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Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese gives State of the City address

Wednesday evening, Mayor Tim Neese addressed the city of Elkhart laying out some of his accomplishments.
     
Mayor Neese began his address by recapping 2015, describing it as a healthy financial year. Neese has plans to continue the economic growth as well as improving other aspects of the city. 

During Neese’s campaign he took a grassroots approach. Over the past three months in office he continues to reach out to each individual of the city. 

“I was at my first rap concert several weeks ago and just doing what I think is important.  For me it’s not about theatrics. It’s about what I think allows me to interact with people and get their ideas,” says Mayor Neese.  

Attending community events and holding town hall meetings has helped Neese work towards his 2016 goals of improving public safety, city services, economic development, and quality of place. 

“Any statistic in terms of community and police involvement will show you that when that exists then you are going to see crime be reduced,” says Mayor Neese. 

As vacancies in the police department are being filled Neese says you will see more officers on the streets. 

On Wednesday police began foot patrolling on Main Street. 

Mayor Neese says the simplest of changes can really improve quality of life. 

Right now Elkhart residents cannot use their credits cards to pay their utility bills online, but that’s about to change.

“It’s something that I think was maybe the obvious that just had not been done. So we have been working on that working with the city controller and the IT department and we are going to make it happen,” says Neese. 

Neese is also working to make the city $600,000 by selling the former Alick’s property on East Jackson. 

“I have already had discussion with two developer that have expressed an interest in buying it from the city and so that is clearly my intent with the involvement on the city council and then let the private sector do what they do best let them develop it,” says Mayor Neese. 

Neese also has plans in action to use funds from the Vibrant Communities Initiative.

Warm weather festivals and even plans of Comic Con being held at the Lerner Thearter in 2017 are all ways Neese wants to boost quality of place. 

“We want to have activities down town we have some of those already in motion some have been progressed then others but we are just working with the community,” says Mayor Neese.  

Neese says some of the changes he has been making, like the credit card payment, were issues brought to him in town hall meetings.

Read Mayor Tim Neese's First Annual State of the City below. 

Good evening.

Welcome to the beautiful Lerner Theatre. I am grateful that we are able to have this special event in a venue so symbolic of our city’s history.  
Before we begin, I would to take a moment to acknowledge our military men and women, our first responders and their families. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, we are once again reminded of the sacrifice of these individuals. When you go home this evening, say a prayer for these men and women. Pray that they never lose sight of how important they are to our community, our state and our nation, and pray that they always return home safely to their families.   

This is my first “State of the City” address, and it is an opportunity to reflect on the proud moments of our city’s past year as well as my vision for its future.

Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have discussed what I might say tonight, as I wanted to appear statesmanlike and mayoral. We came up with a long list of goals – items I am proud to share with you this evening – but ultimately, they told me “don’t try to be too charming, too witty or too intellectual. Just be yourself.” 

I would like to begin by thanking the city council members for being here this evening. As we embark upon the first year of my administration, my office has established consistent communication with the city council and will continue to collaborate with them on issues that matter most to our community. 
Many of our department heads and city employees are also in attendance, and I thank them. Our city could not function without the hard work of these individuals, and I appreciate their dedicated service to Elkhart residents. Not everyone has over 600 people working day and night to make them look good, and for that I am grateful. 

Also, I would like to give special recognition to former Mayor Dave Miller who is in the audience tonight as well. 

Before we look ahead to Elkhart’s future, I would like to take a look back at the previous year.

The approved gross budget for 2015 was $56 million. Once these obligations were met, the total cash balance of the city’s treasury at the end of 2015 was $116 million, with the city Clerk’s Office taking in over $2 million. The city continues to maintain healthy cash balances and a strong credit rating. 
In addition to these positive numbers coming from City Hall, we also experienced the highest number of RV shipments since before the great recession and a county unemployment rate below both the state and national average.

With more people back to work, local families are more financially stable, which allows them to reinvest their hard earned money in our community.  Both individuals and businesses outside the city limits have recognized this economic upturn.

Permits issued by the Building and Code Department for new residential construction nearly doubled from 2014. At the same time, permits for new commercial and industrial construction valued over $365 million dollars. This represents a 338 percent increase over 2014. 

The city also continued to be aggressive on the Order to Take Action process and took 54 dilapidated properties for demolition, further reducing blight in our city and improving the aesthetics and safety of our community. 

