Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop provided updates on the progress on several city projects in 2016 and what the city is pursuing in 2017.
The first phase of the State Street improvement project is underway, with work being completed to add pedestrian walkways to the State Street bridge. After the bridge is completed, Lienhoop said he is interested in pursuing the proposed corridor from the downtown Columbus riverfront area to the east side, linking the bridge project to downtown.
The path of the corridor travels along Fifth Street to California and then south to State Street where it enters the east side.
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“I think if you look at a map and see this — there’s a bridge and a little bit of pavement, but what does it connect to?” Lienhoop said.
“It’s important for us to not leave that unconnected. We want to connect it to something. Downtown would be a reasonable first step.”
Long-term, Lienhoop said he wanted the proposed improvements to be made east along State Street, but that is dependent on funding and the status on other upcoming projects that have price tags too, he said.
The grand vision for the project would be having a pathway for people from the west side to ride their bikes to Columbus East High School, Lienhooop said. Not everyone wants to do specifically that, but that stretch represents the level of connectivity the city is trying to reach, he said.
“The east Columbus area is deserving of some infrastructure improvements. We’ve done a lot out there in the last few years. In respect to Indiana Avenue, we’ve got some sidewalk improvements to get to from East (High School) to 10th Street and the retail opportunities that are there,” he said.
The State Street bridge will be attractive and make a pleasant statement to people leaving downtown when they realize they have come to an identifiable neighborhood, Lienhoop said of the east side improvements.
“In Indianapolis, there are neighborhoods that have names — they’ve got signs. There’s a way to get an identity. We want to be able to do that for east Columbus,” he said.
Walesboro industrial park
One of the first priorities for 2017 will be reapplying to have the 700 acres in the Walesboro Industrial Park area reconsidered to be taken out of a flood plain, the mayor said.The change is needed because of a shortage of shovel-ready land in Columbus. Lienhoop’s administration has reached out to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources leadership, asking for further review at a higher level, the mayor said.
The city has been told if the information is submitted a little differently, with additional information, Columbus could expect to get 90 percent of what it wanted, Lienhoop said. That means, out of 700 acres in the flood plain, 630 acres could be recategorized as appropriate for building.
If the city elected to leave the land as it is, the state would require as much as 2 to 4-feet of fill to take the elevation out of the flood plain, the mayor said.
“And if you’re going to do this over say 200,000 square feet, now all of a sudden you’ve added a couple million dollars. And if you add that up over the whole 700 acres out there, you have to ask yourself, will we ever get this developed? I felt like it was important for us to first get the flood plain restriction removed before we began to spend money to try to plat ground or draw lines,” Lienhoop said.
The next step after the land is reclassified is to work with the federal Department of Defense and Aviation Administration about land use.
Lienhoop said industrial prospects do not want any liens or encumbrances on the land — something that Walesboro cannot avoid as it is a former military airport.
The city was able to get releases from the federal agencies for development by Faurecia and Bartholomew REMC, but it is unknown how the agencies will react to other requests, Lienhoop said.
“I think there is value in getting the Department of Defense and FAA to release those restrictions,” Lienhoop said. “Now, they may be tougher to deal with than the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. I don’t know yet. That will be next up in 2017.”
Once that is done, the city might consider freeing up some ground, 20 acres or 40 acres, so there is some shovel-ready land for prospects to consider, the mayor said.
Raises for city employees
Lienhoop is standing behind the city’s decision this year to give a 1.5 percent cost of living raise to city employees for next year.The impact on taxpayers for a 1 percent raise would be about $600,000 — at 1.5 percent it’s about $900,000, he said. The city’s assessed valuation continues to grow, mainly from industrial expansion, he said.
“We don’t have reliable statistics on how many homeowners are capped at 1 percent, but if you’re at the 1 percent max on property tax caps, then it really doesn’t affect your property taxes. We’ve got plenty of anecdotal evidence that there are plenty of homeowners who are at that 1 percent. And while it will have an effect, it won’t affect everyone,” Lienhoop said.
Lienhoop said he tried to explain during council meetings that inflation is a fact of life. And although inflation has been low, Lienhoop said lately there has been a slight uptick. By July or August, it had reached about 1.4 to 1.5 percent, he said.
“And that indicates to me the employees are due a cost-of-living adjustment. Again, it’s important to communicate that when the city can afford it, we give a cost-of-living adjustment. And when the city can’t afford it, we don’t,” he said.