Questions Raised About Community Investment and Police Review Board at South Bend Budget Meeting

South Bend Common Council held its fourth meeting on Wednesday to consider the proposed 2022 budget. It focused on strategic operations spending, or money spent on city priorities in addition to the base budget normal.

Most of the meeting was spent on the community investment department, which is looking to increase its budget from $1.33 million — nearly 19% — to just over $8.4 million a year.

Executive Director Santiago Garces said the increase would support what residents surveyed want from the budget process, such as funding for homelessness prevention and affordable housing.

$400,000 would go to landfill costs for increased neighborhood cleanup, and $300,000 would go to hiring contract workers to help the city publicize programs like lead remediation, home repairs and assistance to public services.

But most of the increase would fund seven new positions. Garces also wants to transfer two positions from existing funded positions and make permanent two other positions that were added in June 2021. An existing position would also be removed, leaving a total of 11 positions.

He said they are needed to help manage millions of dollars in new housing and sustainability programs funded by the US Federal Rescue Plan, or ARP.

“The staff we have is simply not enough to be able to execute funding at this level without additional resources,” Garces said.

Five of the new positions would be in neighborhood health and housing and would cover property inspections, lead remediation and affordable housing efforts. Three of them would be funded by ARP dollars and are therefore temporary.

Other positions include an assistant director of community investment, two positions that would support the city’s resources for small businesses, a project manager for economic empowerment, a neighborhood grants specialist, and a planner to help with the building regulations.

But several board members questioned the choice and wanted more details about the programs the posts will support.

“It seems like there are a lot more jobs being created, but the real issue we have to address is getting the services to the residents who need them,” said Council Member Canneth Lee. “To me, that seems more cumbersome than the actual services the community is looking for.”

Garces said information on the programs will be presented at the next budget meeting on September 10.

Council members Lori Hamann and Eli Wax want more code inspectors and have expressed concern about 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 addresses the very important and real concerns of our community.”

As for code enforcement, Garces said the new programs would offer a “more carrot-heavy approach” to correcting code violations, which is especially important for destitute residents.

“Our tool is to quote, get people to hearings and keep pushing,” Garces said. “But we have very little power to step in and fix the problem, and what we’re offering is to 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 come up with a comprehensive plan for the West Side in light of a resolution passed by council last week.

He is also wary of giving more money to initiatives like the home repair program, which he says has not helped residents of Municipal District Two.

“I can’t see giving your department more money to do things that were supposed to be done in 2018,” Davis said. “The results are not the best.”

Another talking point? The Community Policing Review Board, which is currently proposed to obtain $102,811 for the position of director and certain professional services.

The city said it was a “minimum” budget that will be further developed over the next few weeks.

But Davis said that was not acceptable.

“It is impossible for this office to succeed without support staff,” he said.

An online public commenter by the name of Tiana agreed.

“This office needs more funding now,” she wrote in the chat. “It’s a priority for the community.”

Several public commentators online also took issue with the city’s violence reduction grants, which are part of the community initiatives office.

It is proposed to return to the 2020 level of $850,000, but several people wrote that they wanted to see data on the effectiveness of the subsidies.

Council member Davis agreed.

“I’m not clear what you’re doing,” Davis said. “As the violence continues to escalate in this community, I’m not too sure about anything.”

Venues, Parks and Arts is seeking an 8.3% budget increase, but the city said the department is revamping program locations and earning revenue from a county hotel/motel tax increase.

And the city’s 311 call center is asking for a $99,338 raise to hire a new customer service liaison who will provide better Spanish language capability and reduce overall wait times.

This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. September 2 to clarify the number of new positions within the community investment department.

Contact Jakob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

If you enjoy this type of journalism on your local NPR station, please support it by donating here.

Jill E. Washington