The Community and Redevelopment Department also used federal funds to demolish an additional 74 dilapidated buildings. The resulting lots will be transferred to an income eligible adjacent homeowner or resold and used to build new homes or public space projects.  Their staff also worked on several projects on behalf of the Elkhart Redevelopment Commission. One of these projects included financial support for the installation of an open air pavilion at Sterling Park.

The Elkhart Street Department paved 34 streets using nearly 23,000 tons of asphalt. They also poured 2,400 feet of concrete, which includes 85 sidewalks, 33 drive approaches, 27 ADA domes and 4 curbs. In the fall, they collected 35,000 cubic yards of leaves, and in the winter, they plowed over 600 miles of snow covered streets. 

The Public Works and Utilities Department replaced and/or upgraded approximately 7,400 feet of water main, 3,900 feet of sanitary sewer and 4,300 feet of storm sewer. 

Our water utility produced and distributed 2.9 billion gallons of clean, safe drinking water through 346 miles of water mains.  

Phase II of the Prairie Street Overpass was completed in 2015, capping a $10 million project which included building the overpass and pedestrian bridge over the railroad as well as utilities, sidewalks, lighting and intersection improvements on Prairie and Middlebury.  

The Combined Sewer Overflow Storage Tank was also completed downtown. This 1 million gallon facility will eliminate 8.4 million gallons of sewage overflows each year. These are just two examples of a long list of projects.

 The Buildings and Grounds Department has worked very hard to ensure the quality of services that the citizens of Elkhart expect and deserve. They currently maintain over 250 acres, 75 properties and 30 buildings, as well as the Lerner Theatre.  Because of their work, the city of Elkhart was awarded the Tree City USA Award for the 25th consecutive year.

The Cemetery Department continues to exercise the utmost sensitivity and professionalism when maintaining Rice, Prairie Street and Grace Lawn Cemeteries. Last year, they conducted 305 total burials and provided peace of mind to countless residents by ensuring a tasteful and reverent final resting place for their loved ones.

Over 18,000 students participated in activities at the Tolson Center, ranging from after-school programs to summer youth camps. Students also participated in events sponsored by the Parks Department, including 1,500 young people who attended the Safe Trick-or-Treat event and 900 children and parents who visited the NIBCO Water and Ice Park when special guests Elsa and Olaf were in town. 

This very theatre attracted an estimated 100,000 visitors in 2015, bringing their post-grand opening visitor total to 485,000. That is nearly 270 people coming to downtown per day as a result of the Lerner’s presence. 

The Lerner’s volunteer program remains strong with 95 plus active volunteers logging over 4,400 meaningful service hours.  If you calculate this using a $10 per hour wage, it represents nearly $45,000 in operational savings. Both the Lerner staff and volunteers work hard to breathe life into this space and keep the patrons happy.

The city’s relationship with Premier Arts is second to none and their talented team and wonderful performances shined in this space during the 2015 season. Premier Arts was part of the original business model and we appreciate all that they bring to the theatre and downtown.
 
The Emergency Management Department is also made up primarily of volunteers. These individuals assist the various other departments by directing the flow of traffic during an emergency situation and also for events such as parades and festivals.
 
The National New York Central Railroad Museum experienced another dynamic year. They saw increased revenue across the board, more activities and greater community participation.  In 2015, the museum took in almost $31,000 in admission fees – a 17 percent increase over 2014. This admission revenue was the highest ever experienced at the Museum. 

The Human Relations Department averaged 110 contacts each month.  During such contacts, the staff tried to resolve or assisted in resolving questions or concerns related to fair housing, equal employment and other matters related to services offered within the city of Elkhart. 

This department continues to maintain its certification as a participant of the Fair Housing Assistance Program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The certification approval is based upon current and past performance assessments and other monitoring methods conducted by the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division.

The Human Resources Department reported the city had 31 employees retire, including 11 police officers, 3 firefighters and 5 department heads.  These retirees represented 308 collective years of service and paved the way for the next generation of public servants.  

The Grants Department assisted city departments in applying for 12 grants through various state and federal programs, including FEMA and the Indiana Arts Commission. Seven of these proposals were funded totaling over $110,000. The remaining five are still pending.

