, as incumbent Isabel Piedmont-Smith is running in District 1 because of redistricting. In the Democratic primary, Shruti Rana, senior assistant dean for curricular and undergraduate affairs, diversity officer, and professor of law at IU’s Maurer School of Law, will face Jenny Stevens, a grant accountant in IU's physics department. No Republican has filed.

Early voting begins April 4. Primary election day is May 2. A map of the new council districts: tinyurl.com/5n8szcm7.

Q: Which problem facing the city is the first you would want to see addressed if you get to serve on the council?

Rana: To move forward most productively and efficiently, we must first enhance collaborative leadership between our city and county officials. Our city plays a key role in our county, and our leaders must work together respectfully and collaboratively and ensure that all voices are heard and build public trust.

Shruti Rana.
Shruti Rana.

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With this foundation, we can address together the pressing issues we face such as enhancing climate resilience, ameliorating the childcare and healthcare deserts in our city and county, protecting rights and equity, and taking steps to foster an environment that will bring good jobs and opportunities to Bloomington. I will emphasize principled, collaborative leadership so our community can be proud of its local government. My experience on city and county boards and commissions enables me to find creative, collaborative ways to problem-solve, and foster environments where everyone feels respected, valued and heard.

We can use ad hoc committees to research and address issues, seek out community voices via outreach to people who cannot attend city meetings, and expand transparency and accountability. These steps will build trust, public support, and the cooperative environment we need for a strong and inclusive community.

Stevens: I think we have to to all we can to ensure public safety and that means retaining current trained police and fire teams as well as revisiting our recruitment and retention strategies.  Additionally, in light of increasing incidents of violent crime in Bloomington and throughout Indiana, I would want to focus on proactive versus reactive measures we could implement city wide and ensure that City Council was adequately funding public safety staff and programing.

Jenny Stevens.
Jenny Stevens.

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Q: County officials are reluctant to allow dense housing developments on the city’s fringes. The city council has allowed small steps for densification in core neighborhoods, but builders have not responded by building many duplexes. Instead most new units being built are expensive high-rise apartments. What legislation would you propose that would increase the availability of affordable housing units in Bloomington? How much would that cost? How would you pay for it?

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Rana: Our city must prioritize access to affordable housing and building sustainable neighborhoods with thriving public spaces and easy access to transportation. I believe in adopting best practices from communities similar to ours that are building affordable workforce housing.

We must also utilize a shared collaboration model, including residents, neighbors, employers, experts in the field, and city and county leadership to develop solutions, as we saw with Heading Home in 2021. We can offer creative solutions like housing grants or providing loans to reduce housing costs. I would propose funding these programs through budget and public finance surpluses, and seek voter approval as appropriate.

We can also support the construction of climate and energy friendly buildings with multiple housing options that will help us increase the diversity and inclusivity of our city. The costs of these options would be integrated into the costs of development, and would be supplemented by federal grants for renewable energy programs as offered through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Stevens: Affordable housing is a complicated issue and the council with a new mayor will need to work on this issue.  As a council member, I will be interested in re-assessing how the UDO resulted in the high-rise development as well as the Kmart development that has no setbacks from the road. I would want to analyze the current housing data and look at affordability metrics to ensure they are right for our community.

Additionally, we need to better understand and untangle the impact of our large student population on affordable housing.

Finally, we need to investigate similar communities that are making progress on their affordable housing initiatives.  When that is done then we are better poised to propose legislation, prepare cost estimates and assess financing options.

Q: Both police and firefighters have said they are underpaid and that low salaries are prompting experienced colleagues to leave for other departments that pay more. What legislation would you propose to increase retention in police and fire departments? How much would that cost? How would you pay for it?

Rana: I am honored to serve on the Bloomington Public Safety Board, which oversees our police and fire departments. In this capacity, I have heard first-hand from officers, our police and fire chiefs, and residents about the recruitment and retention challenges our city is facing. I believe that officers who are embedded in our community and live close enough to respond quickly to emergencies are more effective and keep us safer.

To be competitive with other locations, our public safety officers need higher salaries and housing incentives such as the new City of Bloomington $100,000 no-interest down payment assistance program for up to 10 public safety officers commencing this year. I want to explore and expand other incentives to live and work in Bloomington.

Currently, the mortgage program appears to be a strong incentive to choose Bloomington, but only serves up to 10 public safety officers. I would support expanding this program, and rental assistance programs, to at least another 10 officers, to mitigate the current gaps in the fire and police departments. In addition, the investments in public resources that will draw people to and lead them to stay in Bloomington will also support and attract public safety officers.

Stevens: Our police and firefighter services are invaluable to our city.  They need to be fairly compensated.  As a council member I would support a compensation survey to determine appropriate incentives and administrative parameters, but I think we also need a work climate survey to ensure we understand all the reasons why individuals are leaving Bloomington City employment.

During the budget process, I would support the alignment of compensation with other similar communities along with a consideration of the unique situation we have in Bloomington in hosting and facilitating education for a large group of younger adults.  As a council member, I would want to understand more about the nature of the work in relation to the compensation.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Election preview: Bloomington City Council District 5 candidates