Jasper Council discusses Regional Wellness Center funding

Jasper — The Jasper Common Council took action to help fund the planned Regional Wellness Center at its regular meeting on Wednesday.

First, the council approved projects identified through the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Plans (HELP) in partnership with the Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

HELP is a year-long program that offers guidance for communities in spending allotments of Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, which was created under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The HELP process will culminate in a community-focused Strategic Investment Plan.

HELP culminates in a dynamic Strategic Investment Plan rooted in four pathways: Advancing e-Connectivity, Promoting Community Wellness, Enhancing Quality of Place and Strengthening Local Economies.

Jasper dedicated 30 percent, or $1,067,010, of the $3,556,700 in ARPA funding it received to take part in HELP with the county, which dedicated $2,490,290.

In partnership with the county, four main projects were identified as priorities for HELP. Those are the regional sewer district currently under development for Haysville and Portersville ($1.5 million of HELP funding allotted); an owner and owner-occupied housing rehabilitation program for low to moderate-income residents to make needed updates to their residences and address the number of degrading homes in the county (funded through HELP and community block grant funds for up to $700,000); the indoor community wellness center ($1 million); and support for the Tri-Cap Headstart Program ($300,000).

The council approved adopting the plan.

The council also heard the first reading of the new ordinance enacting the one percent Food and Beverage Tax to help fund the development, construction and implementation of the Regional Wellness Center.

Mayor Dean Vonderheide stated the tax is the second element in the funding stack (HELP being the first) for the creation of the Regional Wellness Center. He also noted the state legislature had loosened restrictions on the use of the money from only being limited to the wellness center.

The council asked that the city ordinance be written to indicate the money is for the project to prevent it from being used in the future for other projects. City Attorney Renee Kabrick said she would make those modifications.

Although the ordinance can be made to reflect that, a future council has the ability to enact another ordinance to supersede their approved action under the bill passed by the state.

The tax will not impact grocery items.

The new tax would add one percent to sales of food and beverages through restaurants, caterers, and delis that prepare foods or if an establishment serves food with eating utensils, including items like plates, bowls, forks, spoons, etc. The tax will not impact grocery items.

The tax could bring in up to $490,000 annually (in previous articles, we reported $470,000, but these numbers are in a sliding range).

The tax will sunset in 22 years.

Along with the HELP funding and food and beverage tax, the city will be launching a capital fundraising campaign to offset the estimated $37 million price tag of the Regional Wellness Center.

The city will also have to issue a bond to pay for the project, but it has a couple of routes it can use to create the bond.

If it is a property tax-paid bond, the city will likely have to take the issue to referendum since property taxes will be slotted to pay back the bond. Voters in the city will get to approve the use of property taxes to pay for the bond.

The city can also use Economic Development Income Tax Funds for the bond and apply property tax as a backup. If this route is chosen, they won’t have to take the issue to the voters for the final decision. This was the route used to pay for the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center.

The city will also be seeking a Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative READi grant through Indiana Economic Development Corporation to assist in the project. In 2023, Indiana dedicated $500 million in state appropriations to fund READI and promote strategic investments designed to attract talent and create economic growth through matching grants to approved projects.

Financing for the project is a major focus for the council and city as they attempt to offset the impact on taxpayers. “The goal is to use as little property tax as possible,” Kabrick stated in an interview Friday morning, adding they are constantly brainstorming ideas on ways to accomplish that. The use of ARPA/HELP funding, grants and the capital campaign all help reduce the amount the city will have to bond.

In regards to the new food and beverage tax, a public hearing on the new ordinance will be held at the next regular Jasper Common Council meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Jasper City Hall. The ordinance will be up for final approval that night as well.