Elkhart $82 million budget for 2020 passed easily

Elkhart Truth photo Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, left, speaks with his chief of staff, Bradley Tracy, at the City Council Chambers following the Monday night passage of the Elkhart 2020 budget. 

ELKHART — The Elkhart City Council passed an $82 million budget for 2020 on Monday.

That is a $5 million increase over the $77 million 2019 budget.

Mayor Tim Neese, a Republican, said that for the additional money, taxpayers will get better a better city.

"They're going to see additional public safety personnel, equipment. They're going to see additional investment in the River District," Neese said. "That means white-collar, blue-collar jobs, that means full-time jobs after the construction is completed."

The city is also going to hire a neighborhood coordinator, which it has not had in recent years. That person will work with neighborhood associations and will play a part in making all parts of Elkhart a good place to live.

The Lerner Theatre, both through an appropriation to Friends of the Lerner and the theater itself, received more than half a million dollars extra for 2020 than 2019, mostly in anticipation of repairs.

The property tax rate is not expected to go up, though the exact rate has yet to be determined through the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. The 2019 rate is $1.99 per $100 of assessed value. 

Neese said that, though the budget is going up this year and has in years past, the city should be proud of maintaining balanced budgets and growing its cash reserve.

"As the mayor it has been important to me that we make bold investments in our future while also saving enough money to protect us on a rainy day," he said.

Mary Olson, R-at-large, praised the city's department heads for running good operations and making reasonable requests. She also praised Neese, who just last year was criticized by several council members for the budget process.

"You've presented us with a solid budget. I'm proud to call you my mayor," she said.

Though budget negotiations have been difficult in recent years, the final passage of the budget and salary ordinances took 30 minutes on Monday evening after relatively short budget meetings in previous weeks.

"It's as smooth as I've ever seen it," Dwight Fish, D-4 said. "I think people did their homework, but we had a lot of good support in departments for what they needed for replacement and new personnel."

Brian Thomas, R-2, a 16-year veteran of the City Council, said this was the easiest budget process in his career. He praised Finance Chair David Henke, R-3, for leading the council's efforts.

"This is a major responsibility for us," Thomas said.

He then criticized the public participation and, in particular, the candidates challenging the current City Council in the Nov. 5 election for not being at any of the budget hearings.

"I don't know whether it's apathy or whether we're doing our job so well that they just figured we were going to pass it," he said.

The Mayor's Chief of Staff Bradley Tracy, who was hired in January 2019 for a newly created position, received the largest part of the praise for making the budget process easy.

"I think his experiences showed," said Neese, who revealed that he had wanted to hire Tracy at the beginning of his term in 2015.

Tracy served two years as press secretary to former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut and 10 years as chief of staff for both former Indiana House Speaker Paul Mannweiler and current Speaker Brian Bosma. In all, Tracy has 29 years of government experience.

"I think, in the 10 months he's been here, that's been obvious," Neese said.

Tracy said the administration went into the process knowing that it had been contentious in the past. His approach was meeting with department heads and key City Council members early in the process so that negotiations wouldn't have to happen at the budget hearings.

"For example, when we were talking about bringing on new people, such as the new neighborhood planner, I brought it to their attention and got their input three months ago, versus dumping it in their lap," Tracy said. "I think that was the big thing this year. There were no big surprises."

Fish said that the city departments have taken on a big responsibility by requesting high budgets.

"They've requested a lot, but the community is expecting a lot," he said.

For the mayor, who is not running for re-election this fall, this will be the last budget of his administration. He said that — this time — there were no shots fired.

"I'm glad to go out with this type of camaraderie and compromise," Neese said.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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