For about an hour Tuesday at True Love Missionary Baptist Church, Mayor Tom Henry and Republican challenger Tim Smith debated issues related to public safety, diversity and economic development on Fort Wayne’s southeast side.
It was the second of three debates planned before the Nov. 5 general election. The final debate will take place this month.
When asked to identify bold initiatives he planned to implement if granted another term, Henry touched on the need for more health care to address obesity, diabetes, smoking and infant mortality.
“I’m going to challenge our health care providers because we know from recent reports that our health care providers have an adequate amount of financial resources,” Henry said, referring to a Center for Business and Economic Research report that shows Indiana’s nonprofit health care providers have a combined $27 billion in invested earnings.
“They need to step up and work with the mayor’s office to begin to provide additional programs in those four areas,” he said.
Henry added that he’s tired of hearing about babies dying because of a lack of prenatal care.
“As far as I’m concerned, every woman in this community who is pregnant deserves free prenatal care in the city of Fort Wayne,” he said. “We owe that to them.”
Smith said he would focus on community-oriented policing, zero-based budgeting and job creation. He said zero-based budgeting involves examining every expenditure to determine whether it is necessary from year to year.
The city is 41st, Smith said, in Indiana in terms of safety. He challenged Henry’s previous assertion that the city still has community-oriented policing, stating the city doesn’t follow the practice the way it was done nearly 30 years ago.
Smith’s version of community-oriented policing would include smaller geographic areas for officers to cover, allowing them to meet community members.
“The virtue in it is the relationships built by virtue of parking and meeting the neighbors and meeting the businesses and establishing relationships. So we don’t do it like we did successfully in the ’90s,” Smith said. “We will, starting in January.”
When it comes to diversity, Smith said he employs the most diverse team at MedPro.
“Diverse views are good for any organization, government, business alike,” he said. “In fact, of the 20 people on my leadership team, nine of them are women, 11 are men. … Of the 400 or so people on my team, both employees and contractors, over half of them are non-white.”
Smith added that if elected, he will “have the most diverse leadership team in the history of Fort Wayne.”
Henry acknowledged that of the eight division heads that work under him, none are black.
“Do we have a ways to go with hiring? There’s no question about it,” Henry said. “What I need from all of you is to help me recruit African-American executives to my team.”
When it comes to diversity in contracting and vendors, Henry said the city is actively looking for organizations and vendors to provide city services. One of the problems, he said, is sometimes the city’s service needs surpass the capabilities of small businesses.
“What I’m asking them to do now is partner with (similar) companies to join together to provide the adequate amount of personnel, equipment and services to bid on city services,” he said.
The city has already lowered its insurance requirements to encourage more minority-owned businesses to bid on city contracts, Henry said, adding that was done at the behest of the local minority community. Henry also said his administration works with the Black Chamber of Commerce and other organizations to help identify and encourage minority-owned companies to bid on city contracts.
Smith said that if elected, he “will not continue the political patronage that has been this city’s approach for the past 12 years” when it comes to contractors doing business with the city. Smith claimed that Henry received $1 million from vendors that did business with the city between 2011 and 2015. Those vendors, Smith said, received about $125 million in city contracts over the following four years.
“You get minority contractors’ business the same way we get any contracting business, and that occurs in the same way you end up filling your leadership team with diverse candidates,” Smith said.
“You have to be intentional about the slate, whether you’re hiring a chief financial officer or hiring a firm to put pavement on roads,” he said. “You simply have to include diverse candidates as potential employees and potential contractors in the slate.”
Increasing jobs and the economy in southeast Fort Wayne will help shrink the existing food desert and reduce infant mortality, Smith said. Over 12 years, Fort Wayne has lost employers and infrastructure has crumbled, he said, because city leaders “have invested vastly more money into downtown than they have on the southeast side of town.”
“I will recruit employers back to Fort Wayne. They have financial incentives to locate on the southeast side of town,” Smith said, identifying opportunity zones as a tool he would use to recruit more businesses to the area.
Smith also said he is appalled at the infrastructure in City Council Districts 5 and 6. If elected, Smith said he will attract businesses to the southeast so that private and public money will be used to make necessary investments.
“The problem now is we have to pay off the debt at the same time we’re trying to improve the southeast side that has been neglected,” he said.
Henry acknowledged that southeast Fort Wayne is a food desert, which prompted the creation of Johnnie Mae Farm. A grocery store is also planned for a site on Hanna Street, Henry said, noting that his administration is still offering free land to any sit-down restaurant that wants to locate in the area.
Henry challenged Smith’s contention that the city has not invested in the area.
“You know darn well we’ve invested millions of dollars in south, southeast,” Henry said. “The reason businesses aren’t here yet in south, southeast Fort Wayne has nothing more than to do with helping them believe that there is disposable income here to be spent.”
A lot of businesses have left the area because of suburban sprawl as well, Henry added, but businesses are beginning to return. It’s just going to take time, he said.
“Yes, it’s taken us long,” he said. “I’ve been as impatient as you have been, but we’re getting there.”