The Communications Center processed over 102,000 calls in 2015. Of these calls, over 90,000 required a response. The Elkhart Police Department responded to over 75,000 calls for services which covered a variety of incidents, while the Fire Department responded to over 8,000 incidents. These departments continue to make public safety priority one and are constantly looking for ways to better serve the citizens of our community.
 
The 11 mechanics that make up the Central Garage Department do routine maintenance on over 1,100 pieces of equipment which serve every city department. This includes police cars, dump trucks, chainsaws and more.
 
The IT Department also maintains all of the city’s phone lines, computers and email. One of their biggest projects last year was upgrading the court and council chamber recording software to allow the minutes of council meetings and court proceedings to be recorded and transcribed easier.
  
All of these departments were assisted by the city’s Corporation Counsel Department, which works diligently to provide sound legal advice and representation to the city and its various departments, boards and commissions. The demand for these services is steady and the department continues to aid in a variety of legal issues.
 
Now that I have acknowledged the highlights of the Mayor Richard Moore administration in 2015, it is time to look towards the future. Throughout the first year of my administration, I will immediately focus on four key areas: (1) public safety, (2) economic development, (3) improving “quality of place” and (4) increasing accountability and efficiency of city services.
  
Over the past few months, I have spoken with residents all over the city who have expressed a variety of concerns. Whether it is a pothole, a street light that does not stay green long enough, or simply a lack of things to do, it is clear that the residents of this city have a lot they would like to see done differently.
 
All of these items must be addressed. However, in order to build a community that attracts investment and fosters a culture of authentic engagement, we must start by acknowledging the basic need for safety.
 
Here and across the country, it is clear that many law enforcement agencies have a strained relationship with the community they serve. We must not grow complacent with this negative perception.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve this relationship. This starts with community policing. This style of policing aims to bridge the gap between police agencies and the community by shifting the focus away from handling random calls and instead, solving community problems.
 
Rather than waiting for a problem to present itself, I want to see police officers in the neighborhoods, interacting with residents. By acquainting themselves with the individuals they serve, officers will develop relationships anchored in trust and respect. Residents are more likely to trust a police officer if they feel that they are in touch with their needs and values. That is why familiarity is so crucial.

The police department has typically had someone who acted as the liaison with Washington Gardens, but starting this year, we will be assigning a liaison who will be a uniform supervisor. They will not only schedule hours for patrols in the area, but will know what the current issues are facing Washington Gardens. Part of their assignment will include attending resident functions and meetings, reviewing reports and then adjusting the allotted hours for extra patrols in order to address the community’s needs.
 
I have also spoken with the city’s legal counsel regarding the implementation of a program that I believe will be more representative of a cross-section of Elkhart residents: a police and fire merit board.

By state law, such a board cannot be established during a mayor’s first year in office. However, the groundwork has already started. Merit board members will be in charge of hiring, promotion and discipline in their respective departments. Currently, these duties fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Safety, a five-member board appointed by the mayor.
 
Under my proposal, each board would consist of five members: one appointed by the mayor, two appointed by the city council and two appointed by current fire and police employees. Board members may not include members of the city council, active police officers or active firefighters.
 
Public safety is a growing concern not just in Elkhart but in many cities across the state. When it comes to cleaning up our neighborhoods and keeping our children safe, politics has no place there. Merit boards would bring a more objective, streamlined approach to public safety and would provide increased accountability in our police and fire departments.

Economic development is also one of my administration’s top priorities. It is my goal to maintain current businesses and diversify the market by attracting new businesses to our community. There is always more that we can do to make our city more attractive to the business community and equip our residents with the skills they need to fill open positions.
  
In my opinion, this is one of the most important aspects of my job as the mayor. Economic development— or a lack thereof— has a direct impact on local families. It is something that takes time and persistence to achieve, but I assure you that Elkhart is up to the challenge. As mayor, I will do everything in my power to bring investments that both enhance our historic RV industry and establish new industries.
 
As many of you know, in 2015, the city purchased the former Alick’s Property for $600,000. I do not want the city to be in the real estate business. My goal is to have a developer purchase the property from the city, thus allowing a private business to determine the appropriate use of the space, whether that be additional shops, condos or restaurants.
 
Without economic development, it is difficult to improve our city’s “quality of place.” Several years ago, a major Gallup survey identified “quality of place” as the single most important source of civic satisfaction.
 
