Facing a crowd of Fort Wayne residents and elected officials at IPFW’s Walb Student Union on Monday night, Fort Wayne’s two mayoral candidates fielded questions pertaining to community development, public safety and the city’s future.
The hourlong event was the first and only time this campaign season that Mayor Tom Henry and Councilman Mitch Harper, R-4th, will square off in a formal televised debate.
The winner of a coin toss for the first question, Harper wasted no time attacking Henry on the city’s growth, saying there are 4,000 to 5,000 fewer jobs in Fort Wayne than in 2007, when Henry was elected to office.
"The mayor has talked throughout this campaign only of the unemployment rate," Harper said. "While we’re very close to what the state of Indiana is on unemployment rate, the fact is, today Indiana is employing more people than it ever has before, and Fort Wayne, we’re at a lower number of employees than we had eight years ago."
Henry disagreed, saying 5,000 jobs have been created in Fort Wayne since 2011 and noting that the city’s unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, the lowest it’s been in 10 years.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Harper said economic development is one of his top priorities and that help is on the way for areas of the city that have experienced slower growth than others. Harper said he plans to implement plans to foster entrepreneurship in underdeveloped areas of the city.
Harper and Henry both spoke at length about the role of public-private partnerships for riverfront development. Henry said future development must be a public-private partnership.
"For years, people thought that the public sector should pay for everything, but those days are gone," he said. "Now it absolutely must be a public-private partnership."
Although Harper agreed that riverfront development will require such partnerships, he warned about relying heavily on the city’s Legacy Fund, as well as funding through the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board.
"The fact is, we’ve spent most of the Legacy money so far, the Capital Improvement Board has very little capacity left, as does the downtown (tax increment financing) district," Harper said.
"It’s going to have to be private development and it’s going to have to be good stewardship, or I’m afraid what’s going to happen on the public side is issuance of public debt, paid for by property taxpayers."
Henry disagreed with the claim that public funds are dwindling.
"The fact of the matter is, Legacy money right now is prepared not only to invest in catalytic transformational projects for our community, but it’s also in the position to have over $80 million by the year 2025 when the lease is completed," he said.
Public safety sparked the most heated discussion between the two candidates Monday night. Though he spoke briefly about allocating more resources to unsolved homicides and curbing a heroin epidemic, Harper ultimately returned to previous campaign statements about the need for 50 more police officers and the need to bolster the city’s reserve officer program.
Henry took a different approach, saying he does not believe putting more officers on the street is the solution to Fort Wayne’s crime rate. What’s more effective, he said, is providing the city’s existing officers with more equipment, training and education, and increasing communication and cooperation between the city police department, other law enforcement agencies and neighborhood groups.
"Right now, I put together a mayors’ roundtable on crime ... we have a big group of people that work together on various challenges that are facing our community," said Henry, speaking to reporters after the debate.
Henry noted that adding 50 new police officers would cost the city $4 million per year, and he asked Harper which services he would cut or which taxes would be raised to pay for the additional officers.
In response, Harper said he would change the priorities of the city budget and take the money out of increased funds generated by payments in lieu of taxes. Those payments, made by certain entities instead of property taxes, are generally meant to compensate the city for forgone tax revenue.
Looking to the future, Harper said the city should focus on creating manufacturing jobs and what he called the building blocks for an economy, not necessarily the types of ideas contained in the Regional Cities Initiative proposal. Harper noted that northeast Indiana’s proposal scored the lowest in return on investment of all the proposals submitted to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.
"I don’t really think that you can concentrate an economy on something other than manufacturing, transportation, real basics for building economic development," he said.
Henry said that compared with other cities in Indiana, Fort Wayne is "growing immeasurably."
"As a matter of fact, we are ... becoming a focal point for other cities in the state to how to make things work," he said. "Fort Wayne is working, Fort Wayne is providing good jobs, good education. We need to create a synergy between the two so that our young people stay here because they know there’s a future for them in the jobs of the future."