Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, in his 11th State of the City address, discussed the local economy, development projects and the contentious feud with the firefighters union, among other issues.
The address took place Monday at City Hall in front of a full house consisting of many notable public and community entities, and a contingent of attendees in support of Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396.
After praising the IHSAA state champion Northwestern Lady Tigers for their recent, much-celebrated victory and recognizing the upcoming inaugural season of the IUK baseball team – both teams were represented in the crowd – Goodnight dove into a common news item of 2017: housing.
The $32 million 306 Riverfront apartments “are opening as we speak,” Goodnight said. A stone’s throw away, Silverbirch of Kokomo nears completion on a $23 million assisted-living facility. Additionally, Bona Vista is nearing completion on a housing project in Meridian Park for adults with disabilities.
Goodnight also said 88 permits were issued for single-family residences, along with a slew of other upcoming housing projects, including two new subdivisions.
“Think about it. Just a few short years ago, we grappled with unemployment of over 20 percent," he said. "Now, in 2017, Kokomo experienced the lowest unemployment in decades. Our local decisions are not the sole reason that number has dropped, but the things we put in place and the efforts we have made have created the environment where this is at least possible.”
Continuing with a list of 2017 accomplishments, Goodnight said the city’s curbside recycling program collected “an average of 200 tons per month.”
Goodnight also teased the often mentioned, but not yet officially announced, downtown hotel and conference center – a project that he said will hopefully soon be officially rolled out.
Praising the collective work of officials and city employees, Goodnight said the city underspent its budget by 10 percent, adding Kokomo has the “lowest debt per capita of Indiana’s largest cities.” He used the cities financial policy to transition into recent controversy involving the firefighters’ union.
“One example of this is the negotiation of union contracts,” he said. “The city spent time last year renegotiating contracts for both our police officers and our firefighters. In September, we were able to successfully reach a three-year agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police.
"However, after much effort, much expense and a whole lot of time, Firefighters Local 396 allowed the contract to expire without ever allowing the membership to vote for the first time in our city's history.”
He went on to say the pension budget for retired police and firefighters is higher than “just about any other mid-sized city.”
The public battle between city officials and representatives of Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 has raged since Nov. 1, 2017, when the union filed a grievance against the city of Kokomo relating specifically to the city’s denial of a request for arbitration.
That grievance, ultimately denied by the Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety, sparked a clash that has for months flaunted the wide rifts between union reps and the city administration in their efforts to reach a collective bargaining agreement.
Currently, Kokomo firefighters are acting without a contract for the first time, a fact that has drawn the ire of Local 396 President Chris Frazier and has led to benefit adjustments that will be in place until a new contract is established.
Overall, the saga has included a prolonged court case – recently moved to Howard Superior Court 3 and Judge Doug Tate – continued private negotiations and public mudslinging.
Included in the controversy is the Common Council’s approval of an ordinance on Feb. 26 that city officials say simply creates a unified approach to bargaining with the three Kokomo unions: fire, police and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
But the ordinance, which for instance narrows the number of arbitral issues in subsequent negotiations, was criticized by Frazier as hastily approved after he said his union wasn’t given adequate time to review it.
People wearing shirts indicating their union support lined the back wall of the council chamber and some of the seating during the address.
Prior to the speech, a group gathered outside City Hall, and handed out sheets of paper stating, “The city cut all retiree insurance benefits without warning or notification,” and a list of other issues. Those included the elimination of sick leave and personal days, and stated demands for active and retired firefighter insurance premiums to be equal to active and retired police officers, respectively.
Continuing with his speech, Goodnight stressed the need for talent attraction to encourage business. He referenced the ongoing search for the online giant Amazon’s HQ2, in which Indianapolis is on a list of 20 potential locations.
Goodnight, while acknowledging that Kokomo isn’t in the running as a spot for the new headquarters, stated, “We can position ourselves as an ideal city for the mini-Amazons; for the small and mid-sized innovative companies – companies that are looking for the same level of high quality of life in order to attract top-level talent.”
Touching on the opioid epidemic, a crisis he acknowledged exists on a national, state and local level, Goodnight called for collaboration of officials, law enforcement and the community to fight the crisis. Forty-four people died in Howard County from drug overdoses in 2017, making it the most deadly year on record for overdoses.
"The solutions are not easy," he said. "I'm not going to stand up here and pretend to have all the answers, and you should be leery of anyone who claims to have them."
Goodnight also discussed things he hopes his administration will accomplish in coming years. Among them was an effort to clean Wildcat Creek and enhance trails around it and “turning it into an asset for our community.”
Additionally, he spoke on neighborhood restorations of Jefferson and Phillips streets and Main Street and Markland Avenue. Those efforts will include blight elimination, infrastructure investments and new amenities, he said. He mentioned the Industrial Heritage Trail, and completing its north leg with a pedestrian bridge crossing Indiana 931.
At the tail end of the speech, Goodnight condemned a phenomenon he dubbed “fake outrage.” This outrage, he said, consists of the spreading of skewed information via social media posts to stir outrage.
“Conversations go from zero to 60 or even zero to light speed the instant they hit Facebook or Twitter, often with no time or consideration for thoughtful and productive discourse, or even talking a moment to check for accuracy. No longer is it acceptable to find something just mildly disagreeable,” he said.
He closed the address with harrowing stats that place Indiana as having the third worst quality of life in the United States. Additionally, he said Indiana “ranks in the bottom 10 states in overall health.”
He called these figures a challenge – something for Kokomo to rise above.