ELKHART — A group of five Elkhart City Council members offered alternative budget cutting ideas Friday while also criticizing Mayor Dick Moore’s proposed cuts.
Differences of opinions on the budget and other issues, though, were momentarily pushed aside as officials at Friday’s news conference argued over whether the gathering equated to an illegal meeting.
A group led by Republican Councilman Kyle Hannon announced Thursday that he and three other Republicans and one Democrat would host a news conference Friday in council chambers, but the mayor and a city attorney suggested it could be considered illegal under state law because the five council members represented a quorum and the meeting lacked the necessary 48-hour notice to the public.
Hannon, acting on the advice of a public access attorney in Indianapolis, conceded the point and suggested they trim the formal presentation to four council members to avoid a quorum.
As a result, Republican council member Mary Olson stepped aside and sat in the audience as the four others addressed the media.
Hannon and the others — Republicans David Henke and Brian Thomas and Democrat Ron Troyer — then outlined their plan, saying the city could save $725,000 by re-bidding services for trash collection, property, casualty and liability insurance, and city ambulance fee collections.
The current trash collection contract has been renewed for five years and Hannon argued the house count used as a basis for the contract is outdated because of foreclosures and demolitions.
Hannon said the group talked with one trash collection agency that claimed the work could be done for $200,000 less than what is currently charged.
The savings outlined by the group, he said, could be used to avoid Moore’s proposed furloughs for city workers.
Moore wants to institute three-day furloughs for fire and police and five-day furloughs for other city workers.
Republicans are upset that Moore hasn’t considered any of their ideas, which Henke has floated more than once.
“If we do nothing, you save nothing. If you don’t look, we’re not going to find,” Henke said. “Let’s get off our hands, let’s learn how to lead and let’s save this money and put our city back in financial order.”
The group also called for the restoration of funding for economic groups, including Economic Development Corporation, a program under the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Elkhart Inc. by using money from tax increment financing.
Moore said later that TIF funds can not be used that way and noted that the use of TIF monies are limited to infrastructure within specific districts and not for city-wide projects.
Moore also questioned the supposed savings that looms if contracted services are re-bid. He said he believed figures touted by Hannon come from competitors and such suggestions often prove to be “unrealistic” once they are investigated.
Moore’s proposed $1.9 million in cuts include the elimination of the neighborhood coordinator’s position and six other jobs that are currently unfilled. He also is closing the city golf course, shifting other monies and seeking deep cuts in overtime and part-time work to help offset the loss of property tax revenues for 2013.
Opponents think more cuts in personnel are possible.
“I find it almost ludicrous if you look at 600 people in the workforce and you find one position that was not needed,” Thomas said.
Moore said afterward he thought some of the suggestions were “misleading.”
Democrat Dave Osborne, who attended the news conference, said he doesn’t think opting out of contracts is something the city can easily do.
“You can’t just negate a contract because somebody else is offering you a better deal,” Osborne said.
Much of their efforts, Osborne said, looked like political posturing and an attempt to put the blame for cuts on Moore.
Henke said the group has more cuts in mind and will soon release details of its plan.
The group of five voted against Moore’s proposed trash fee last month and the topic continues to simmer.
Henke said they are willing to work with Moore and the Democrats, but at the same time, “We’re not willing to have the trash fee blamed for every woe of our city.”
Osborne and fellow Democrat Brent Curry peppered the group of four with questions. Hannon then chose to end the event, saying that such a debate involving even more council members could be viewed as an illegal meeting.
Troyer voted with Republicans last month to block Moore’s monthly trash fee plan.
Moore said he hopes to reintroduce a revised trash fee and lobbied for it Wednesday at a public meeting.
Troyer indicated Friday he won’t be shifting his position on the fee in the near future.
“This trash fee was and is unacceptable and unfair when other options are available,” Troyer said in a written statement.
The city council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday and begins the first of six budget sessions Tuesday.