Political Notebook

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Affirming debt

Apparently the debate over how much debt Fort Wayne has hasn't been settled.

Republican mayoral nominee Paula Hughes brought State Auditor Tim Berry to town on Wednesday to affirm that the city's debt is really more than a half-billion dollars.

Berry, a Republican from Allen County, did not disappoint Hughes, reading a seeming bullet point list of her campaign's talking points in support. He said he was offended by Mayor Tom Henry trying to change the numbers regarding city debt after reporting a higher number in a state report.

The city's annual financial report lists the city of having $516 million in long-term debt. While Henry has not said this number is inaccurate, he said it doesn't really represent the legal obligations of city taxpayers. For example, $93 million of the debt is in pension costs the state finances with sales tax revenues – a point Berry acknowledged, but said it is still a city obligation.

In addition, more than $200 million of the debt is for City Utilities, which is financed by water and sewer rates, not city taxes. A large chunk of this debt was incurred to finance $240 million of federally mandated improvements to keep raw sewage from area rivers.

Berry said the federal government only required the city to fix the problem.

"I don't think the federal government said you have to spend this dollar amount," he said.

Unfortunately for Berry, the federal government did set a spending minimum. The city's consent decree mandates it spend $240 million in 2005 dollars to reduce the number of times sewage overflows into the rivers. If it succeeds in meeting its target for a lesser price, it must spend up to that total to make the system even better.

Berry's appearance even opened him up to political criticism from Allen County Democratic spokesman Kevin Knuth, who noted the event seemed like a time for the auditor to push for a lieutenant governor position alongside Mike Pence.

"It seems quite clear that Berry's event today is nothing more than a campaign stunt designed to try and gain some name recognition in Allen County for his future political plans," Knuth said. "Hopefully he's better at accounting than he is at transparent political stunts."

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