By Dan Spalding
WARSAW — In what proved to be the most challenging of circumstances for municipalities across the country in 2020, the city of Warsaw responded to a worldwide health crisis while still trained on building a stronger future.
Mayor Joe Thallemer on Monday, March 1, delivered his tenth annual State of the City address, but like everything else during the COVID-19 pandemic, this one was different.
Unlike a year ago, when Thallemer spoke to a packed crowd at Center Lake Pavilion literally hours before officials realized the severity of the public health threat, Monday’s talk was at city hall and reflected the remnants of COVID with mandatory facemasks and social distancing still in place. The only guests – aside from city officials and the media – were Thallemer’s mother and his wife.
City officials recommended those seeking to watch the speech do so online. A video can be found on the city’s website and Facebook page.
Much of the speech was related to COVID, but also focused on past achievements and new initiatives.
The pandemic, Thallemer said, quickly forced everyone to change priorities with a focus on the health and safety of the community.
“From day one, our team relied on the importance of public health data and information to guide our local decision making. Quite often, the information was changing by the day as officials tried to keep up with the emerging reality of what was actually happening. COVID-19 was new to the planet. There was no handbook to consult,” he said.
Thallemer, who has strongly supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s guidance on the pandemic, reiterated that real-time, emerging public health data continues “to guide our response.”
Thallemer said support from the Kosciusko County Health Department proved to be “invaluable.”
“Indiana and Kosciusko County got it right,” he said. “Were we perfect? Of course not, nobody was … but I believe our public health officials, who had a monumental, unenviable task kept their focus and as a result, the community benefited.”
Thallemer paid homage to those who died, including 110 residents of the county, from the pandemic and led a moment of silence in their honor.
But he also sounded more optimistic Monday about the direction of the pandemic as the number of new cases and hospitalizations continue a month-long plummet.
“I also wish to acknowledge those on the front lines who have risked their own well-being, responding to and caring for those in need: those physicians, nurses, health care workers, emergency responders and the public health officials all who have navigated our community through this crisis, a crisis we hope to finally put in our rear-view mirror in 2021,” Thallemer said.
“A sincere community thank you to all,” he added.
He acknowledged the “sacrifices and hardships” put upon local business by what he termed “an unforeseen, public health menace of historic proportions that impacted our country like no other.”
The stay-at-home orders and social restrictions, he said, created an enormous amount of pressure on them to operate responsibly to protect their customers and employees.
“I know the battle isn’t over for them,” he said.
“Federal, state and local stimulus programs have and will continue to help, but we must all be mindful of the significant negative impacts on our businesses. Lost revenue from disruption of service to customers, supply chain interruptions and workforce concerns have crippled and, in some cases, dealt a fatal blow to some of our longstanding business partners. As consumers, please support our merchants and businesses any way you can.”
The city is still assessing the financial impact on the city.
“The 2020 economic crisis is forecast to have an uncertain impact on local income tax revenue, which makes up 34% of our general fund revenues. Based upon 2020 actual allocations, there could be lost revenue up to a half-million by some projections and could also impact property tax revenue as well,” Thallemer said.
Despite COVID, the city saw numerous achievements in capital projects in 2020.
Some highlights from the past year:
- Renovation and expansion of the wastewater plant has been completed, The project will provide much-needed additional capacity and is the biggest capital works project in city history with a price tag of about $30 million.
- The city continues to support new housing projects in the city. Construction on the 802 Center senior housing project will be complete later this year and result in 72 new apartments. Another housing project, Gateway Grove, involving 62 market-rate owner-occupied single-family dwellings, are planned for the old Madison Elementary property.
- Rehabbing of one of the two existing runways was completed and the city airport moved closer to seeing power lines lowered to accommodate flights
- Expanded its online services and teamed with the county to provide weekly news conferences online on pandemic developments. One press conference last July attracted almost 10,000 views.
- Continued to see growth in the orthopedic industry as Nextremity Solutions plans to finish construction of is new headquarters in the city’s tech park. Other orthopedic companies, including Wishbone Medical and Razor Medical Instruments, were among several to announce growth plans.
- Established a new department focusing on community development. Longtime plan director Jeremy Skinner was named director of community development and Justin Taylor was named city planner.
Thallemer’s speech also included a few announcements:
- He discussed the need to hire more police. The department has about five openings for officers and needs more personnel after the city made significant annexations two years ago. Thallemer said he will soon talk with the council about addressing the issue and said afterward that that primarily involves increasing pay.
- He announced the city is hoping to use the old Owen’s property on the near west side for the development of housing and other uses, including possibly a parking garage.
- He touted the city’s garbage and recycling services but suggested council will look to establish a modest fee.
- Thallemer said he will continue to work toward implementing a mental health initiative within the Warsaw Wayne Fire Territory that would serve the community.
- Announced that construction of a new parks office would begin this year and that construction of the multi-use four-story building next to the future Buffalo Street Plaza will begin this year.