Sunday, September 21, 2014

With SoMa funding resolved, city budget approved

Elkhart City Council passeed the 2014 budget Monday night, Oct. 21, 2013.
Posted on Oct. 22, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Oct. 22, 2013 at 2:21 p.m.

ELKHART — The Elkhart City Council passed Mayor Dick Moore’s proposed 2014 budget on Monday, Oct. 21, hours after the state offered a negative opinion on whether three new positions could be funded with tax increment finance revenues.

Moore, addressing the council, had sought to use TIF revenues and said he disagreed with the ruling, but agreed to return in January with a request to fund the three new staff positions for SoMa through more traditional revenue sources.

The announcement seemed to end debate on the issue and cleared the only major hurdle toward passage of the budget.

Two hours later, after a robust discussion about other concerns, including the need to increase fire and police wages in the future, the council voted on party lines to support the $54,087,768 budget plan.

Supporting the budget were Democrats Ron Troyer, Brent Curry, Rod Roberson, Tonda Hines and Dave Osborne. Those opposing it were Republicans Mary Olson, David Henke, Brian Dickerson and Brian Thomas.

Republicans, led by Henke, had argued that using TIF dollars for staffing would not be an appropriate use of the funds.

Moore said he received a second opinion from the state board of accounts on Monday, suggesting the plans for “staff positions ... would not qualify in whole or in part as allowable expenditures from TIF funds.”

Moore added, “I do not agree with their determination ... moving away from the TIF funding concept is an error, but I must err on the side of caution.”

Numerous council members applauded Moore’s willingness to adjust plans and some Democrats lauded Moore’s desire to look for funding beyond traditional sources even though it didn’t work as planned.

With Monday’s decision, the city can now plan on hiring three SoMa staff next year and could add two more if private funds and grant money are found.

SoMa — short for Supporting Our Main Assets — is a two-year-old, locally driven plan that hopes to revitalize the downtown.

SoMa staff will work out of the Lerner Theatre, which is widely viewed as the epicenter of downtown redevelopment.

A string of SoMa supporters, sensing victory, urged council members to support the budget plan.

“If we want to move the city forward and the community forward, the time is now,” said Dallas Bergl of INOVA Credit Union, who was one of the leaders on the SoMa initiative.

Henke, who has said he would support the SoMa positions if paid through the general fund, admitted, “I think we found a little middle ground.”

Later, Henke added, “The budget is not all about SoMa ... but rarely do you get as much enthusiasm on one topic as we have heard about SoMa.”

Approval of the budget also opens the door for a 2 percent pay hike for city workers.

Before a final vote, the council reviewed several salary ordinances, giving Henke and Dickerson opportunities to voice concerns on other issues.

Dickerson pointed out that more needs to be done in the future to make police and fire salaries more competitive and prevent employees within those departments from leaving for better-paying jobs.

Dickerson then brought up his suggestion that economic development in the city and county should be a single effort and spoke in favor of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County as taking the lead.

Dickerson said he believes the city’s economic development director’s job should be merged with the EDC or eliminated.

The council also heard repeatedly from two members of the public who criticized the budget plan.

Michele Korac, repeatedly noted that the salary of the mayor’s executive assistant, Arvis Dawson, is more than what is paid to “heroes” such as the fire chief, police chief and their subordinates.

Pam Kurpgeweit complained that the council had not heeded her suggestions that the railroad museum be closed or run with volunteers and that significant changes be made at the airport.


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