News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 15, 2013

City Council to bring in outside advice

Questioning city’s financial health, council will hire consultant to better understand budget

TERRE HAUTE — As the city enters what many expect to be a rocky budget year, the Terre Haute City Council on Thursday voted in favor of hiring an outside expert to help it scrutinize the city’s money matters.

The council voted 8-0 to support an ordinance introduced by Councilman Neil Garrison, D-5th, to hire an outside financial consultant to help the council better understand the city’s budget.

The move came after a year in which Garrison and other council members questioned the city’s financial health. Their questions stemmed in part from the city’s borrowing last year of $5 million to help cover general fund expenses.

Speaking after the meeting, Garrison said he was unsure how soon an outside expert — who has yet to be chosen — would be hired. The council also voted Thursday night to transfer $20,000 from the city controller’s budget to the city council budget to pay for the expert.

In an earlier City Council meeting, Mayor Duke Bennett told the council it probably should wait until state officials approve the 2013 budget before transferring any funds. However, Garrison said he contacted the state this week and was informed the transfer would be no problem.

John Hilderbrand, executive director of the Taxpayers Association of Vigo County, urged the council to support Garrison’s measure.

“I think the payback on this will be substantial,” Hilderbrand told the council. “This is going to be a rough year ahead of us.”

Leslie Ellis, city controller, speaking after the meeting, said the county’s property tax reassessments, which showed a large decrease in assessed value in the city, will be a big factor in the year ahead. Hilderbrand, also speaking after the meeting, echoed that comment.

The city might lose up to $5 million in property tax dollars this year because of the reassessment, Hilderbrand said. That comes “in addition to the fact that [the budget] was just marginal in the first place.”

Councilman John Mullican, D-6th, chairman of the council’s finance committee, underlined the financial challenge facing the city. “We have tremendous budget issues this year,” Mullican said. “So the right thing is to get all of the help we can.”

Garrison is developing a list of qualifications and expectations for whomever is hired to fill the consulting role, he said, adding that he will present those to other members of the council for their feedback.

n Also Thursday night, the Council voted to approve a rezoning request from Thompson Thrift, a local developer, that will allow for an expansion of the Sycamore Terrace Apartments on the east side of town.

The unanimous vote came despite opposition from a neighbor, Wayne Horn, who said the existing apartments have increased water drainage on part of his property.

Nevertheless, the council approved the request, which was to change the zoning classification of about six acres of land from commercial to multi-family residential use.

Councilman Mullican, speaking after the Thursday night meeting, said the zoning change actually reduces the potential impact of water drainage on any neighboring property because under a commercial zoning classification much larger projects could take place.

“We still have a drainage issue,” Horn told the council, adding that part of his property has lost value due to the added water drainage.

Councilman Bob All, R-2nd, said he visited the Horns’ property and agreed there was a “problem” and hoped the two sides – the Horns and Thompson Thrift – could reach a mutually agreeable solution. All voted with the rest of the council in favor of the zoning change.

Tim Fears, an attorney for Thompson Thrift, said the developer would immediately address any future erosion or silt deposit problems on the Horns’ property.

Erosion and silt deposits on the Horns’ property were the result of failures during phase-one of the construction of Sycamore Terrace Apartments to follow city-mandated standards, said Chuck Ennis, city engineer. However, the contractor was cited twice for those violations and “the erosion issue, we feel, is behind us now,” Ennis told the council, adding that city officials will be watching phase-two construction closely.

Thompson Thrift plans to build six new apartment buildings with a total of 72 new units, Fears said.

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

 

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