FORT WAYNE – More than 65 percent of the money spent on Fort Wayne and Allen Countys now departed permitting mediator went to orientation, meetings and travel rather than helping expedite projects.
And the public may never know the specific projects where his services were used.
Invoices filed by Michael Diamente, of engineering consulting firm Abonmarche, show the bulk of his billed time was spent on general services, such as meeting with city and county officials and organizing meetings. The invoices were released to The Journal Gazette as the result of a public records request.
The total amount of money spent on the contractor is small – Diamente billed for a total of $6,555.76 from May through July – but less than 35 percent of that time was billed for working on one of six projects. County Councilman Roy Buskirk, R-at large, and chairman of a city-county permitting board, said he understood concerns over the time and money spent introducing Diamente to local agencies.
This is especially true because the ombudsman left at the end of July with almost no notice to take a job in Indianapolis. Buskirk said there were discussions on whether to challenge some of the bills, but he said it was unknown whether it the legal fees would outweigh any possible recovery.
The position was created as part of a $1.4 million joint city-county investment to improve the local permitting process to respond to numerous complaints about red tape. Other work in the process includes creating a web portal for developers and updating city and county regulations. The board Buskirk chairs is in charge of updating this process.
Last week the board announced hiring Craig Yoder, vice president of Colonial Development of Fort Wayne, to be the new ombudsman. Buskirk said instead of taking Yoder to different departments, he was to meet them all at once. After Diamente left, Buskirk said the board decided to do things differently to save money.
Its a learning curve for us also, he said.
The release of the ombudsmans invoices comes a week after Buskirk refused to disclose how much Yoder would be paid as the newly contracted ombudsman, a denial he later apologized for.
Yoder will be paid $75 per hour and anything greater than $6,000 per month requires board approval, according to his contract.
Diamente was paid $80 per hour, according to the invoices.
Yet finding out what actual projects the ombudsman participates in might not be so simple. In one invoice, names of the projects are blacked out and in the other they are listed generically as Case 101, Case 102, etc.
Buskirk said he told Diamente not to use specific names in the invoices to protect the identities of developers using the service.
Fort Wayne Deputy Mayor Mark Becker, however, said it would be important to share information with the public on the work of the ombudsman.
Its incumbent on us to make sure were in position to accurately share the benefit of what is being made, he said. At the end of the day, we need to share as much detail as possible.
Becker, who serves on the permitting board, said he understood information on ongoing projects might need to remain confidential.
Buskirk said the permitting board, Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance have the power to assign the ombudsman to work on a project.
While there was consideration to use the ombudsman only for large projects – valued at over $1 million or even $5 million – Buskirk said it was decided he could help on smaller ones, too.
Its just good public relations, he said.
Going forward, Becker said the committee needs to discuss what type of projects require assistance from the ombudsman.
He said there cant be overly rigid rules, but its important that the time and money spent on the service is valuable. The change of people serving in the role provides a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate how it is used, Becker said.
We need to be sure were using their time as wisely as possible, he said.
The projects Diamente worked on were all small, Buskirk said, such as a home beauty salon working through permits.
He said some projects might eventually be released to the public, but it wasnt appropriate to release information on such small developments.
Buskirk personally OKs the invoices submitted by the ombudsman before the county pays the fees and is reimbursed for half the costs by the city.
In general, Buskirk and Becker liked the service that is being provided by the ombudsman because many other areas dont have someone dedicated to helping guide projects through the permitting process.
I look at this whole thing as an economic development package, Buskirk said.