Public safety, economic development, city regulations, debt and budgeting are at the forefront of the minds of candidates vying for Fort Wayne’s highest executive office.
In separate interviews with The Journal Gazette, Democratic Mayor Tom Henry, 67, and Republican challenger Tim Smith, 50, outlined their thoughts about the state of the city and their plans for the future, should voters support them Nov. 5.
Smith has said violent crime in the Summit City has increased 17% since Henry took office in January 2008. Citing statistics from the FBI and the Fort Wayne Police Department, Smith said Fort Wayne is not even close to being one of the safest cities in the Midwest. Safety, he said, is one of the core tenets of his campaign.
A return to more community-oriented policing is the answer, Smith said, to reducing violent crime and successfully prosecuting the city’s unsolved homicides. When it comes to police staffing, Smith said he will trust his chosen police chief to determine the number of officers.
“It seems to me it wouldn’t be too hard to look at the top 200 cities in America … and say who’s the safest? What’s their ratio?” he said. “But I’m not going to make that decision. I’m going to hire a chief and tell her or him that is job one.”
Henry disagreed with the assertion Fort Wayne is unsafe, stating that for residents who aren’t involved in inherently dangerous activities involving guns, drugs or gangs, Fort Wayne is a safe place to live. Henry also disputed Smith’s 17% figure, stating that by comparing figures from 2008 and 2018, Smith’s numbers represent a snapshot in time and not a trend.
Henry added that the city has the lowest violent crime rate since 1988.
Staffing at the Fort Wayne Police Department is determined by several factors, including guidelines from the federal government. The police department has 480 officers and Henry added that his administration is exploring the possibility of adding 15.
“If we do that, then it’s probably going to mean going to City Council and asking for some adjustments in the budget or taking a look at some of the technology, some of the equipment we had budgeted and not purchase it,” he said.
Fort Wayne’s unemployment rate – 3.4% as of August – and growth are indicators of the city’s health when it comes to economic development, Henry said. However, he said there must be more synergy between employers and educators to help ensure residents are best suited for jobs now and in the future. The city has plenty of jobs, Henry said. The trouble is finding people to fill them.
Looking forward to the next four years, Henry said he’d like to “get a little bolder” and look at health care, the arts and energy to increase Fort Wayne’s quality of life. A better quality of life, he said, will attract more businesses as corporations identify Fort Wayne as a place where employees will be happy and thrive.
Henry identified smoking, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and infant mortality as areas of great concern when it comes to health care.
Henry also said he would like to create an arts campus in and around Freimann Square featuring dance, voice, painting, sculpture and more.
“There’s nothing like that anywhere in the Midwest,” Henry said. “Probably the closest you might get is Chicago, but to be able to compete with Chicago in that kind of arena, I’d take that in a heartbeat.”
When it comes to energy, Henry acknowledged it’s unlikely that the country will soon eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels. However, there are alternative energy options available, he said. Henry said he wants to explore the possibility of placing solar panels on government buildings and using energy like methane to help power city-owned facilities.
“We have, I think, the responsibility to take a look at alternative sources of energy not only for today, but for tomorrow,” Henry said.
Smith agreed that Fort Wayne has made progress, but said the city isn’t growing fast enough. He pointed to Indianapolis and Carmel as examples of cities that have attracted a thriving tech market. Those cities, Smith said, are 10th in America for tech and fourth in the country for women in tech.
“Fort Wayne can do the same thing,” Smith said. “We just need leaders who understand how to talk to and recruit businesses, who understand how to convert our manufacturing economy to a high-tech manufacturing economy.”
Smith said Fort Wayne doesn’t think big enough. Growing the tax base by attracting investment from different sectors of business means more money for city services and will contribute to increased investment in safety, infrastructure and other city services.
“That’s what we do in the Smith house. We try to get new income from different sources and try to reduce expenses,” Smith said. “We should manage the government’s finances the same way.”
Smith said “in the absence of new revenue” he will prioritize safety and infrastructure. Economic development will continue with what is left, Smith said, but the city “will be enticing more private actors to pay a higher amount to help us improve economic development.”
Has Fort Wayne’s debt climbed by 230% over the last 12 years? Smith says it has.
“If you look at the Consolidated Annual Financial Report and you look at year-end 2007 and year-end 2018 and you look at the assets and liabilities section, the balance sheet, you’ll see that when the mayor took office, total liabilities were under $600 million. Today they are almost $1.2 billion,” Smith said.
Smith said his 230% figure does not include other bonds still pending, like those that will have to be issued as part of the public commitment to Electric Works. If elected, Smith said bonding will still be an option and the city will continue projects which require bonding.
Although it is technically true when city officials say that the city’s debt is down $30 million, Smith said it only applies to “a narrow legal entity.” Other entities that have debt service include water and sewer, the city Redevelopment Commission, the Redevelopment Authority, the parks department, the Capital Improvement Board and Legacy Fund.
“I think it’s disingenuous to say one of the five legal entities is in a better debt position when the other four are in a substantially worse debt position,” he said.
Smith said although the city has “primed the pump” with regard to downtown, taxpayers are not getting an acceptable return on investment.
“An acceptable ROI for taxpayer investment is simply one thing: new high-paying jobs,” he said.
Henry said Smith’s claims regarding the city’s debt are misleading. There are three major categories Henry identified that apply to public debt: civil city, City Utilities and the police pension. City Utilities’ debt, Henry said, is paid by ratepayers and the police pension liability is funded through the state, even though the city has to carry the pension on its books.
The civil city debt, Henry said, amounts to about $100 million. Debt that falls in the civil city category comes from bonds to support projects like Parkview Field, the Ash Brokerage building and Promenade Park. City Utilities has a significant amount of debt and is the city’s biggest debt liability, Henry said, most of which is related to the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel.
Henry also said the city has $2.5 billion in assets.
“We have an A++ (bond) rating, we have $20 million in the bank … we have one of the lowest tax rates around,” Henry said. “We’re still behind other communities and we’re the second-largest city in the state.”
Regulations and budgeting
Another of Smith’s major policy proposals is to engage in zero-based budgeting, a tactic he says is used to evaluate and justify spending. It’s not meant to necessarily save money, he said, but to optimize the value the city receives from every dollar spent.
One area where zero-based budgeting can be effective, Smith said, is the Fort Wayne Police Department. Smith said his approach would evaluate everything from the cost of insurance to the price of weapons, cars, tires, oil changes, etc. Zero-based budgeting in the police department could optimize up to $5 million a year, he added.
“What (the administration) wants to say is, unless Smith is going to fire everybody you can’t do zero-based budgeting. Nope. That misses the point,” he said. “The point is you look at your biggest expenditures, you unpack them and you ask if you can do better.”
Henry said zero-based budgeting doesn’t work for municipalities for several reasons. Public safety employees are under contract with the city, for example, meaning the city has millions in obligations to start with. When Fort Wayne has a $180 million budget, at least $130 million can’t be touched. That leaves $50 million or less to work with.
“So much of it is either fixed or negotiated, there’s not a lot of money left,” Henry said. “So how can you start off with zero?”