Increasingly the question that will preface almost every discussion at the city council is whether we can afford whatever proposal is put forth.
Last night the salient issue on the table was confirmation of a 2% pay raise for most police officers through the end of 2013. It passed 8 to 0 to 1 abstention, that of Councilman Marty Bender who is also a chief in the Fort Wayne Police Department. During the normal informational discussions between council and administration witnesses to a spending bill, in this case Police Chief Rusty York, former council president Tom Smith of the northeast side suggested that the city’s collective bargaining ordinance be placed squarely on the table and subject to review and change. More than a few eyebrows inched up. Fort Wayne has been blessed with decades of good relations between police labor and management and Chief York would probably be the first to call the current arrangement a productive and balanced partnership.
For anyone who remembers the Blue Flu of the late 70s and early 80s, when officers walked off the job en mass, calling that question unnerves wiser heads who may or may not prevail.
Significantly, Smith will chair the council’s finance committee in the second six months of the year which include budget hearings and the November vote. Opening that bargaining agreement can of worms brought a quick retort from Councilman Geoff Paddock who reminded Mr. Smith and others of the benefits collective bargaining has brought to our community and society over the years. Most members of council and the administration would probably rather find ways to resolve pay issues, budget issues, capital needs issues without creating a distracting labor confrontation, but with a six to three super majority on council the Republicans can bring up almost anything they want.
The discussion turned to the number of officers on the street, the number of officers authorized by council and how Fort Wayne compares to other cities vis-a-vis officers per 1,000 citizens. On the latter question we are somewhere around 1.8 officers per 1,000. Chief York guessed that Fort Wayne is at the low side of that equation. He did note, though, that the FWPD “runs lean” meaning comparatively more officers on the street and fewer officers at desks. (Give the spate of recent apartment complex robberies and a filing cabinet of unsolved murders a few more detectives might be in order, but that is for another day.) What York did say was that he could use 13 to 19 more officers to maximize his force. It was clear from comments of other council members that public safety, despite Mr. Smith’s comment, will be the last area subjected to a budget cutting ax: scalpel, yes; ax, no.
Today, Smith noted, the Fiscal Policy Committee, formed by City Controller Pat Roller and boasting some of the biggest names in Indiana fiscal policy analysis, meets and Mr. Smith and a few other members of council are participants. They will talk about the coming 2014 budget crunch where tax caps collide with increasing expenses over deteriorating infrastructure. Not a fiscal cliff, more a Fiscal Wall against which many bright ideas may be crushed.
Interestingly, a proposal to spend $80,000 on a trail chunk sailed through council. Councilman Mitch Harper, usually a fiscal hawk, made light humor in endorsing the expenditure. Council fairly fell all over itself to “do pass” the .4 mile link that will be funded in most part by federal funds and by some $55,000 in private donations. Trails are currently hot in Fort Wayne, the amenity du jour. Dr. John Crawford recently noted that when recruiting two new docs to his practice among their first questions about life in Fort Wayne was whether there was a trail system. Dr. Crawford went on during his little reminiscences to thank the administration from making his job of recruiting employees so much easier. Oh, that $80,000 will come from Legacy money, the first such specific request to hit the table since the omnibus bill last month.
It was a very short agenda. New president Tom Didier ran the meeting with skill and decisiveness. He reminded everyone that next week will feature a public hearing on the Aqua Indiana take over by the Henry Administration. Two minutes. Each angry bird will have two minutes to vent at the mic. No more. Mr. Didier will try to keep a lid on an issue that is causing councilman phones to ring off the hook, as if there are hooks left to ring off of. That hearing will lead the agenda next week. Expect to see brown water in a jar offered as evidence.
To get back to budgets and trails, those $50k in private donations that the trails people found to subsidize their little bit of suburban heaven will increasingly be the expectation of government. It is the he oft touted “public-private partnership.” Last night an amendment was offered to the brick street ordinance, the city law that is designed to restore brick streets around the center of town. Councilman Paddock noted that a citizen committee was under consideration to help raise funds to make repairs and improvements. And, you may remember that during the Legacy process John Urbahns, the director of planning for the city, regularly said that leverage of private money against public money will be essential to the progress of any Legacy project. They all recognize that discretionary projects, such as trails and river bank development and uncovering brick streets, are laudable, but not at the top of the agenda; public safety is. When push comes to shove the city will find enough money to keep the police supplied and will find a way to increase the ranks, same with the fire department. Gang troubles are on the rise again. The series of apartment complex robberies across Fort Wayne should get everyone’s attention. Crime often lags an economic downturn. You are seeing now the results of two or three years of joblessness and cut backs in social programs designed to keep young men busy with things productive rather than things destructive. Idle hands, so they say, are the devil’s playground.
Job creation should be job two. And, rather than fighting over collective bargaining ordinance clauses we should be searching ways to put a few more officers on the streets by the end of the year. That is currently job one.