ELKHART — If Elkhart City Council members agree on one thing, it might be a general dislike for the traditional budget hearing schedule they recently wrapped up.
Numerous city council members — including Democrats and Republicans — say they would like to change the way the annual city budget hearings are staggered over six nights, arguing that it needs to be more condensed.
Council members concluded the 2013 budget session two weeks ago. In addition to two other council meetings, the nine-member panel, along with the mayor and a handful of other city leaders, met eight times in 11 nights.
Most meetings lasted 90 minutes or less.
Of the eight meetings, a little more than half were attended by the entire council.
On several occasions, a few council members either showed up late or left early.
At one point during one of the meetings, only six council members were in attendance and were unable to muster enough votes to pass a department’s budget. As a result, the council voted to send it on for final passage without a recommendation — a largely symbolic gesture.
On top of that, the meetings attract very little public attendance.
Only a smattering of residents other than city employees attended the six hearings and only two people spoke during the time for public input.
“That right there speaks volumes,” said council president Tonda Hines. “I would like to see how we could do a better job of engaging the citizens in the process.”
Hines said she supports the idea of having fewer meetings.
Pam Kurpgeweit was one of two people who spoke during the public comment period and complained about the meetings being spread over six nights.
Kurpgeweit also criticized the fact that public input is scheduled at the end of the process. She and Hines both said they think the time for public comment should be at the beginning rather than the end of the process.
Republican councilman Kyle Hannon said he would like to see the schedule condensed.
“It would not surprise me at all if it were changed next year. I would certainly support it,” Hannon said.
While the schedule seems a bit inefficient, it appears to be one of those annual decisions that have become a template from previous years.
As Arvis Dawson, assistant to the mayor, pointed out, “we’ve always done it that way.”
The schedule is often approved by the chairman of the finance committee, who oversees the budget hearings. That position often changes and Dawson suspects the current chairman often looks at how the previous chairman scheduled hearings during the previous year.
Indeed, councilman Dave Osborne, a Democrat, served as finance chairman this year and said he looked back at how the council did it a year earlier.
He said he supports fewer meetings and longer sessions.
“I could go two or three hours and it wouldn’t be a problem with me,” Osborne said.
Dawson said the council has used a similar approach toward scheduling budget hearing since at least 1980, when he joined the council.
The only thing that has really changed since then, Dawson said, is that city hall has more department budgets to review.
Dawson said he’s heard similar grumblings and that Mayor Dick Moore talked with Osborne about possibly changing the schedule next year. “It could easily be done in a couple of days” rather than six meetings, Dawson said.
City attorney Vlado Vranjes said he believes final authority on the schedule sits with the council and that the council president likely has discretion over the issue.
Vranjes said he also thinks the council could choose not to have a question-and-answer session with every department representative if it knew ahead of time that there are no looming issues to be discussed.
Council member Mary Olson, a Republican, was reluctant about condensing the schedule even though attendance on some nights was disappointing. Reviewing budgets is one of the most important duties the council has, and given this year’s budget difficulties, Olson said she believed it was even more important to scrutinize details.
Olson said she likes the annual meetings.
“I enjoy the process,” Olson said. “I’m a numbers person.”