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September 25, 2013

Department heads detail 2014 budgets to City Council

TERRE HAUTE — From hybrid buses to golf course fairways to sewage billing woes, the Terre Haute City Council got loads of information Tuesday from more than a half dozen city department heads.

The more than two-hour meeting in City Hall involved reports from nine department heads, including Brad Miller, transportation director, Brad Speidel, information technology director and Chuck Ennis, city engineer.

These and other department heads answered questions from council members concerning each department’s projected 2014 budget.

Tuesday night’s meeting was the second night in a row of such discussions, adding up to more than four hours in total.

“It’s OK,” said Mayor Duke Bennett when asked after the hearing how he felt it had gone. This was the first time since he was elected in 2007 that such hearings have taken place before the council. “I mean, really, I can answer every question,” he said. “I know the budget inside out. They just wanted to see the department head and see if they had anything to add. I think it worked just fine.”

Leslie Ellis, city controller, sat beside the mayor for both nights of hearings at a table facing the council members. One by one, department heads joined the mayor and controller at the head table.

During Tuesday’s discussions Miller, for example, was asked about the city’s hybrid buses, which have been riddled with mechanical problems since being purchased with the federal stimulus money in 2009.

Those buses are sitting in a repair shop in an effort to use parts from the two to make one running bus, Miller told the council. Looking to the future, the bus system is going to need some replacement vehicles, he said. Many of the current buses in the city were obtained free of charge or at a very low price, he said.

“Some were free. Some were very cheap. They’re all very old,” he said.

Speaking with Eddie Bird, parks superintendent, the council learned that Rea Park, one of the city’s two golf courses, actually earned a profit last year, the first time in anyone’s memory at the meeting. The course finished the year $28,000 in the black, said City Controller Ellis. Hulman Links, the city’s larger course, continues to run annual deficits, officials said.

The council also discussed the city’s new responsibility of sending out sewer system bills. Those efforts ran into some serious snags in the first few months, Speidel said. But things have improved, he said.

At the conclusion of the hearings, several councilmen, including Todd Nation, D-4th, Don Morris, D-at large, and John Mullican, D-6th, said they would like more information about how the Bennett administration plans to eventually eliminate the need for future short-term borrowing to maintain the cash flow of the city’s general fund.

City officials estimated that the general fund will receive about $29 million in revenue in 2014 with expenses of about $33 million.

At the end of 2013, Ellis estimated the general fund will have a positive balance of about $400,000; however, that includes $5 million in a currently outstanding tax anticipation loan. Bennett said he will seek another such loan in 2014 to help with cash flow. The loans are necessary to avoid laying off dozens of city employees, the mayor has said.

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

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