FORT WAYNE – Despite the millions of dollars in question, public hearings on local government budgets rarely attract much attention, and the city of Fort Wayne’s budget is no exception.
So when eight people testified on the city’s proposed 2013 budget Tuesday, it was a remarkable change.
In fact, just before the meeting, City Clerk Sandy Kennedy remarked that the record for the most people to speak about the budget had been set last year, when four spoke about that year’s $140.8 million spending plan.
Also remarkable was the speakers’ unity in their message: All eight spoke against using Legacy Fund money to plug the hole in the city’s operating budget.
Mayor Tom Henry is proposing a $139.9 million budget, but it includes a 5.7 percent increase in property taxes. Some council members have proposed using money from the lease and sale of the city’s electric utility to avoid all or part of the tax increase. The mayor wants to use the $75 million for projects that can have a lasting effect on the city’s quality of life – a call that was echoed over and over again Tuesday during the public hearing.
First came two representatives from Visit Fort Wayne, who said the agency believes the Legacy Fund should be used to transform our city.
Then came Ray Kusisto, chief executive officer of Ortho NorthEast, who said that recruiting physicians has become much simpler since Parkview Field was built downtown, and the Legacy Fund should be used for similar projects.
Projects like Parkview Field make a world of difference, Kusisto said. We have something most other communities don’t – capital. To use that capital for filling budget holes, I think, would squander that money.
Then came Mick McCollum, interim president of the Economic Development Alliance, who urged the council to protect the fund.
Most communities never have this kind of opportunity, McCollum said. I hope we can invest these dollars in a project or projects that will be important to the community long after the current budget crisis ends.
Mike Christman, board chairman of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber’s board had passed a resolution on behalf of its 1,700 members against using the Legacy Fund for operating costs. Christman is also chief executive officer of Fort Wayne Newspapers, the business agent for The Journal Gazette and The News-Sentinel.
Until then, the council members had listened quietly. Then Mitch Harper, R-4th, and John Crawford, R-at large, asked whether the Chamber had an opinion on raising taxes, since it appears to be an either/or question. Christman said the Chamber would have to evaluate an actual proposal before he could say. The council has not yet proposed any changes to Henry’s budget.
Attorney and former councilman Tim Pape, however, said taxes need to be raised to protect the Legacy Fund. He noted the hundreds of millions of dollars the city has not collected in taxes in the past 20 years, then pointed to Fort Wayne’s declining personal income relative to the rest of the United States.
In 1993, he said, people in Fort Wayne made 96.2 percent of the national average; by 2010 that had fallen to 78.9 percent.
The idea that low taxes will get us out of this has been shown by history to be false, Pape said. This strategy of being a cheap place to do business is insufficient. The Legacy Fund offers us an opportunity for a game changer.
One resident, Carl Jackson, spoke in favor of using the fund to keep taxes low but made his comments after the public hearing had closed. The council is expected to debate the budget next week and vote on final passage Oct. 23. On Oct. 30, it will discuss with the mayor’s office plans for using the Legacy Fund.