Budget debacle leaves Lawrence city councilors, mayor at odds

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The court case and internal investigation have worsened already-tense relationships between Democratic and Republican councilors. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Steve Collier

Lawrence’s Democratic city councilors and Republican Mayor Steve Collier are locked in a bitter legal battle over the city’s 2022 budget.

The Lawrence Common Council approved a budget in September 2021, but the mayor’s administration did not submit it to the state by the deadline. That meant the city in 2022 had to operate under the previous year’s budget.

The council alleges that the Collier administration intentionally did not submit the budget in order to deny the council its preferred spending plan. It hired the Bose McKinney & Evans law firm to investigate the situation and appropriated $250,000 to pay the firm.

Collier denies the allegations and says the council did not provide the necessary information to submit the budget. The mayor has filed a lawsuit against every member of the Common Council, alleging the council overstepped its authority by transferring $250,000 to the council’s budget to pay Bose McKinney.

Collier’s lawsuit, filed in March, also asks the court to determine who was at fault for the budget debacle. The dispute is now pending before a panel of five Marion Superior Court judges.

Attorney Jon Hughes presented Bose McKinney’s findings at a special council meeting on June 14.

His nearly two-hour presentation cited emails between city staff, councilors and the mayor, as well as depositions from the mayor, the controller and the assistant controller.

He accused the Collier administration of intentionally working to continue operating under the 2021 budget by not submitting the council-approved budget to the state. Hughes said the administration also improperly shifted funding between departments and projects without any appropriation.

Brian Bosma of Kroger Gardis & Regas LLP is representing the mayor in the court case. Bosma, the former speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, denied the claims made in the presentation.

“The attorneys from the council are alleging some conspiracy to have this budget reversion, and we don’t agree with that,” Bosma told IBJ. “… even if there was a plan for that to happen, there is absolutely nothing illegal about that.”

Mark Levin

Bosma is asking the court to nullify the council’s appropriation to Bose McKinney & Evans on the grounds that it cannot spend money without Collier’s recommendation.

The structure of city government in Indiana gives the bulk of the power to mayors, retired Indiana University professor and city administrator Mark Levin told IBJ.

“And so, ultimately, in this form of government, it’s my interpretation that it’s the mayor who makes those final decisions, hopefully working with the city council.”

Only Democrats were present at the June 14 meeting. Tom Shevlot, one of two Republicans on the council, told IBJ he chose to watch from home instead of witnessing an “unnecessary use of taxpayer money” in person.

Shevlot is not running for reelection. He said the timing of these accusations—as At-Large Councilor Deb Whitfield, a Democrat, runs for mayor against Deputy Mayor Dave Hofmann, a Republican—indicates a political motive.

Hofmann, who served as police chief during the 2022 budgeting process but is now deputy mayor, called the investigation “shameful.”

“This whole thing is motivated by an election year and [the council Democrats are] trying to cast shade on Mayor Collier and his administration of which I’m a part,” Hofmann said.

Deb Whitfield

Whitfield blamed the mayor for  not working with the council: “I don’t think there’s a working relationship [with the mayor’s administration] at this point.”

The process for crafting Lawrence’s 2022 budget started in the usual way. Collier and his administration presented a proposed budget of $27.8 million that called for spending $3.6 million in reserves.

The council decided to cut the budget to prevent the reserves from being spent. But a breakdown in communication between the council and the mayor’s administration prevented the council from making informed decisions, Whitfield said.

Later, Collier and public safety leaders told the council the cuts would eliminate several city staff positions and decimate public safety funds.

To prevent that, the council instead removed funding from capital projects and pivoted to paying for some public safety services with vouchers paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds. The legislative body approved these vouchers Nov. 1, the same day the budget was due to the Department of Local Government Finance.

The controller wasn’t present at the last council meeting before the budget was due.

The mayor argues that the council failed to cite specific line items for cutting and just generally called for cuts from certain funds.

“What ended up happening was that they were so late in getting their final … adopted budget to [Controller] Tyler [Douthit], they did not fill in all the points that you need to fill in to adopt for us,” Collier said.

Hughes, on behalf of the council, said the controller had the basic information he needed to submit the required form to the state.

The court case and internal investigation have only worsened tense relationships between the Democratic councilors and those within the mayor’s party.

Tyrrell Giles

Both Republican councilors have been absent from eight of the 15 meetings since the Dec. 1 meeting where the intent to investigate the 2022 budget was approved. Some of these have been special meetings dealing specifically with the investigation.

Council President Tyrrell Giles, a Democrat, said mayor neglects to treat the council as an equal partner.

“Collier treats us like we’re a bunch of dumb, idiot councilmen that are supposed to just show up to festivals and shake hands while he and his administration does the business of the city,” Giles said.

The court case is pending, and both parties have objected to the current makeup of the judges panel. A hearing date has not been set.•

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4 thoughts on “Budget debacle leaves Lawrence city councilors, mayor at odds

  1. Unfortunately after speaking with this reporter for well over 30 minutes, I presented facts that she chose not to report. Bottom line is most of the democrats on this council are more concerned about getting their law firm paid. Well over $500,000 or more of tax payers money will be spent on a useless “investigation “. A balanced budget from the mayors office was presented but the democrats on the council chose to cut it, primarily from public safety. Why? That question has been asked but never answered. Word of advice, when a reporter calls asking questions, don’t take the call as rarely will it be reported accurately.

    1. And you chose to comment here, with an opportunity to let the public know what was not reported, and yet still did not report it? Must have been pretty inconsequential.

    2. Your comment implies the mayor is lying and intentionally did not submit the budget.