Mayor Tim Neese said he expected questions about the Tolson Center at the Town Hall held on Monday at City Hall.
The City Council has been under scrutiny by some Elkhart residents, after allegations of secret meetings among republican council members in regards to budget cuts, that led to a proposal to lease the Tolson Center to Lifeline, a religious, community organization.
If the lease proposal goes through, Tolson would no longer be run by the city Parks department.
Democratic council members, Dwight Fish and Brent Curry said they were not part of the meetings where the lease agreements were made.
“This makes us look bad,” said Fish after the budget meeting on October 5th. Fish represents the 5th district, where the Tolson Center is located.
Curry said the city had no reason to cut the Tolson’s budget. Curry is a member of the City finance committee.
Republican Council members Brian Dickerson and David Henke, who are also on the finance committee with Curry, did not respond to interview requests.
Neese said that while it’s not his intent to bring in third parties to the Tolson, including Lifeline, he said the decision does not solely rest with him.
Neese said he will ask the City Council for a year to review the Tolson and its staff, with the intent to ask for the 80 thousand dollars that were slashed from the original budget, this coming January. Neese will need a total of 5 votes from the 9 member council in order to be able to review the center.
Tensions ran high throughout the town hall. Residents advocating for the Tolson Center are frustrated at what they call a lack of concern for the Tolson from city officials. Some accused the city of not listening to their requests and concerns regarding the Tolson and the lease to Lifeline. Many residents see the Tolson Center as a safe and positive space for kids who are most vulnerable to gangs and violence.
“What do the people of South Central Elkhart have down there to call their own right now,” said one resident asked, “If you take Tolson away, they have nothing.”
Residents requested visible community representation when it comes to decisions about community staples such as Tolson, and among other city organizations, such as the Elkhart Community Foundation.
Residents questioned Neese’s commitment to residents and their support of the Tolson, saying that nothing has changed since talks of a potential third party lease began over a year ago. Some residents said they are convinced no matter how much residents show up to meetings and try to voice opinions, Lifeline will still be given the lease to the Tolson.
“Typically, city government or government in general is the adversary,” Neese responded, “And I’ve kind of come to find out that I might be the lesser of two evils, but never the less, Tolson would like to have that connection or link to city government.”
Neese promised to look into setting up a committee to review Tolson, even suggesting that maybe a committee would be necessary to set up a committee to review the community center.
Some residents have accused the city of systemic racism, saying the city is choosing to ignore the requests and needs of the black and latino community, instead choosing to fund new projects, such as the aquatics center, which many feel isn’t meant to cater to underserved communities.
The city has until November 1st to vote on a final budget. The next council budget meeting is scheduled for October 23.