Effort to end city furloughs hits a snag

Efforts by the city of Elkhart to end upcoming furloughs for city workers this year hit a snag Monday night during a city council meeting.
Posted on Jan. 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Efforts to fully fund all city employees for 2013 after city leaders decided not to follow through with furloughs ran into a temporary road block Monday night.

Although there appears to be widespread support to set aside the furloughs, a Republican-led dispute over an interpretation of a local ordinance concerning the movement of funds surfaced during the city council’s meeting.

Furloughs were part of a long list of budget cutbacks sought by Mayor Dick Moore and approved by the council last year as a way to overcome property tax revenue shortfalls. But department heads were able to return enough unspent money from the 2012 budget to make the forced days off unnecessary.

Unspent money from 2012 has been placed into the general fund, but Republican council members Mary Olson and David Henke contend the money should be moved over to the city’s rainy day fund before being appropriated.

Olson informed the council that they are waiting on an opinion from the Indiana Attorney General after she and others brought it to the attention of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Olson said she offered testimony on the issue in December when state officials hosted their annual meeting in Goshen, one of many meetings the state holds following the annual approval of budgets by local taxing units.

News of Olson’s testimony and concerns about how leftover funds should be transferred caught Democrat councilman Brent Curry off guard. Curry wondered if other council members were informed of the meeting.

Olson said the meetings are a matter of public record.

Olson and Henke contend an ordinance passed in 2004 requires all leftover funds be sent to the rainy day fund. The local ordinance varies slightly from state law that allows local taxing units that have established rainy day funds the option to move leftover money to that category or the general fund.

Moore, responding to Olson’s concerns, said he believes Republicans are misinterpreting the local ordinance and said his administration stands by the policy.

Moore points out the transfer has been done the same way for years.

Furloughs were not set to begin until March, but Moore said nearly 600 city workers are anxiously waiting to see if the furloughs will be set aside.

A pending ordinance that would fully fund city employee wages and thereby wipe out the need for furloughs was sent to the finance committee, where it may sit until the attorney general’s office issues an opinion.

Another ordinance that would fund a police officer’s position and a firefighter’s position that were unfilled last year was also sent to the finance committee for further consideration.

In other matters, a local businessman blasted the city’s recent effort to shift some residents and commercial sewer customers outside the city to compact fees.

Rocky Enfield, an insurance agent, said the city effort to increase the amount collected from county residents was absurd and anti-business. He urged the city to develop a policy that would be more fair.

Some businesses have complained that they face a 500 percent hike in their monthly fees to the city if they agree to the compact fee policy.

City officials are re-thinking the policy. Moore was in the room when Enfield aired his complaints, but did not respond directly.

Moore told council the city hopes to make a decision on the compact fees soon.

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