Republicans voice concern over Lerner staffing plan

Elkhart City Council reviewed several salary ordinances that are part of the 2014 budget.
Posted on Oct. 2, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — City Council’s finance committee, made up of the entire city council, recommended approval of five salary ordinances tied to the 2014 budget for the city of Elkhart Wednesday night, Oct. 2.

But there were some rumblings of concern led primarily by plans to beef up staffing at the Lerner Theatre.

Mayor Dick Moore’s budget calls for five new positions in the Lerner budget, with three of those paid from revenues from tax increment finance districts. The other two would be paid with private donations.

The increase in staffing is aimed at boosting a very small paid staff at the Lerner and would also be used to enhance coordination and communication of downtown activities and festivals, including Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Some Republicans on the council questioned whether staff can legally be paid with TIF revenues, which are generally intended to boost economic development.

The increase in staffing is being sought by the redevelopment commission and led by Crystal Welsh, the director of community development whose salary is paid with TIF money.

Dave Osborne, a Democrat, down played the legal concern.

“I think the administration has done its homework. They wouldn’t present it this way ... if they hadn’t done their homework to see if it’s legally possible,” Osborne said.

Nonetheless, while Mary Olson, a Republican, said she remains a big supporter of the Lerner, she said the timing is not right for five new positions. She questioned the legality and the size of the request.

“We’re trying to do too much too quickly. I have great concerns,” Olson said.

Fellow Republicans David Henke and Brian Dickerson joined Olson.

Welsh said she remains optimistic that the positions will be funded and pointed to the fact that the general salary ordinance that includes the Lerner positions was given a positive recommendations from the finance committee by a 5-4 vote.

Osborne said afterward the Lerner needs more paid workers because some staff are already logging 50 to 70 hours a week.

He said the Lerner is one of the few departments in the city where increased staff can result in more revenues.

“The more you put into that, the more you’re going to get out. Everyone wants to see the Lerner become more self sufficient and bring in more revenue and the only way you’re going to do that is by increasing the staff,” Osborne said.

Henke also expressed concern over what is expected to be new hikes in health care premiums for city workers and contends the city is trying to provide raises just to offset health care costs without doing enough to curb those costs.

The salary ordinance recommendations go back to the council, which faces an Oct. 21 deadline to pass a budget.

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