by Thomas P. Healy
After more than two decades of fits and starts, the North Indianapolis Flood Wall project is moving steadily toward completion. Also, a financing mechanism for flood control improvements in Rocky Ripple is law, thanks to bipartisan collaboration at the State House.
“Senate Enrolled Act 386 is about Hoosiers helping themselves,” said Sen. John Ruckelshaus (R–District 30), who authored the legislation. “That was the real appeal.”
It’s tough enough to successfully navigate the legislative process, but accomplishing that in a short session on the first attempt benefits from bipartisan support. “It takes a good team,” Ruckelshaus said. “I’m proud of this. This was truly bipartisan and that means it’s a good piece of legislation. Everybody worked together.”
The team included Rep. Greg Porter (D–District 96), who sponsored the bill in the House. City of Indianapolis Department of Public Works director Dan Parker said, “Rep. Porter and Sen. Ruckelshaus got this through.”
A NEAT SOLUTION
In March 2017, DPW signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Butler University and the Town of Rocky Ripple that pledged $10 million over five years to assist Rocky Ripple with flood protection.
READ MORE: Spring Brings Flurry of Levee Activity
The funds were from stormwater fees, which the City considered a short-term solution. “That was a huge part of our involvement. We needed to come up with a financing mechanism,” Parker said. The City currently has a 20-year backlog of neighborhood drainage projects that the stormwater fees should fund. “So this legislation will help not only the stormwater fund but also Rocky Ripple and the city as a whole,” Parker said. “We can do drainage projects we’ve talked about for years.”
“It’s a neat solution,” said Carla Gaff-Clark, president of the Rocky Ripple Town Council. “None of us want to take more money out of stormwater fund for flood protection if we don’t have to.”
While the legislation covers the entire county, Rocky Ripple is Midtown’s main beneficiary. In effect, the legislation works like a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, but in this instance it’s called a flood control improvement district. Once the district is established, an estimate of property tax increases is made based on the anticipated removal of the property from the flood plain, a circumstance that currently limits development options.
The difference between the current assessed value and the future assessed value is called the increment. This increment can be “captured” for 25 years and dedicated to construction, replacement, repair, maintenance, or improvement of flood control projects.
According to DPW director Parker, the City hired Policy Analytics to examine parcels in flood-prone areas in the county and estimate potential increment. “The numbers Policy Analytics came up with on preliminary estimates showed the mechanism would work,” Parker said.
‘CONVERGENCE TO THE MEAN’
Bill Sheldrake is president and founder of Policy Analytics, a firm that specializes in economic analysis, public finance, and policy analysis. “What we did was, we said if flood protection is provided in Rocky Ripple, what kind of growth in assessed value would take place within the current assets located in Rocky Ripple and what is likely to happen about further development—new investments that would come in to Rocky Ripple over a 25-year period?” he said.
Working on a parcel-by-parcel basis, Sheldrake and his team’s modeling found that sufficient increment could be generated in areas like Rocky Ripple to bond against for construction of flood protection. “There is a principle in economics: convergence to the mean,” he explained. “It means that over time, two adjacent disparate areas are likely to become more and more like one another.” In this instance, if Rocky Ripple receives the benefits of flood protection and new investment occurs, (in existing properties as well as on vacant lots) property assessments are likely to increase to be more in line with other nearby Washington Township properties.
A key aspect of the legislation is that it also provides for maintenance for five decades. As stated in the bill’s summary, the law “allows a unit to adopt an ordinance to continue distribution and allocation of property taxes after bond maturity, solely for the purpose of maintenance and repair of flood control works within the district for not more than 50 years.”
“When you’re doing huge projects you have to take into account how you are going to maintain it,” DPW’s Parker said. “We don’t want infrastructure to fall apart—particularly when we’re talking about a flood project that is protecting people’s homes.”
Ruckelshaus is pleased that the legislation includes multiple provisions for public notification and input. “There is transparency every step of the way,” he said. “We wanted to protect the public as much as possible. We even wrote in the bill that the neighborhood associations have to be informed on an annual basis about the financial viability of the project.”
Parker acknowledged that the legislation is a big achievement, but added: “Now comes the hard part—getting numbers down and getting a plan ready.”
Rocky Ripple’s Gaff-Clark said town residents are eager to get a design. As part of its funding commitment, the City contracted with engineering firm AECOM to craft options for Rocky Ripple that were unveiled at a public meeting in June 2017. “We didn’t accept any of those proposals because you cannot take that many houses down,” Gaff-Clark said. “You’re taking away the tax base and that erodes the ability to service the bond.” She’s optimistic the community can work with AECOM to get a suitable flood protection project planned. “People need to know what’s happening with their homes,” she said.
READ MORE: ‘Full Steam Ahead’ on Levee Project
Meanwhile, the Westfield Alignment construction will continue as planned. “In the legislation there’s actually language that specifically says the Warfleigh project will not be interrupted,” Ruckleshaus said. “We wanted to make sure they were protected by this legislation.”
SPEAKING OF WARFLEIGH
Vegetation removal on the banks of section 3A along Riverview Drive in Warfleigh was completed last year. The contractor’s contract is near its completion but more work remains.
During early spring rains much of the banks appeared bare and signs of erosion were visible. Jacob Sinkhorn, USACE’s project manager, said a good stand of grass is anticipated this spring even though the contractor got a late start on seeding and grading last year. “It’s important to understand that the contract includes a ‘seed and establishment period’ of one year,” he said, adding, “There’s more work to do.” Besides grass, tree plantings are required as part of the settlement USACE and DPW reached with the Friends of White River.
Sinkhorn said work on the final stage of the levee project, section 3B3—the so-called Westfield Alignment—will be under way shortly. “We’ve been hashing out details with the contractor,” he said. Such details include the path of the floodwall within Holcomb Gardens on the campus of Butler University. Tree cutting has already occurred and removal of invasives from the canal banks is underway.