Mayor Duke Bennett opened and closed his State of the City Address Tuesday by reflecting on the recent death of Terre Haute police officer Rob Pitts.
“It’s been pretty tough this past week,” he said. “Losing a second police officer in a little less than seven years can be pretty tough on a police department.”
Pitts was shot to death May 4 as he and three other officers approached an apartment building where a murder suspect had fled. Officer Brent Long was shot to death July 11, 2011 as he and other officers served an arrest warrant.
Bennett called on his audience at the Vigo County Public Library to “be mindful of … all of our public safety people but especially police officers. It’s a dangerous world out there.”
The mayor’s 90-minute address highlighted such topics as improved city finances, a continued decline in crime, an ambitious street paving agenda and economic development.
Beginning in familiar territory, Bennett cited three straight years of balanced budgets and a $2 million general fund balance at the end of 2017, in contrast to deficits of $8.9 million in 2015 and $8.2 million in 2016.
The 2017 balance includes a $6 million loan from city redevelopment funds, creating a “true negative balance” of about $3.9 million. But the loan will be reduced by two-thirds this year, he said, and the mayor expects the deficit to be eliminated by the end of 2019.
Also, a $4 million loan against future property tax receipts will be reduced to $2 million for next year.
Bennett said Terre Haute had the seventh lowest per capita expenses among 24 peer cities last year, up from eighth lowest in 2016.
Crime in the city declined last year for the fifth straight year to the lowest rate in 24 years, the mayor reported.
Reports of burglary, theft and auto theft totaled about 2,400, a drop of 14 percent, while arrests rose by 2.8 percent. Last year saw 131 reports of violent crimes – murder, robbery, aggravated assault and rape – for a 4.5 percent decline but arrests in that category were up by 40 percent.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these results,” Bennett said.
The fire department performed 800 safety inspections and investigated 200 fires with 81 ruled as arson and 21 arson arrests made.
While the share of arsons may seem huge, “it’s pretty consistent with a lot of other communities” Terre Haute’s size and larger, the mayor said.
The department stresses training, to the point firefighters averaged 295 hours of training last year, well above the 220 hours required by national standards.
Parks and recreation
The parks and recreation department is working with Purdue Extension on a new five-year plan, according to the mayor.
For the second straight year, the Deming Park pool will open on time after significant investments two years ago, golf course fees were increased and expenses have been reduced and the city is working with Friends of Rea Park to ensure long term improvement for that south side facility, he said.
Bennett said while private operation was rejected for this year, it has not been totally ruled out and may send out another request for proposals at the right time.
“We want to make sure we are being as efficient as we can when it comes to our two golf courses,” he said.
The city has applied for a grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to replace the Fairbanks Park boat dock on the Wabash River that was destroyed by an ice floe last winter.
The mayor recapped street projects underway or planned, including the Margaret Avenue overpass, reconstruction of a stretch of South Seventh Street, reconstruction of Lafayette Avenue south of Haythorne Avenue and neighborhood improvements just north and east of 13th and Hulman Streets.
He added a new project – resurfacing of Lafayette from Locust Street all the way north to Fort Harrison Road.
Planning continues for the next phase of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, now estimated at $55 million. Even after the final phase of a three-part sewer rate increase, Bennett said Terre Haute’s average monthly bill of just under $50 remains lower than many other comparable Indiana cities.
While recapping recent economic development projects including a new Pyrolyx USA plant and expansion of the GATX rail car maintenance facility, Bennett said more job training is needed to ensure an adequate work force.
Welders are especially in demand, he said, with jobs paying $45,000 to $50,000 per year.
“In order for us to continue to lure these companies here we’ve got to be able to provide the people to do the jobs,” he said. “Our K through 12 does a great job, higher ed does a great job but there are some people who kind of fall through the cracks.”
The defense industry is potentially ripe for high tech development in Terre Haute, Bennett said.
“All of a sudden we’re … on the radar screen of a lot of people,” he said, after federal officials learned 4,000 acres is available for development east of Terre Haute Regional Airport.