The South Bend Common Council held its fourth meeting to go over the proposed 2022 budget Wednesday. It focused on strategic operations spending, or money spent on city priorities in addition to the normal, baseline budget.
The biggest portion of the meeting was devoted to the community investment department, which is seeking a budget increase of $1.33 million — almost 19 percent — to just over $8.4 million annually.
Executive Director Santiago Garces said the increase would support what surveyed residents want out of the budget process such as funding for homelessness prevention and affordable housing.
$400,000 dollars would go to landfill costs for increased neighborhood cleanups, and $300,000 would go toward hiring contract workers to help the city get the word out on programs such as lead remediation, home repair and utility assistance.
But most of the increase would fund seven new positions. Garces also wants to transfer two positions from existing, funded roles and make permanent two more positions that were added in June 2021. One existing position would also be eliminated, leaving a total of 11 positions.
He said they are needed to help manage millions of dollars in new programs on housing and sustainability funded by the federal American Rescue Plan, or ARP.
“The staff that we have is just not sufficient to be able to execute funding at that level without extra resources,” Garces said.
Five of the new positions would be in the neighborhood health and housing area and would cover property inspections, lead remediation and affordable housing efforts. Three of those would be funded by ARP dollars, and therefore are temporary.
The other positions include a deputy director of community investment, two positions that would support city resources for small businesses, one project manager for economic empowerment, one neighborhood grant specialist and one planner to help with construction regulations.
But multiple council members questioned the choice and wanted more details on the programs the positions will support.
“It seems like there’s a lot more positions being created, but the real issue we need to address is getting the services to the residents that need them,” Council member Canneth Lee said. “To me, it seems more top-heavy than the actual services the community is looking for.”
Garces said information on the programs will be presented at the next budget meeting on Sept. 10.
Council members Lori Hamann and Eli Wax want more code inspectors and expressed concerns over the use of temporary funding.
“This is a proposal for temporary positions that don’t have long-term funding,” Hamann said. “I don’t see how this is addressing the very major and real concerns that our community has.”
Regarding code enforcement, Garces said the new programs would offer a more “carrot-heavy approach” to fixing code violations, which is especially important for residents without resources.
“Our tool is to cite, to take people to hearings and to keep pushing,” Garces said “But there’s very little power that we have on actually going in and fixing the problem, and what we’re proposing is let’s just fix it! Let’s try to add resources.”
“As a community, we have resources for the first time in a long time,” he added.
Council member Henry Davis Jr. said the city should hire someone to develop a comprehensive plan for the West Side in light of a resolution the council passed last week.
He’s also wary of giving more money for initiatives like the home repair program, which he said has not helped residents of council district two.
“I can’t see giving more money to your department to do things that were supposed to be done back in 2018,” Davis said. “The results are not the best.”
Another target of discussion? The Community Police Review Board, which is currently proposed to get $102,811 for the director position and some professional services.
The city said it’s a “bare bones” budget that will be developed more over the next several weeks.
But Davis said that’s not acceptable.
“There’s no way possible that that office is going to be successful without some support staff,” he said.
An online public commenter going by the name Tiana agreed.
“That office needs more funding now,” she wrote in the chat. “That's a priority to the community.”
Several online public commenters also took issue with the city’s violence reduction grants, which are part of the office of community initiatives.
They are proposed to return to the 2020 level of $850,000 dollars, but multiple people wrote that they want to see data on if the grants have been effective.
Council member Davis agreed.
“I’m not clear on what you guys do,” Davis said. “Given the fact that violence continues to climb in this community, I’m not sure about too much of anything.”
Venues, Parks and Arts is seeking an 8.3 percent budget increase, but the city said the department is reorganizing where programs are located and getting some revenue from an increase in the county hotel/motel tax.
And the city’s 311 call center is seeking a $99,338 increase to hire a new customer service liaison who will provide better Spanish language ability and decrease overall wait times.
This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. Sept. 2 to clarify the number of new positions in the community investment department.
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