The Herald Bulletin

July 1, 2013

Elwood City Council members want more control of city spending

Wastewater utility spending source of concern

By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ELWOOD — Members of the Elwood City Council are moving to curb what they see as overspending by the Board of Public Works, particularly in the city wastewater treatment facility.

And they're pointing the finger squarely at first-term Republican Mayor Ron Arnold as the primary source of that overspending.

A new ordinance giving the City Council oversight authority to review and approving all spending by the Works Board was introduced Monday night.

"The various financial accounts of the departments of the City of Elwood are being depleted through unusual and expensive spending requested by the Mayor of the City of Elwood," according to the ordinance, authored by an outside attorney at the request of Councilman R. Eric Reese.

Concern about overspending has been growing for some time, said Councilman Brent Boston prior to the council meeting before a standing-room-only crowd.

During a public hearing portion of the meeting before the ordinance was actually introduced, several city residents complained that more than $900,000 has been spent by the Board of Works. They questioned expenditures such as two John Deer Gators ($22,000), and a sofa for wastewater treatment plant lobby area ($1,900), hiring practices and consulting fees.

Reese said he decided to introduce the ordinance because of rising public concern about the spending, as well as an informal assessment made recently by an Indiana State Board of Accounts field auditor. The Board of Accounts has refused to publicly release a copy of the email, but parts of it have been circulating on social media sites.

A full audit of the Elwood's wastewater utility is expected to be released in early September.

"You've heard these concerns, you've reviewed these reports, I ask that you consider this," Reese said.

Not so fast, countered Councilman Patrick E. Rice. He claims that because the full City Council did not discuss, much less vote to hire an outside attorney to draft the proposed ordinance, the entire process was legally questionable, and that fees paid for that legal work should be returned to the city.

It was not immediately clear Monday night what the amount of those fees were.

He said several members went behind the backs of other members of the City Council. Rice called that "a blatant misuse of legislative powers."

Moreover, because the board of account's review is preliminary, "I feel that passing this ordinance would be premature," he added.

Arnold said he was frustrated by Reese's proposed ordinance, adding that the expenditures were legitimate and that what exists is a misunderstanding.

"This is what happens when elected officials don't work together," Arnold said.

He specifically noted the Gators. The choice was one pickup truck costing about $36,000, or the two Gators, which were less costly, more fuel efficient and versatile than the truck. The Board of Works thought that was a better deal, Arnold said.

The ordinance was before the City Council on first reading, but a proposal to suspend the rules (which requires unanimous agreement of the council), failed. The vote was 5-2 in favor of suspending.

Councilman Tim Roby said he supports the ordinance and the additional oversight that will result from it.

"When you have to borrow money to pay your employees (which the city had to do earlier this year) there's a problem with spending," Roby said.

Find Stu Hirsch on Facebook and @stuhirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.