Well, welcome back council. After an unusually long three-week hiatus the Fort Wayne Common Council reconvened last night and got back to the people’s business. But, as it was re-organizational night and followed on the heels of eggnog parties in all parts the building there was precious little legal work to do last night, except elect a new president, Tom Didier, a new VP, Marty Bender, and assign members to committee and commissions. All, except Mr. John Shoaff, were present.
First, there was no suspense to the election of Mr. Didier. It had been decided in a caucus of Republican councilmen after the last 2012 council session. Mr. Didier had voiced a desire to preside and Chief Bender had announced, in his taciturn way, that he wanted to be the VP. Done. Given Democrats can only muster three votes of the five needed to elect officers there was little chance that Mssrs. Geoff Paddock, John Shoaff or senior councilman Glynn Hines would wield the gavel. Mr. Smith had hoped that his colleague and friend, John Shoaff, would be elected as a gesture of respect and camaraderie, but it was not to be. Mr. Hines graciously offered a second for the Didier nomination and called to close nominations after Chief Bender was anointed VP. It was all cut and dried well before the magic moment, but done with style and respect.
Mr. Didier took the gavel from Clerk Sandy Kennedy, who officiates at the annual transition, and made appointments to various boards and commissions. Those who served last year on the Downtown Improvement District, the Plan Commission and other boards all maintained their chairs. As for the important committee assignments and seating arrangements, they will be determined by President Didier by Friday and distributed through the Clerk’s office. The most important is the finance committee where the fall budget hearings are held. The appointee will be a Republican, quite possibly Mr. Smith, and he will negotiate the format and timing of the administration’s presentation of the 2014 budget to council. Seating assignments were significant during the last council, during the Pape-Brown years, if only to maintain public safety. They are not so now, but still of some interest. Will the cabal of Dr. Crawford, Mr. Mitch Harper, aspiring candidate for mayor, and Mr. Russ Jehl, have a corner in which to huddle?
The budget, according to Controller Pat Roller, is an expression of the goals of the administration. The 2014 budget, according to all involved, will be designed to circle the wagons and defend against barbarians at the gates. That fear was made clear again last night at least twice.
First, after passing a portfolio of tax abatements that will give many companies in Fort Wayne a break on taxes for ten-years, Dr. Crawford reminded the community that city revenues will be stagnant or fall in the coming years and that belt-tightening will be the watch-word throughout this year. He did not seem to see the linkage between the ongoing abatement conveyor belt and the concern he voiced.
There is already talk of significant cuts to city services, of higher user fees and of a four and half day work week. The fire chief has voiced concern she will not have enough firefighters to properly cover the city. The police chief says he is short officers and may have to resort to issuing take home Schwinns. The street commissioner says we are millions and millions and millions behind in basic street repairs and falling farther behind each year. The lamentations are real and come from every department of government. Over the past five or six years the administration has constantly been “doing more with less,” meaning fewer people, more automation and systems. The count of city employees is lower now than ten years ago, but over those years annexations have brought in tens of thousands of new residents, but more importantly hundreds of miles of roads and associated infrastructure to be maintained and new fire stations to be staffed.
Meanwhile, the property tax caps have done just that to revenues while gas taxes have also taken a hit due to more efficient cars, electric cars and the recession. The recession also cut the revenues collected from income taxes and dropped the assessed valuation of our homes and businesses meaning ongoing lower tax revenues. All combined the city will have to do even more with even less, but city council members are under constant pressure from their constituents to fix those roads and provide as many or more services as ever before…with fewer and fewer dollars.
Oh, and to add to the administration’s woes, last year council cut the levy, that is the amount of tax dollars flowing to the city from various sources, mostly, however, from property taxes. It seems cutting the levy did not provide one cent of relief to you or I, it just meant that what would have gone to Fort Wayne city coffers was spread around to the other taxing entities. It was purely a symbolic gesture that might better fall under the heading of cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face, or shooting oneself in the foot. The Allen County Highway Department blows kisses.
And, last night, up steps freshman councilman Russ Jehl who tossed a resolution on the table like a small hand grenade. Mr. Jehl wants to take all of the current interest payments from one of the Legacy annuities and use it for neighborhood repairs. Interestingly, he would give it all to the administration to spend. You may remember a few weeks back that council debated the Legacy system and its uses, and settled on nine projects to be given start-up funding, as well as methodologies on how to access the remainder of the fund. The matter proposed by Mr. Jehl was tabled, but that means it will be part of the ongoing debate over how the fund will be used: transformational vs. ongoing expenses. Mr. Jehl referenced the budget shortfall that he and the others who voted to cut off their noses caused as reason to dip into the Legacy Fund. More kisses and a few moons from that Highway crew.
So, next week Mr. Didier will announce his picks for committee seats and there will be two members from council leading the finance committee. Given the consensus that the coming budget, perhaps the coming two budgets will be leaner than an old sow they had better spend the full year working closely with the administration to craft a tax policy and a budget that will wring out even more efficiencies and improve systems while maintaining essential services. Given the good-natured president and the congeniality of this council -heads and shoulders above the 2011 mob- chances are good we will keep our high credit rating, your insurance rates will not go up and we will still see transformational improvements to our quality of life. Why not have it all.