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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Mayor Tom Henry highlights Fort Wayne’s strengths in 2013 during a budget discussion Thursday at Citizens Square.

Property tax boost in budget

Deep service cuts likely if 5.7% rise fails: Mayor

– Mayor Tom Henry unveiled his proposed 2013 budget Thursday, a $140 million spending plan that calls for a 5.7 percent increase in property taxes.

The hike, if approved, would raise the average taxpayer’s bill about $2 a month. Without the increase, city officials warned, there will have to be drastic cuts that will affect the quality of life in Fort Wayne.

“We can’t lose site of the fact that since 2008, the citizens of Fort Wayne have received $60 million of tax relief,” Henry said. “To ask for additional cuts, you’re going into an environment where you’re going to have to drastically cut services citizens are used to.”

The $60 million Henry refers to includes the $37.9 million cut from city levies by the “circuit breaker” tax caps, plus the $15 million in cuts the tax caps are expected to produce this year, plus $7.7 million in tax levy reductions imposed by the City Council in 2008 and 2012.

The state allowed the city to raise property taxes 2.9 percent this year, but the city did not after the council voted to keep the levy flat. Next year, the state is allowing a 2.8 percent increase, plus any increases not taken before.

Even if the full increase is approved – some City Council members have already come out against any tax increase – the actual amount the city collects would only rise an estimated 4.8 percent over the $92.4 million received this year because of the tax caps.

“This is a fair budget, a balanced budget,” Henry said.

And without the tax increase, he said, drastic cuts will have to be made.

Police Chief Rusty York said he is already 21 officers below the 440 authorized but cannot afford to have a class in the police academy.

“We would have to go back to the drawing board and make even more cuts,” York said, including cuts to things such as Safety Village, school resource officers and officers assigned to federal task forces.

Eventually, he said, “it would effect what calls we can respond on.”

Fire Chief Amy Biggs said the budget cuts already in this year’s budget, plus those made last year, have meant the department has not replaced six aging fire trucks, some that have more than 100,000 miles on them.

Her department is 30 firefighters below the 375 authorized but cannot afford an academy class.

“We’ve not been at these levels since 2005, prior to the southwest annexation,” Biggs said. Further cuts would mean cuts to the inspection division, which would force small businesses to hire private inspectors, and cuts to the investigations division, which could raise fire insurance rates across the city.

“If those don’t work, we’ll have to reduce manpower, and that means closing fire stations,” Biggs said.

City Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, said that type of statement is unnecessary.

“I know they’re saying that, and that’s the same kind of thing that’s always said,” Smith said. “It’s spreading fear and there’s no need for that when we have millions and millions of dollars in reserve.”

Republican City Council members have called on the mayor to spend the city’s cash reserves before raising taxes. But Henry said reserves are currently at 10 percent of the budget and it would be irresponsible to let them get any lower.

“For the last two years, they keep saying, ‘Go to the cash reserves,’ ” Henry said. “And we have. But at some point you drain the kitty.”

The budget already calls for using $2 million from the city’s rainy day fund, but Henry said he can’t spend any more from there without putting the city in danger of not being able to respond to emergencies like the windstorm that hit this summer.

Henry said most budget figures show flat or reduced spending, and the increase that does exist is from a few big-ticket items, such as police radios, a new public safety phone system and fire and police pensions.

Still, Smith said getting the tax increase past the City Council will be a challenge.

“That’s taking an awfully big bite. It’s one thing to take this year’s levy (increase), but to try to take the year before’s too, I don’t think that’s going to go over well with the council,” Smith said. “I think the council’s going to be very reluctant to approve that big of an increase.”

City officials will present the budget to the City Council on Tuesday; the council is expected to review it the first two weeks in October and vote on its passage Oct. 23.