There is a famous recording from the BBC in the early 1930s. In a resonant upper-crust English accent the baritone man read the station break: “This is the BBC in London.” Five tones counted down to the exact top of the hour. Bong. Then he went on: “Now the news, I am Julian Chamberlain. There is no news. Now, back to our regular programming.”
There was no news! None, apparently, worthy of the world-wide service of the BBC. All was right in the world; World War I was over, Germany was suffering hyper-inflation, Hitler was organizing; Stalin was starving Ukrainians by the millions, we were heading into Depression. It was the “calm” before the storm.
And, so it was last night at city council. There were but a few minor bills on the agenda – new cars for the police department, a street sweeper, some sewer work. Routine matters. The one controversial bill, a contentious rewrite of the Tax Abatement rules, was tabled. And, that bill is just the tip of the iceberg called tax reform, the issue that will inform every decision of city council and the administration this year.
Last night, in the back of the room, were the two people who had forced council, the administration and the county to review and rewrite polices surrounding Tax Abatements. Tom Lewandowski and Cheryl Hitzemann sat quietly observing. The night before they had held their own hearing in council chambers on abatements in which they pointed out again, perhaps for the thousandth time, the cozy, insider nature of the Abatement Game that is hardly more than a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to a few corporations. In short, abatements are given to companies primarily in exchange for the creation of jobs. Taxes that would otherwise have gone to repair of streets or new squad cars or a class of officers are not just collected, they are forgiven or abated. The company keeps what they would have paid, what every other company in town pays. Sadly, the administration has struggled to prove that the first job was created in exchange for the millions of dollars that were not collected. Our government does not check records, instead companies self-report and self-police, rather like the big banks on Wall Street. In one instance 490 jobs were promised, but the company ended up causing some 600 workers to lose their jobs to make room for the 490 jobs. But, since those “created” jobs were never verified who really knows whether they were anything more than ghosts. As Reagan said: trust but verify. The system is a shambles of apples and oranges statistics that serve no purpose other than to call into question the entire Abatement program.
So, the county held secret meetings to formulate a new policy which they will now call Tax Phase Ins. Lipstick on a Pig? It was to have been discussed last night, but was tabled for another week.
The abatement charade is, however, part of the larger question of tax reform and resource allocation that is rattling around in city hall and among council members. City Controller Pat Roller initiated a process last year by calling together some of the brightest minds in Indiana to review income and needs of our little city and recommend how to reorganize government income and expenses. According to what I have heard both cuts and new taxes will be recommended. In short, you will have to dig a bit deeper to receive fewer services.
A number of city council members are at that reform table and are pushing to a variety of changes: a four-point-five day work week, changes in work rules, Legacy fund contributions, income tax increases and more user fees. But, they also admit that the economy has turned for the better in Indiana, that revenues are on the increase meaning the pressure might be less than feared. They admit that they are not sure whether the income side will be as dire as has been predicted. So far, there is no news from the mayor or controller. When the question is asked they count their shoe laces and change the subject. Under the surface, however, the meetings and the button-holing are picking up speed. The storm lies just ahead in the annual budget process that kicks into high gear in September and comes to a Wagnerian climax in October.
Usually, at budget time council nibbles around the edges by cutting a few dollars here and few there just to keep their title of watchdog. There is no rhyme nor reason to the collection of cuts offered by the nine individuals on council, just disparate cuts motivated by personal concern. And, every now and then they rise together like so many trained dolphins to phyrricly cut the tax levy, an exercise in shooting themselves and all the rest of us in the foot, an exercise that only that shifts money that would have gone to Fort Wayne to other communities in the county. No savings to taxpayers, Fort Wayne’s piece of the pie simply shrinks and flows elsewhere. Then they complain about not enough money for roads…
So, it was the calm before the storm last night. Next week council will discuss the revisions to the Abatement system and you can bet that no one will be happy. Perhaps that is a good thing. Everybody gets something, everybody gives something. But, sadly, there will still not be oversight to assure the taxpayers that for their efforts the abatement recipients did anything more than pay for an upper management retreat on Curacao, sailboat included.
With reported unemployment over 12 percent for high school grads in Allen County (around 20 percent for drop-outs and higher for minorities) it is a stretch to say this jobs creation effort has been a success. If the figure of less than 3 percent unemployment for college grads is accurate then we know where most of the benefits have flowed.
And, meanwhile, churning away in back rooms and private meetings, in gatherings at the Country Club and during golf outings in Costa Rica, in Indianapolis and over beer at Deer Park Lodge the struggle for Fort Wayne’s future is being decided.
A budget should be a list of priorities quantified. Simple as that. Sad thing is that the administration doesn’t seem to have a set of priorities, or at least has failed to enunciate them to the community. As for council, they have none either. A couple do have a vision for Fort Wayne, but for most members of council it is only cut-cut-cut and then whine about bad roads. For others their job is merely to assess whether the new street sweeper will use the right weight of oil. For the rest of us there is no news. It is the calm before the storm.