The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 25, 2020 1:00 am

Council lets city finance vehicles

Vote split as most attend by phone

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

After a slightly bumpy start, the Fort Wayne City Council successfully considered seven bills Tuesday, most notably a pair of ordinances allowing the city to finance more than $16 million in leases for vehicles and other equipment.

Technology again proved somewhat difficult as seven City Council members attempted to participate via telephone. Some council members had trouble hearing the proceedings early on, but those kinks were resolved after a few minutes and several dropped connections.

In the end, the city's business was conducted largely without incident.

The first ordinance for about $13.2 million covered vehicles for various city departments, including the city police and fire departments, Animal Care and Control, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Street Department, among others. A second ordinance, for $3 million, covered vehicles needed by City Utilities.

All nine City Council members were present for Tuesday's meeting. Council President Tom Didier led the meeting and was joined in person by Councilman Jason Arp. City Clerk Lana Keesling and Deputy City Clerk Stacey Reed were in attendance, as was City Council Administrator Megan Flohr. The remaining seven council members attended via telephone.

Police Chief Steve Reed was also on hand to address public safety concerns during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The purchase lists from the police and fire departments – which were included in the $13.2 million package – were the most expensive, totaling close to $9.2 million combined. The police department had a long list of needed vehicles and equipment, including 90 new marked squad cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and an armored car, as well as robot upgrades and other equipment.

Speaking via teleconference, Deputy City Controller Valerie Ahr told the council that the finance packages were bid in early March and managed to receive an interest rate of 1.224%. It's a rate Ahr said she hasn't seen since 2012.

However, in light of the pandemic, some council members questioned why the city was committing to financing equipment for city departments that don't have anything to do with public safety.

“The budget was made pre-COVID-19, and this bill was crafted pre-COVID-19,” Councilman Russ Jehl said before the meeting. “We hit a health and financial iceberg and don't know the extent of its effects.”

During the discussion, Jehl proposed an amendment that would narrow the list to only police's and fire's needs. The rest of the departments' requests could be reevaluated and considered at a later time, once officials have a better grasp on the shutdown's impact on city finances, he said.

Ahr disagreed with that move, saying that amending the request would require staffers to start the process over again and possibly jeopardize a very good interest rate. Ahr noted that of eight banks that were asked to bid on the finance packages, most were reluctant. Lowering the amount, she said, would not guarantee banks will bid again. The interest rate, Ahr added, could be closer to 3.5% or 4%.

Jehl's motion was defeated in a 6-3 vote. Jehl was joined by Councilmen Paul Ensley, R-1st, and Jason Arp, R-4th.

“A financial emergency hits, and the first thing the mayor and council do is buy Animal Care vans, Neighborhood Code SUVs, a vehicle for the flood department, a vehicle for the Solid Waste Department, new Weights and Measures equipment, lawn mowers and a Citizens Square maintenance truck,” Jehl said after the meeting.

The complete $16.1 million financing package was approved in two separate 6-3 votes. However, Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, D-6th, voted against City Utilities' $3 million package. Jehl supported the utility's request, noting that it operates under a different revenue stream than city government.

Explaining her vote, Tucker said that as utilities begin waiving fees during the coronavirus outbreak, there's a lot of uncertainty about residents' finances and whether there will be enough revenue to pay for everything in the near future.

“We're just going to have to look at things differently, especially with the new projects that are coming up,” she said. “And I think things are going to be scaled back a lot moving forward.”

Tuesday's meeting – held in the City Council chambers on the garden level of the mostly empty Citizens Square – was the last for three weeks. Because March 31 falls on the fifth Tuesday of the month, no meeting was scheduled. As local officials became more concerned over the spread of COVID-19, council canceled its April 7 meeting.

The City Council's next scheduled meeting is April 14.

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