Back in the Civic Center for the first time since mid-March, the Evansville City Council prepared for its meeting Monday night with facemasks and new plexiglass shields at their desks. From left: Councilor Kaitlin Moore, City Council Attorney Joshua Claybourn and Councilor Jim Brinkmeyer. (Photo: John Martin, Courier & Press)
Back in the Civic Center for the first time since mid-March, the Evansville City Council prepared for its meeting Monday night with facemasks and new plexiglass shields at their desks. From left: Councilor Kaitlin Moore, City Council Attorney Joshua Claybourn and Councilor Jim Brinkmeyer. (Photo: John Martin, Courier & Press)

EVANSVILLE — A deadlocked City Council on Monday denied a $400,000 grant for a project to build 10 affordable, single-family homes in low-income neighborhoods.

That vote led to an animated and hostile discussion moments later, when the council debated, and ultimately passed, a nonbinding resolution condemning racism in Evansville and calling it "a public health crisis." That decision was 7-1.

But the council's 4-4 vote to effectively defeat the grant for Memorial Community Development Corp. left the vote on the resolution without much merit, some councilors and audience members said, many of them in an angry fashion.

Voting no on the Memorial CDC matter were Ron Beane, R-At-Large; Justin Elpers, R-Fifth Ward; Kaitlin Moore, D-At-Large, and Missy Mosby, D-Second Ward. Voting yes were Jim Brinkmeyer, D-Sixth Ward; President Alex Burton, D-Fourth Ward; Zac Heronemus, D-Third Ward; and Ben Trockman, D-First Ward.

Trockman participated in the meeting virtually. Jonathan Weaver, D-At-Large, was absent.

The $400,000 grant for Memorial CDC was to come from city government's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, whose board recommended its approval.

The project involves building 10 homes from the ground up, as part of a $1.5 million total endeavor. Memorial CDC officials said they expected about $180,000 in debt service. Other investors include the Vectren Foundation and the Federal Home Loan Bank.

Memorial CDC Executive Director Serita Cabell said the goal is to address wealth gaps and promote homeownership in Evansville's core neighborhoods.

Evansville Department of Metropolitan Development Director Kelley Coures, who pushed for the grant's passage, said the homes are to be built in Census tracts with more than 50 percent Black population.

Councilors who opposed the grant to Memorial CDC said the $400,000, when combined with a $168,000 grant for HOPE of Evansville which passed unanimously Monday, would have taken the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund grant balance to zero and its loan balance to $239,000.

Beane said he would have preferred the city's $400,000 contribution to Memorial CDC be a combination of a loan and a grant. Elpers said he wondered if $400,000 could produce more housing than what was being proposed.

Moore said she preferred the Affordable Housing Trust Fund issue more loans, "so we can be more self-sustaining."

Coures responded that developers of affordable housing "aren't knocking down the door" to receive city loans, because most major projects require grants. Coures also cited Memorial CDC's lengthy track record of successfully building affordable housing.

“The purpose of the trust fund is to develop new affordable housing units, and this will develop 10 more," Coures said.

The measure's defeat means it can't be brought back to the City Council for a year.

Simmering emotions from the Memorial CDC vote bled into discussion about the resolution, sponsored by Moore and Trockman, declaring racism a public health crisis in Evansville.

The resolution notes disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases among the city's Black population, and it states that elected city leaders and city government departments should work to address systemic racial disparities.

The Rev. Adrian Brooks, who founded Memorial CDC, came to the Civic Center mid-meeting to speak about the resolution, which he said carried little weight in light of the earlier vote.

He pointed to tens of millions of dollars the city has committed to a Downtown convention hotel and a medical school, projects he said will do little to benefit Evansville's Black community.

"The problem I have with the resolution being presented is that earlier you had a chance to put some teeth with it," Brooks said, his voice rising. "You had an opportunity to pass some declaratory statement but put some teeth to it.

"I wanted you to sense the moment here. You had two UE graduates, African American females, running an organization that has a major impact on the African American community, and you voted it down," Brooks said, referring to Memorial CDC staff that presented the agency's proposal to City Council.

"We've watched the divestment in our community, and you wonder why there's so much distrust," Brooks continued. "Now you wonder why so many young, progressive people leave the community. … Am I mad? Hell yes, I’m mad. I found the best to present to you, and you kicked them out the door.”

Other audience members also complained the resolution had limited value. Most city councilors, however, said they viewed it as a starting point for more meaningful local conversation and action.

Evansville is among hundreds of U.S. cities of all sizes that have seen protests of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and similar situations. Protests have called for police reform and action on systemic racism.

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke has proposed one reform, expanding the Evansville Police Merit Commission from three to five members, with two mayoral appointments, two Fraternal Order of Police appointments and one City Council appointment.

"There are a lot of things that need to change from a City of Evansville perspective," said Burton, the council's only Black member. "You look back to what happened at Olive Garden. As we move forward, there are some things we have to fix. Our motto is E is for Everyone. It’s time some policies are put forth to see to it that happens."

Elpers was the only present councilor to vote against the resolution, saying he disagreed systemic racism exists in Evansville and greater collaboration can solve problems that do exist.

The resolution, Elpers said, "goes against everything I believe about this city" and "further divides us."

Measure on casino funds defeated

Elpers proposed amending a 1990s city resolution concerning how Evansville's casino funds are to be spent.

The old resolution states such funds are to be used primarily on capital expenditures, and not day-to-day city operations. Elpers proposed amending the resolution to state that casino funds could be used for operations purposes during an emergency situation as declared by the Indiana governor or city mayor.

Evansville is seeing declining revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is likely to complicate the city's 2021 budget preparation.

Trockman, Heronemus, Burton, Brinkmeyer and Moore voted against the resolution. Elpers, Beane and Mosby voted for it.

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