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12 years as mayor, a lifetime of service to the community

12 years as mayor, a lifetime of service to the community

Beech Grove community bids farewell to Mayor Dennis Buckley as steps down from office, into retirement

By Nicole Davis

Members of the Beech Grove community gathered on Dec. 17 to bid farewell to Dennis Buckley, who has chosen to retire after serving three terms as mayor.

Beech Grove looks a lot different than it did 12 years ago. When Buckley started as mayor, the city had $220,000 in its general fund. Going into 2024, it will have nearly $7 million in that same fund. But the budget isn’t the only thing Buckley and his team have improved. He has prioritized everything from employee benefits to stormwater projects and economic development, to create an overall better community for its residents, employees and visitors.

A lifelong resident of Beech Grove, Buckley served on the Beech Grove Fire Department for 30 years, retiring as its chief in 2009.

“I ran for mayor because I wasn’t happy with the direction of the city,” Buckley said. “I had two choices – I could sit at home and complain, or I could do something, so I chose to run for mayor – and I won. Then everything I complained about became my problem. We started the first day of 2012. I walked in the office with no previous meeting with any mayor or anybody. There was not one piece of paper in this room. The drawers were empty. The telephone was disconnected, and the computer was wiped out. There was one key laying on the desk. We were broke. We weren’t going to make payroll. We scraped it together and made it.”

12-Year Highlights

The city’s transformation began with Main Street. The road used to be higher than the building thresholds so every time it rained; water would flood into the structures. The road was lowered by 18 inches and the street design changed to allow for efficient parking. The construction took 10 months to complete. At the time, there were 28 vacant buildings along Main Street. Now there are only one or two at a given time. Beech Grove has actually gained 125 new businesses within its city since then.

“When I purchased Eckstein Shoe Store, we took possession Jan. 2, 2012, the day after Buckley took office,” said Jim Coffman, current Beech Grove clerk-treasurer and mayor-elect. “I remember calling him as then Mayor-Elect Buckley and said, ‘I purchased the shoe store, I was hoping we could work together as mayor and business owner. Little did I know, eight years later we would be working together in city government. In the beginning, Main Street was struggling. In 2012 when he took office, there were a lot of empty store fronts. Fast forward 12 years, we now have the beautiful police station as a gateway to Main Street, storefronts are full, parking lots are full. I think that’s due to his work as mayor, the team he’s built around him and the work he’s done the last 12 years.”

Buckley said stormwater projects have been a big highlight of his time served as mayor. His personal favorite accomplishment was along N. 9th Avenue and Buffalo Street. Even normal rain used to flood the houses in that area with all the water in the neighborhood flowing to that one spot. He said he’s looking forward to the McFarland Creek drainage project that is expected to take place this spring, solving the flooding issue in that area.

St. Francis was the talk of the town in 2012. Franciscan Health closed the hospital in Beech Grove three months after Buckley became mayor; 1,500 jobs lost in the city.

“The city did a lousy job preparing for that because they informed the city five years prior to that that they were going to close,” Buckley said. “The city didn’t do anything. They closed and the building became vacant. They tried to repurpose it because tearing it down was expensive. In the meantime, we started having problems with people getting into the building. I told them I no longer support redevelopment and I wanted them to tear it down. They did tear it down and to their credit, they did it right. The problem was the building was gone but the ties to it were still there. People had an emotional attachment to that building.”

At the same time, Beech Grove had been awarded funding for a trail system to run through the city and make it more walkable. Buckley spoke with the Franciscan CEO about purchasing the naming rights to that trail, continuing its legacy within the city. They did, and that greenway became the Franciscan Trail. Around the same time, as demolishing the former hospital, Franciscan Health redid one of its buildings and brought back nursing services to Beech Grove. The development of Franciscan VNS Home Care brought more than 400 jobs back to the city. To this day, Buckley said the former St. Francis hospital is a topic of conversation among residents.

Buckley takes pride in his community and is often spotted in his free time walking down Main Street picking up trash. It’s what drove him to look into the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Clean Community program. After surveying the city, Buckley discovered they were 65 percent of the way to meeting the Clean Community standards. He and his team developed a recycling program for residents, started a paper shredding and recycling event that currently happens four times a year and more, earning them the title of being a Clean Community approximately six years ago. Last year, IDEM revamped and strengthened its standards, but Beech Grove still earned the title as one of only six communities in the state.

In 2021, the city merged its fire department with Indianapolis Fire Department. This allowed Beech Grove to build its EMS and police departments. This year, the police department celebrated the opening of its new police station, sitting at the beginning of Main Street.

“The biggest project we worked on together is probably the biggest project the city has undertaken in over 50 years,” said Michael Maurice, chief of police. “That would be the new police department and training center. He gave the parameters of the project and then allowed my team and I to build a truly special building. This project set the department on great footing for many years to come. He never micromanaged but made sure we did it right. I think we accomplished that.

In the past 12 years, the city has paved more than 90 roads and has received $20 million in grant funding. The value of properties has increased: In 2012, the city’s assessed value was $325 million. It is now $673 million.

Employee pay has increased along with health insurance benefits. The police department and EMS staff are among the highest paid in that profession in Marion County. All of this has led to a strong employee retention rate, with the majority of department heads in Buckley’s administration having been with him since the beginning. Not only were no jobs or wages lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city has hired 50 new employees through the course of 12 years. There has been a 3% pension base increate for 11 years for retirees. The list of accomplishments goes on and on.

Preparing for Retirement

Buckley knew when he ran for his last term as mayor that it was his final one.

“You should only be mayor for so long,” he said. “I believe the optimal time is three terms. The first term, a mayor doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re learning. The second term, you line up what you want to get done. The third term, you see it get done. There comes a time when you better take a stop back. Three terms was enough for me.”

From the beginning of this most recent term, Buckley began looking at who could replace him as mayor. When Coffman was elected as clerk-treasurer, Buckley believed he found his successor, even before Coffman decided to run for mayor.

“If you want to be mayor because you want the power or authority you are going to fail,” Buckley said. “But if you want to be mayor and you want to serve, to be a servant, that’s really good. The mayor, that’s a title. I’m not any better than anybody else. You have to keep it in perspective. That’s why Jim will do well. He has that same keel. Jim has been with me since day one of this term. Every decision, he’s been sitting right there with me. My goal was you won’t see any difference. Jan. 1, it will be business as usual.”

Buckley said the city has many projects to look forward to in 2024, including extending the greenway to around the high school, stormwater projects and more.

“Thank you,” he said. “Especially to those who voted for me and gave their trust to me to lead this city. I appreciate it very much and I took it very seriously.”

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