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10/6/2017 4:37:00 PM
Clabber Girl CEO expresses concern about Terre Haute's budget

Dave Taylor, Tribune-Star

Development of a new city budget has attracted the attention, and concern, of a key Terre Haute businessman.

Gary Morris, president and chief executive officer of Clabber Girl Corp., addressed the City Council Thursday.

“The business that I am responsible for is located in the heart of the city,” he said. “I am concerned about the financial health of the city and our business is tied to that.”

Morris said he has visited the city’s website in search of budget information but found it “kind of challenging for any of the public to go in there and try to figure out what’s going on.”

Residents look to the council to ensure the city is fiscally responsible, he said.

“That’s all I ask,” he said. “Our business has been here a long time; we’re growing and we’re going to continue to grow. We’re committed to this community and I need to know that this city … is doing everything it possibly can to make sure that we can move forward in a responsible way.”

Mayor Duke Bennett submitted some changes to his original 2018 budget proposal. It now shows expenses in all funds of $88.3 million, down from $91.1 million. It also calls for reducing a $5 million loan of city redevelopment funds to $2 million by mid-year.

Bennett noted the general fund and 14 of 20 other funds are balanced and overall revenues exceed expenses by $2.4 million.

Council members continue to scrutinize, and challenge, the mayor’s spending plan. Councilman Earl Elliott, R-2nd, finance committee chairman, noted the 2018 general fund budget shows a surplus of just $60,000.

City Controller Leslie Ellis noted outside the meeting that, because of property tax caps, the proposed 2018 general fund budget of $32 million is more than $400,000 less than the general fund of 10 years ago.

Reductions in proposed spending include cutting a $500,000 line item for a convention center to $250,000. Crossen and council Vice President Curtis DeBaun IV, D-at large, asked why include any funding for a project that is on hold.

Bennett said the Capital Improvement Board has inherited expenses for attorneys and financial consultants that have not been divvied up yet between the partners and “it’s not been inexpensive.”

Elliott and councilman Don Morris, D-at large, asked about continued deficits at the city’s golf courses and lack of action on privatizing their operations.

“We keep waiting and waiting and waiting and I just don’t see how we can go through another half million dollar deficit in 2018 related to these golf courses,” Elliott

said. “What other options do we have?” Bennett said the council has the power to cut the budget for those facilities.

“What about closing those courses?” Elliott asked.

The mayor said that would be up to the Parks and Recreation Board.

“From my perspective all I can do is leverage, or force them to make a change because I don’t have any power over that,” he said. “I’m trying to bring other options to the table” via a contract with a private operator.

The budget includes $150,000 for preliminary work toward a new police station that has been discussed for several years, an item Bennett calls “more of a placeholder” for the city’s economic development plan.

“I don’t understand why we don’t put that up for a referendum and let the community decide whether that’s a good thing or not,” said Elliott. He said he is not comfortable using economic development income tax funds for such a project.

Asked following the budget discussion whether he expects the council to take the responsible fiscal action he requested, Morris said, “I’ll be back next week and we’ll see what they say.”

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• EDITORIAL: Terre Haute continues to face deep financial crisis

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