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Council debates city budget

Fort Wayne City Council members began working their way through the administration's proposed $146.8 million spending plan for 2014 Tuesday night, but most of the questions revolved around what didn't have to be cut.

The city had been looking at a budget deficit of up to $11 million thanks to property tax caps. But a package of tax increases – including a higher local income tax that took effect Tuesday – and budget cuts not only erased the deficit, but added about $10 million in new revenue to pay for more police and firefighters, and spending on parks and roads.

Tuesday, council members went over the budgets for the police, fire, parks and public works departments.

With all the changes, including the new income tax money to pay for public safety, the fire department's budget dropped 8 percent, to $36.7 million. The city also moved $3.5 million in spending from the property-tax supported general fund budget to one paid for by a fee on City Utilities bills to cover the infrastructure costs of fire protection, such as hydrants and oversized water mains.

Before the council approved the income tax hike in June, Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, asked city department heads for a list of the worst-case scenario cuts they would have to make. Tuesday, Crawford asked them to re-consider that list and whether any items on it could still be cut.

Fire Chief Amy Biggs said she still believes the items in question – fire safety inspections and education programs, such as Safety Village – are well worth the investment. Mitch Harper, R-4th, asked whether it would be cheaper for the department to invest in sport utility vehicles to respond to medical calls instead of using expensive fire engines. Biggs said the idea could be explored.

The police department budget calls for a 6.3percent decrease. With the new recruits not joining the force until the end of 2014, attrition, big changes in compensatory time policies and the public safety tax, the wages and benefits portion of the department's budget – 82 percent of the total – is set to drop 6.9 percent.

The story was much the same for the public works budget – Public Works Director Bob Kennedy said that when the new spending on streets and roads is taken out, the department's proposed budget is essentially the same as this year's.

The Parks Department, meanwhile, is getting $3 million in new revenue, but its 2014 budget only goes up $2.5 million, thanks to cuts in other areas.

The council also heard a proposal by Harper and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, for changes to the administration's proposed capital improvement plan. Previously, five years' worth of capital spending plans were included in the city's proposed operating budget, but council members were busy looking at the year they had to vote on. Now, it is being presented as a separate document; administration officials say this allows all the city's capital spending to be considered at once, ensuring it is coordinated and well-planned. The proposed 2014 plan calls for $45.3 million in capital spending.

But the plan also calls for borrowing $30 million to make up for the backlog of street projects that need to be done. That would let all the work be done in five years, officials said, but would require 10 years of bond payments – plus interest costs. Harper and Jehl say that by stretching the work over six years and limiting spending in other areas, the work can be done without borrowing.