Recently, our area was awarded a $42 million boost that will aide in making our community more beautiful, vibrant and welcoming. This grant will allow us to continue work on the city’s new fitness and aquatics center, the single largest investment in the history of Elkhart. This one project will generate demand for additional investment – such as restaurants and hotels – and will be utilized not only by our community, but by residents in surrounding areas.  
These critical funds will also be used to construct new athletic fields and 400 new housing units, including what have been referred to as “luxury apartments” downtown. In addition to these existing projects, this money will provide an opportunity to fund innovative ideas that have yet to even surface. 


Through the Vibrant Communities Initiative, the public will have a direct impact on the future of our city. Whether it is a walk along the Riverwalk, a new dog park or a festival to celebrate our city’s diverse cultural makeup, I encourage people of all ages and from all walks of life to share their ideas and collaborate as a community to make them possible. 

Already, we have been hard at work to revive Bike Night. It is my hope that this will be an annual event held during the summer, beginning this July. In August, Elkhart will host both the Professional Bowlers Association National Championship and the Amateur Softball Association Men’s Open East Fast-Pitch National Championship. 

Early next year, we have plans to host our very own Comic Con at the Lerner Theatre and have been in discussions to revive both the air show and the go-kart races. All of these events will attract people from beyond the city and county and will bring revenue to local shops, restaurants and hotels.

I would also like to see the airport utilized for unconventional purposes, such as serving as a gathering place for bus trips to places like Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, etc.  

Thus far this year, I have held and attended several town hall meetings to hear what residents like about our city and what they would like to see changed. Government was created for the people, by the people, and through community interaction, I will work to increase accountability and efficiency in city services. 

I want to see more of an emphasis on customer service. One of my goals for 2016 is to offer more up-to-date payment options. Currently, credit cards are accepted, but only by phone. We are looking to enhance that service so customers can look up their utility balance online and pay online. This will make our internal processes more efficient, reduce errors and improve security.

Through open communication, we were able to reach an agreement in the “Area 7” annexation dispute after just two months in office. This was done in a bipartisan fashion, and I appreciate the work of the city council to resolve this matter. Governing effectively sometimes means finding a compromise, and this administration is not afraid to compromise when necessary to see a tangible outcome. 

Under the agreement, the city would annex 132 of the original 375 parcels, gaining nearly $1.1 million in additional property tax revenue. While the city annexed roughly 35 percent of the initial parcel count, we maintained nearly 92 percent of the projected revenue.
 
We are also beginning the long process of reviewing city ordinances to determine those that are obsolete, unenforceable or merely cause undue burden on Elkhart residents. We will look at the impact of each ordinance and evaluate whether it makes our community a safer, more attractive place to call home. Some will need adjusting while others will need to be removed altogether.
 
I am a believer that one cannot legislate human behavior. Once this extensive process is complete and we are left with only those ordinances that are absolutely necessary, I hope that individuals will continue to take pride in their community. I hope that they will go above and beyond that which they are required to do in order to make Elkhart a safer, cleaner place for everyone.
 
Over the years, the city of Elkhart has called 37 different men and women “mayor.” Some mayors led during times of economic prosperity, while others worked to pull our city from the brink of financial ruin. Regardless of who was at our city’s helm and regardless of the economic climate, one thing remained the same: the hardworking spirit of our citizens.

As mayor of this great city, I look forward to working with each of you –councilmembers, department heads, city employees, business owners and residents — to continue those policies that have enhanced the lives of those in our community and remove the ones that don’t. In my administration, there will be no problem too big or too small. I want everyone to feel that they have a voice in city government and that their voice will be welcomed and respected. 

There is strength in numbers, and together we can develop fresh, new ideas to lead our city towards the future and cement our position as one of the best cities in the country to start a career, raise a family and build a life.

Dale Carneige once said “There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” 

When this speech is over, I am sure I will look back and think about all the things I could have said. Then, it will be time to get back to work. I’m not interested in a legacy. The only thing I am concerned with people remembering is that I cared and that I used the office of mayor to make a positive difference in the lives of the citizens of Elkhart. 

Elkhart belongs to all of us. We have our problems. We have our challenges. But we also have a really great story to tell. We just need to share it. Thank you for joining me.

 

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