The state orders an $8 million budget cut, city workers mourn the death of the wastewater treatment plant manager, a FBI investigation continues, the mayor denies any wrongdoing in the ‘pay for play’ lawsuit, naloxone in schools and 7th Street construction.
On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett addresses these issues and more. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Hren: Terre Haute Tribune-Star revealed that state officials have ordered a $8 million budget cut this year. This was dated in January and it’s August, why is this just coming out?
Bennett: Well the thing is we didn’t have the plan put together on how we were going to address it, all this activity has to occur by the end of the year. There’s nothing that needs to happen in January, February or March. So we have Umbaugh and Associates, our financial consultants have been working on it that last few months.
It’s a paperwork thing, it’s all it is. We had a budget that was smaller this year, they approved a larger budget last year that was balanced – this year’s budget was even smaller and balanced and going against the deficit. What happened was the forms changed. We were required to put our tax cap losses as an expense versus against the revenue, it should have gone against the levy, but they made you show it as an expense. It’s misleading, we still have a balanced general fund budget this year.
What they asked us to do is eliminate the deficit in one year and that’s impossible and they know that. They told us, we know you can’t do that, but this is the way the system works. So as we get through the rest of the year we’ll do the best we can to reduce that budget like we do every year and next year we’ll see if they do it the same way or not to ensure our budget is approved.
Hren: But doesn’t that contribute to a lack of transparency?
Bennett: Well, some may say that but I think the key is rolling out the plan in September that will have everything we need for it to do the last four months of the year. The only thing we could have done in January is lay off half our staff if they were really serious about making our deficit go away in one year and hire them all back on January 1st and that’s not even feasible.
Hren: We learned about the reported suicide of the head of the wastewater plant Mark Thompson, what did you know of him?
Bennett: He was a great guy – you talk about a hard worker. He worked to make that plant the best it possibly could be. We’re all shocked. We have a tremendous staff down there, we have a new plant. He was instrumental in the plant upgrade. It’s a tragic situation and I feel really bad for his family and friends and co-workers and right now it’s just a really tough time for everybody.
Hren: I wanted to also address the lawsuit that alleges a ‘pay for play‘ arrangement back with the city’s sludge to diesel project… basically the New Jersey based Overseas Lease Group claims different entities including some city employees asked for payment in exchange for awarding contracts. You’re shaking your head…
Bennett: It’s simply not true, these people sued us and lost in court then they went to arbitration with the construction company down there and lost and now they’re trying another lawsuit and nobody has ever said a word about any of that stuff in prior lawsuits or arbitration. It’s just unreal. We’ve never done anything like that. This project was bid out. There were eight or nine bids and they were the low bidder. It’s just their attempt to try and get some money back in what they invested that really has nothing to do with us.
Hren: I can imagine city residents are concerned overall at what’s going on here – we covered a lot of ground today, how do you address their concerns about the well being of the city administration?
Bennett: It’s hard, some people are very sympathetic, I’ve got so many calls of support then on the other hand you have people who are frustrated we closed Seventh Street so every day you balance trying to do the good things with dealing with the negative consequences from projects. It’s been very trying times the last few weeks and we have to persevere, we have to keep focused on what we’re doing, continue to mourn our loss and life throws you challenges sometimes and we’ve faced some recently.