“Public safety represents the lion’s share of the general fund property tax dollars that we spend, and if we have a spending problem -- which I believe we have a significant one -- then you need to address that, even in public safety. And, I think that everything is up for grabs.”
See results from the 2015 Terre Haute municipal election here
Candidates running for contested city council seats had a chance to voice their stances on the city's financial challenges and other current issues during a forum last night.
The debate, held at the Vigo County Public Library, was -- for the most part -- a friendly discussion, marked with obvious division at times.
Moderator Dr. Matt Bergbower, an Indiana State University professor, asked the candidates questions involving the budget, creating new revenue,tax abatements, payroll and public safety.
Other subjects were touched upon, but fire department overtime hours and the anticipation of constructing a new police station-- on what all candidates agree is a stressed budget-- quickly returned as the focus of discussion.
The “elephant in the room,”as Republican at-large candidate, Ryan Cummins, put it, was brought up within the first 20 minutes with the budget deficit topping the list of questions.
Cummins' plan to alleviate the problem might be “political suicide,” he says, but he's going to do what everyone else is avoiding -- by addressing public safety costs.
“Then you have to deal with the ‘elephant' in the room, and that’s public safety. If there is some market alternative to the way public safety is provided, that is what I would pursue on the Terre Haute City Council.”
Cummins, hoping to return to his former seat on the council, started off the question and answer session by standing to address those in attendance. He told the small audience that although it might be "politically impossible," his plan is to stop non-essential funding if he is elected Nov.3.
Noting that the city will have to come up with additional revenue sources, Incumbent Democratic at-large candidate George Azar agreed that cuts will have to be made nonetheless.
“I think, you know, we definitely need to look at the overtime; that’s a big part of the fire department’s budget,”Azar said, adding that the department made considerable cuts this year.
Participants in the forum included:
When asked about the city possibly implementing a trash user fee to compensate for the needed revenue, incumbent Democratic candidate Don Morris said more trimming can be done from within before going that route. He suggested first cutting from parks, buses, leaf pick-up and overtime-- all things that he believes can be cut immediately.
“It’s tough when you’re on a fixed income, I’m just not ready to commit to this trash fee,”Morris said, voicing concern for city residents.
Republican Ryan Humphrey disagrees, stressing that services are not meant to be given away.
“I’m never a believer of taking more money away from citizens, but trash is a service. Services are never free. There is nothing that is free,” he said.
Incumbent Democratic candidate Amy Auler disagrees with her challenger, Humphrey, asserting she would never be in favor of a trash fee.
The candidates all admitted they’d need more information before they could commit to the idea. Democratic candidate Curtis DeBaun said he would work “in the spirit of compromise” on that issue, as well as others, if elected.
Getting to the “heart of the matter,” when his turn came back around, Cummins said he thinks that when cities talk about trash fees, it’s always when searching for possible revenue and that's not what he thinks is the issue.
“Terre Haute does not have a revenue problem. Terre Haute has a spending problem -- and that is where the answer lies,” he said, stating that people should be responsible for their own trash.
Then, when asked specifically about cutting police department and fire department budgets, all candidates except Humphrey and Cummins were quick to say a new police station is urgently needed.
Azar and Auler both pointed out that they recently voted in favor of using EDIT funds for the new proposed police station.
“It’s not because they (police) want it, it’s because they need it,” Azar said, describing the current building condition as “terrible.”
When it comes to cutting, Humphrey simply believes “everything must be on the table.”
“As far as the police station, I’ll say this: Do we really need it? is it going to save us money? And do we have money to pay for it? If we don’t, then we have to find something else,” he said.
Cummins agrees with Humphrey.
“Public safety represents the lion’s share of the general fund property tax dollars that we spend, and if we have a spending problem -- which I believe we have a significant one -- then you need to address that, even in public safety. And, I think that everything is up for grabs,”he said.
Auler said that she is not in favor of cutting department services.
“I don’t believe in cuts, layoffs or closing fire stations,” Auler said. “Public safety here is first priority.”
Running unopposed and not participating in the forum:
City Council - District 3 Karrum J. Nasser - Democrat; City Council - District 4 Todd Nation; City Council - District 5 Neil Garrison - Democrat and City Council - District 6 Martha Crossen - Democrat.