(Lawrenceburg, Ind.) – Lawrenceburg City Council adopted a $42.2 million 2013 budget, but not without controversy at a raucous council meeting Wednesday evening.
Council members Mike Lawrence, Jane Pope, and Doug Taylor – each serving in their first term – were in the majority of the 3-2 vote to approve the budget following long discussion about cuts in next year’s spending plan.
The budget’s passage appeared to widen the gap between the three council members and the rest of the city’s leaders.
Among the cuts in the budget are funding for the Dearborn Adult Center, the Lawrenceburg Redevelopment Commission, Lawrenceburg Main Street, and city personnel – all while reducing property taxes to Lawrenceburg property owners to one cent per $100 of assessed valuation.
It was obvious the budget did not sit well with the Mayor Dennis Carr, councilmen Bill-Bill Bruner and Aaron Cook, and a number of citizens in the standing-room only crowd.
Bruner criticized Pope, Lawrence, and Taylor for not making the budget creation process a collective effort between all board members, the mayor, the clerk-treasurer, and department heads. On each of his eight previous years with council, all were involved in the process, Bruner said.
“Once again we have an episode of a budget being made and decisions being made, and people not knowing about those decisions. I know I wasn’t invited to the meetings where these budgets were constructed to cut jobs,” Bruner said.
Bruner questioned Lawrence on how the budgets were made without input from all affected, and the lack of public discussion on major cuts.
“I haven’t had a budget proposed to me by the mayor for anything yet. I’ve never even seen it,” Lawrence said.
Bruner fired back that the council majority had the approved budget prepared by Reedy Financial, a consulting firm hired by the council’s three new members, with no input sought aside from Lawrenceburg, Pope, and Taylor.
“We don’t ever have an opportunity to get together and do it, because by the time it’s made and put together and put in front of us, (council attorney) Mr. (Nicholas) Kile says ‘We need to vote on this,’” Bruner accused. “I’m elected by the people of District 3 to represent, and guess what? I can’t represent if I don’t have numbers, if I’m not invited to meetings.”
As Bruner continued to question the budget process, Lawrence attempted to motion to approve the budget, but was cut off by Aaron Cook, who said council had a right to speak prior to the motion.
Doug Taylor said there were several times where he has come to a council meeting and found ordinances he knew nothing about.
“Bottom line is this is not a group,” Bruner said to applause. “You can say what you want about the last two administrations, but I tell you what, they worked together. They talked, they communicated, and they made things right if they were wrong.”
Lawrence said he would take the blame for everything. He later motioned to amend the budget to include funding changes for 2013: Lawrenceburg Main Street funding decreased to $175,000 – a 50 percent cut - and Dearborn County Citizens Against Substance Abuse increase to $160,000.
BUDGET CUTS CRITICAL CITY EMPLOYEES
The budget approved Wednesday eliminates a number of key city personnel, including Construction Manager Mario Todd, Building Inspector Carl Fryman, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Clark, and the city’s code enforcement officer.
Lawrence defended the decision to leave out the construction manager position, held by 30-plus year employee and former councilman Mario Todd, who was in attendance.
“All our infrastructure projects are done. Our streets, our curbs, our roads. At some point the work is caught up,” Lawrence said, adding that the position could be added again with an additional appropriation.
Bruner pointed to the recently-started construction of the $40 million Lawrenceburg Event Center and Hotel, defending the value to the city of Todd, Fryman, and the other employees on the chopping block. Lawrence fired back that the city is paying Veridus Group $15,000 a month to oversee the event center project.
“You say we have more money coming in and we’re going to give a tax break, but yet then we’re going to axe employees. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bruner said. “Who is going to do building inspections? Who will do these things?”
Fryman, also at the meeting, said he wasn’t aware his job was gone until this week.
Council member Jane Pope alleged that the employment contracts for Todd and Fryman were illegally signed union bids.
“These were all non-union members and they signed union bids,” she said.
Secretaries in Mayor Dennis Carr’s office are also among the salaries not included in the approved budget.
“If you cut my staff then the business end of the city shuts down. Believe me, all these people do their job. They are good at it and that’s why I kept them on,” Mayor Carr said, adding he needs a staff in order to move the city forward.
Council attorney Nicholas Kile, of Indianapolis-based Barnes and Thornburg LLP, said that it is up to the mayor to request an additional appropriation for the excluded positions in 2013.
“You can do that. He hasn’t requested them to be funded yet. That’s the long and short of it,” Kile said, although later in the meeting it was noted that additional appropriations cannot be requested until a budget is adopted.
Councilman Aaron Cook questioned why everything has to be an additional appropriation, such as the Dearborn Adult Center, Fall Fest, and the redevelopment commission.
“We can’t write them a $100,000 check and not have any clue on what they planned on using it for,” Lawrence said.
Lawrenceburg Fire Chief Johnnie Tremain voiced his concern for the salaries of six firefighters and his own salary, which he could not find in the budget. Pope assured Tremain the salaries will be paid as negotiated.
