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The Journal Gazette

Hard choice on funding public safety

The property tax caps state lawmakers adopted benefit some Hoosier property owners but also make it increasingly difficult for local government to pay for essential public services. Fort Wayne’s leaders have done better than most in dealing with the resulting budget challenges. But soon, city leaders will need to make painful decisions about public safety financing, including, perhaps, the adoption of a new public safety tax.

As Julie Crothers’ Sunday story explained, the Fort Wayne Fire Department’s staffing is 32 firefighters below the 375 authorized. The last time it hired a new academy class was in 2008. And there is no class in the 2013 budget. For comparison, the fire department had 361 sworn officers in 2005, before annexations added significantly to the territory the department serves. Firefighters also are receiving more calls for services (see chart).

The Fort Wayne Police Department faces similar budget concerns, with staffing at 21 officers below the 440 authorized and more retirements to come.

Police Chief Rusty York and Fire Chief Amy Biggs both say their departments will be fine in 2013. Their concern is the long-term ability of the departments to meet public safety needs.

The last police academy class was held in 2011. Police also are unable to afford a class this year. The concern is that it takes about a year from the time the academy class begins until the department will have a fully trained officer. If the next academy class is not until 2014, it will be 2015 before the department has additional trained officers.

The fire department has made budget cuts where it can. The department cut back on the number of fire investigators, building inspectors and public education officers and then increased the workload of the remaining staff.

A 2012 audit of the fire department found that too many high-risk buildings were not getting the required fire inspections because of a shortage of inspectors. The audit finding could be an indicator that the department’s budget cuts are already affecting public safety.

City police and fire officials likely have made all the cuts they can make without cutting services even more. The majority of the public safety budget is for personnel expenses, and much of those costs are dictated by union contracts approved by the City Council.

When lawmakers approved the property tax caps, they also gave local governments options – although politically difficult – for replacing some lost revenue. One option allows the city to adopt a local option income tax of one-fourth of 1 percent for public safety spending. The catch is the city also would have to adopt another property tax relief local option income tax at the same rate.

It would bring in about $11 million for the city. Only 21 of Indiana’s 92 counties have adopted the public safety LOIT.

“That’s what the fiscal policy group has been working on so diligently,” said City Controller Pat Roller. The group of local government finance experts that Mayor Tom Henry convened in 2012 is looking at all the options, including eliminating services and adopting the tax, and will have its recommendation in time for the 2014 budget.

It’s time for city residents and city leaders to make the tough decision: find additional money, likely in the form of a new tax, or accept service cuts.