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July 16, 2014

Redevelopment Commission member expresses feelings on city taking control of funds

TERRE HAUTE — Sparks flew again Wednesday night in the city’s ongoing controversy over the handling of Terre Haute Redevelopment Commission’s bank accounts.

Jim Nichols, one of five Redevelopment Commissioners, said he felt “insulted” that city officials didn’t consult the commission before $200,000 was withdrawn from a Redevelopment Commission bank account last month.

Whether or not the withdrawal was appropriate, “just for the record, I find it insulting that it would be taken without our consideration,” Nichols said in the commission’s monthly meeting in City Hall.

“Does anybody disagree?” Nichols asked his fellow commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor and City Council. No one said he did, and David Heath, president of the commission, said he agreed with Nichols.

News of the withdrawal was presented to the commission by Cliff Lambert, executive director of the Terre Haute Redevelopment Department. The money was moved from the account on June 2, he said.

“The Redevelopment Commission has the authority and the responsibility for the expenditures in this account,” Lambert said. “So, it remains to be seen what the [City] Controller has done with that $200,000.”

Leslie Ellis, city controller, reached after the meeting, said she will be happy to discuss any Redevelopment Commission accounts after the Indiana State Board of Accounts (SBOA) finishes a special audit now under way of the commission.

Public comments about Redevelopment Commission money have been rare since a June 24 “entrance conference” between SBOA auditors and a handful of city officials, including Lambert, Ellis and Nichols. Those officials signed a confidentiality pledge, presented to them by the SBOA, stating they would not “discuss the communications and matters that are discussed during the meeting … with anyone but the participants in this meeting.”

Lambert, at Wednesday’s meeting, said that pledge doesn’t cover the $200,000 withdrawal because it did not involve tax increment finance (TIF) money. “I’m not talking about TIF dollars. I’m talking about something entirely different,” he said.

Rhonda Oldham, attorney for the Redevelopment Commission, in an email to Lambert, said any topics not discussed in the SBOA entrance conference were also fair game. Lambert learned of the $200,000 withdrawal on July 7 so it was not discussed in the June 24 conference, he said.

Money in the bank account is used to pay upfront costs often required by many state and federal grants, Lambert said. Without it, the city might not qualify for important grant money, he said.

“This is an important economic development tool for us, this account,” Lambert told the commissioners.

The balance in the account on June 13 – after the withdrawal – was a little less than $185,000, Lambert said after the meeting.

“Without consultation, [the withdrawal] compromises potential projects that we may be working on that the [city] administration may not know about,” Nichols said.

It is not known when the SBOA will complete its special audit of the Redevelopment Commission. News of the audit came after Lambert, on June 2, sent a formal complaint to the state agency over the city’s use of Redevelopment Commission money.

In April, Ellis took control of Redevelopment Commission bank accounts. Mayor Duke Bennett said the move was required by a new state law, State Enrolled Act 118, that makes city controllers the treasurers of Redevelopment Commission money.

Also Wednesday, Lambert told commissioners that Oldham sent a letter last week to City Attorney Chou-il Lee asking that the City Controller’s office provide bank statements for all 19 Redevelopment Commission accounts to the Redevelopment Department in a “timely fashion.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

 

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