There was also question whether the budget includes the elimination of two Lawrenceburg police officers. Deputy Clerk-Treasurer Theresa Bruening said the funding of the two officers may have been overlooked as a typo caused by recent position changes and promotions. Whether those positions will be funded remains a question.
A meeting to consider a salary ordinance was scheduled for Monday, October 29.
NOT ALL MAY BENEFIT FROM PROPERTY TAX RELIEF
The budget also essentially eliminates city property taxes for property owners, by charging only roughly one cent per $100 of assessed valuation. Pope, Lawrence, and Taylor passed the plan with the idea that the riverboat gaming revenue the city receives from Hollywood Casino is enough to run the city without the additional property tax revenue.
“Tax relief was the biggest concern I heard during the campaign,” Lawrence said.
One resident, Tom Snyder, told council that he has been looking at the numbers behind the tax relief. He determined that 55 percent of Lawrenceburg residents, many of whom rent their homes, won’t see a benefit.
“We are talking about the people who live in Lawrenceburg. The people who are registered voters and voted for all of you,” Snyder said.
Snyder suggested the city consider distributing the relief through utilities.
Pope said the city could appropriate more money, saying the citizens deserve more.
When asked, Lawrenceburg Utilities Director Mel Davis said Lawrenceburg’s electricity rates are among the lowest in the state. However, Davis said that the city would have to further subsidize the utility department, which has a budget already in the red by about $1.587 million.
Bruner said the city needs to get to the point of not having to subsidize utilities and they can operate on their own.
“And that would be by increasing our electric rates, our water and sewage rates. Or, cutting back on payroll,” Pope said.
Davis indicated laying off every utility employee would not cover the deficit.
Lawrence questioned why the city could afford to loan out millions to Hollywood Casino owner Penn National Gaming to build the Lawrenceburg Event Center and Hotel, but not property tax relief.
“The same people (who approved the event center) are turning around and taxing, and we have more money coming in than it takes to operate the city,” Lawrence said.
A citizen, Steve Karstetter, suggested later in the meeting that the tax relief only apply to property owners who live in Dearborn County.
COUNCIL MAJORITY CALLS FOR STATE INVESTIGATION
Lawrence, Pope, and Taylor also voted to approve a state investigation into city operations and past city records.
Bruner called the approved budget illegal. Lawrence suggested he have the state come and investigate, then motioned for an investigation.
“Yay!” Pope shouted and clapped.
Bruner told Lawrence that the council majority has been investigating for ten months and has not found anything illegal.
The motioned passed on the familiar 3-2 vote, as Bruner noted that a representative of the Indiana State Auditor’s Office was in the room.
When asked after the meeting, Lawrence and Taylor did not say what they expect a state investigation to find. Lawrence said he would have to confer with Kile on how to go about getting an investigation started and which state agencies would be involved.
CITIZENS VOICE DISPLEASURE WITH CUTS
Following the budget approval, it was an open podium for the large crowd in attendance to weigh in. All who spoke criticized the cuts and the council members who approved them.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” one city employee said.
“Jane, how would you feel if it was your husband’s job that was in jeopardy?” another resident asked. “Mr. Lawrence, how would you feel if it was your job? I’m a renter. I’m not going to benefit from this (property tax relief)... … You’re doing this for the glory to say ‘We changed Lawrenceburg.’ No you didn’t you destroyed it.”
Lifelong Lawrenceburg resident Connie Knue told council that Mario Todd has worked hard for the city of Lawrenceburg and asked who would do that job now.
“You are a disgrace to Lawrenceburg,” Knue said.
Marie Edwards, executive director of the Dearborn Adult Center and Lawrenceburg Fall Fest, asked why funding for the two entities were cut from the budget. She also accused Jane Pope – a former adult center employee who Edwards said was laid off – of having a conflict of interest in voting on the adult center’s funding.
“I’m no longer employed by the Dearborn Adult Center,” Pope said.
“It doesn’t matter. You and I know why,” Edwards retorted. “Why were we taken out of the budget?”
“I’d like for you to come to council sometime and tell us what the adult center’s intentions is,” said Lawrence.
“Why is CASA – which is a good organization – why are all these other organizations coming before you automatically in the budget and the adult center always has been, but is taken out?” Edwards asked.
“What about the Lawrenceburg Community Center, Mike? It’s still at $600,000,” Aaron Cook asked.
“The community center is exactly same as the adult center, a non-profit 501c3,” Edwards said.
Lawrence said he wants to know what the adult center money is going for. Edwards then accused council of picking on seniors.
Another resident, Mindy Gullion, wondered why council was spending money to pay their own attorney and financial company while at the same time laying off employees.
“Jane, I voted for you and I am ashamed,” Dolyer said.
Andy Abbott thanked Bruner, Cook, and Carr for trying to get council to work together.
James Howard said there is has not been any other family that has done more for the City of Lawrenceburg than the Todd family.
“Doug, you’re a union man,” Howard said. “I backed you. The union backed you. And you stabbed them in the back. Please reconsider what you are doing.”
Revised ordinances concerning the mayor’s grant and loan programs were on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, but were tabled. Carr said the ordinances are being reconstructed after Taylor, Lawrence, and Pope raised concerns with them in a meeting on Monday.