Growth-focused task force reckons with development patterns, barriers

Witnesses pushed for farmland preservation, higher Medicare-Medicaid reimbursement rates and more — but every action has consequences

By: - October 3, 2023 7:00 am

Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, gestures while debating Medicare-Medicaid reimbursement during a Land Use Task Force meeting on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Indiana’s communities face population declines, farm sales, child care shortages, hospital closures and more but lawmakers hope to turn the tide and enable growth.

In a wide-ranging, day-long meeting Monday, an interim Land Use Task Force examined problematic development patterns and barriers to growth, but found that suggested fixes come with their own consequences.

Legislation creating the task force gave it five issues to examine: growth trends, growth barriers, developer siting, local self-investment and food insecurity.

Despite the task force’s “land use” moniker, “it’s all relevant,” co-chair Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer, told the Capital Chronicle.

Losing people, farmland

Rural Indiana is struggling, multiple witnesses told the task force.

Indiana’s metropolitan areas grew more than 6% between 2010 and 2020, but the population outside those places shrank slightly — 0.09% over the same time period — according to Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Pandemic-induced migration led to declines in some urban counties, and growth of 0.1% in their rural counterparts, said Matthew Kinghorn, senior demographic analyst at IU’s Indiana Business Research Center. But those trends could be temporary.

Those areas are also losing farmland, testified the D.C.-based American Farmland Trust. Between 2001 and 2016, Indiana converted 265,500 acres of cropland, pastureland and woodland to other uses — mostly low-density residential housing.

With top quality farmland going for $13,500 acre, the trust’s Cris Coffin said, new farmers may struggle to break into the industry. Farms, she said, should exist in a variety of places and scales to ensure a resilient food supply.

Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer, speaks in the House Chamber in March 2023. (From Culp’s official Flickr)

Without intervention, the group projected the state would lose another 450,000 to 600,000 acres of farmland by 2040. But, it said, a lower conversion rate could contain that loss to 260,000 acres.

That doesn’t account for the wide swaths of farmland used in utility-scale solar panel set-ups.

The group pushed lawmakers to avoid incentivizing development of productive agricultural land, or to incentivize more compact developments elsewhere. Coffin also proposed agricultural districts — which bundle benefits for farmers — and farmland preservation via paid easements.

But when the city of Elkhart tried to rein in its sprawl, task force co-chair Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, recounted, Amish residents — who typically live on several acres apiece — threatened to leave.

And longtime farmers may also struggle to commit to keeping their land agricultural, with farmland at a premium for solar uses or other development.

“Take someone that’s over 65 … If they don’t have a kiddo that wants to farm, jeez. How can you get them on board to save this (land) for a neighboring farmer to farm?” asked Sen. Jean Leising, R- Oldenburg. “Because they’re thinking about how they could have retirement for them, for their grandkids, for everybody.”

“There’s a lot of hard choices that farmers are going to have to make,” said the trust’s Dylan Cook. “Affording them options through policy choices … allows some opportunity for stabilization in the chaos that’s going to come.”

Bad momentum

There are stumbling blocks on the path to growth.

New employees need housing, child care, health care and more. And that’s expensive.

Lawmakers tackled the first last session, with a revolving loan fund for infrastructure. The Residential Housing Infrastructure Assistance Program will give local governments low-interest loans for public infrastructure, cutting key housing development costs.

The Indiana Finance Authority expects to open applications for the $75 million program in January, author Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart, told the task force.

But there’s room for action elsewhere, witnesses said.

“There are currently zero funding streams at the state level to either build child care capacity, or financially support operations of child care centers in Indiana,” said Adam Alson, a farmer and leader of a child care nonprofit.

His organization, Appleseed Childhood Education, is responsible for all 73 licensed child care seats in Rensselaer.

It hasn’t opened all those seats, however, because it can’t find the employees. Before Appleseed, Alson said, the area went five years without a provider. Still, it has more than 70 children on its waitlist.

Greene County General Hospital CEO Brenda Reetz testifies on the financial struggles rural hospitals face during a Land Use Task Force meeting on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Despite the demand, the nonprofit operates at a loss of $300,000 annually.

Providing care costs $14,000 per child on average, according to Alson, and that’s out of reach for many families. Appleseed subsidizes its families based on income, and fills the gap by fundraising.

Families also need health care. But many rural hospitals are providing less care or nearing insolvency.

Brenda Reetz, CEO of Greene County General Hospital, asked lawmakers to raise decade-old reimbursement rates for Medicaid and Medicare.

She detailed how the double-five-star facility had provided emergency room and birthing care costing thousands of dollars to patients on government insurance — 75% of the hospital’s patient mix. But Indiana Medicaid and Medicare paid the hospital only a tiny percentages of those bills.

And hospitals pay millions annually in Hospital Assessment Fees to see those Medicaid and Medicare patients, Reetz added.

“When you want to know the biggest barriers in our rural communities, it is that you are not going to have health care if we do not see some sort of changes to the reimbursement model in Indiana, because this is not sustainable,” she said.

And those changes need to come “in the next budget.”

But lawmakers fear such increases. Half the state’s budget goes education, and an increasing slice is going to Medicaid and Medicare.

“We cannot afford Medicaid going higher than schools because we still have to do prisons, we have to do natural resources — we have to do everything. And there’s just not enough money!” exclaimed Doriot. “And if you say ‘tax increase,’ you’re gonna have a new legislature in here real quick.”

Taking suggestions

Those interested in the task force have “homework” directly from Culp and Doriot: solutions, please.

“We need direction,” Doriot said.

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And the assignment is due in a month, so the duo have two weeks for review. The task force will convene its final meeting on November 14, when it will adopt a report with answers to the five questions and legislative recommendations.

The Indiana General Assembly begins meeting in January for a short, non-budget legislative session. Because lawmakers typically shy away from expensive proposals in such years, Culp said he hoped to get most of the eventual recommendations accomplished across two sessions.

Culp himself is developing an idea for a “model community” to serve as a “discussion starter” for local units.

“We know a lot of those decisions have to be made today to have an effect 20 years from now — or a lack of decisions today will have an effect 20 years from now,” he told the Capital Chronicle.

Such a proposal could include a checklist of ideas that participating communities would prioritize according to their needs, then begin planning and executing.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.