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11/10/2017 12:45:00 PM
New panel formed to discuss public projects in Vigo County

Dave Taylor, Tribune-Star

Recognizing the number and cost of major public projects facing Vigo County taxpayers, a 10-member panel of public officials has begun meeting as the Community Strategic Finance Committee.

The group is working “to create a communication plan to be proactive in educating one another and taxpayers on Vigo County’s financial decisions,” according to a news release Thursday from RJL Solutions.

RJL, a newly created local lobbying firm with Rachel Leslie as managing partner, is facilitating the meetings on behalf of Vigo County Commissioners, the news release said.

The news release did not indicate when the panel met but member Karrum Nasser, Terre Haute City Council president, said there were two meetings prior to Thursday’s announcement.

Meetings that took place Nov. 3 and again Wednesday centered around the committee’s mission and membership, Nasser said.

In the release, Vigo County Schools Superintendent Danny Tanoos said, “As taxing entities in the community, we are meeting out of respect to the taxpayers to ensure that we’re working together to fulfill our responsibilities to our constituents while still trying to ensure that we’re being respectful of the taxpayers and the effect that our decisions have on them.”

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said, “In an effort to keep our citizens informed about how all of this works, we sense an opportunity to be even more transparent,” according to the release. “This committee is a way of getting all of the major players together. Although we are required to work individually as separate entities, we recognize that bettering this community is a team effort.”

With a potential tax increase on the horizon, the committee’s goal is to share information and engage community support, the release said, suggesting collaboration and conversations with financial experts could lead to “opportunities for strategic financing to ease undue cost to the taxpayers.” The committee is examining replacing or renovating the county’s three comprehensive high schools, West Vigo Middle School and the Vigo County Jail as well as a new Terre Haute police station and Phase II of the city’s long -term pollution control plan.

While the committee’s monthly meetings will not be public, “the public will be privy to specific projects,” the group’s news release said.

The meetings being private apparently does not violate state law because of the limited number of members from each of the elected bodies.

Nasser defended keeping meetings private.

“Sometimes when you need to have tough conversations it’s better to have those conversations behind closed doors,” he said. “I’ve been impressed that we’ve been totally honest with each entity and topic, whether it be the jail, the city’s longterm control plan or schools.”

“The goal is to create a communication plan that would educate the taxpayers about the conversations the committee is having. The committee will inform each other on the projects, discuss how projects can be funded in the most economic way and be sensitive to the taxpayers in the process.”

Judy Anderson, Vigo County Commissioners president, said in the release the group’s goal “is focused on educating the people on the need, what we have to do and how we can do it.”

Anderson was out of the office Thursday and not available for further comment.

Nasser confirmed the committee was created in response to calls from economists Robert Guell of Indiana State University and Kevin Christ of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Guell and Christ recently analyzed the cost of the projects along with Vigo County’s personal income and per capita local tax burden and concluded taxpayers could afford some upgrades to public facilities but not the full scope of what has been proposed, including new high schools and a greatly expanded jail.

“We are pleased that local leaders have formed this committee; it gives us hope that these important decisions will be made wisely and within reasonable constraints,” Guell said.

“The formation of the committee seems a good first step,” added Christ. “I’m gratified that our analysis may have played a role in encouraging community leaders to adopt this approach.”

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