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Mayor Richard and the Big Picture
At the end of his two terms in office, Graham Richard offers some advice to the next mayor for dealing with the challenges ahead
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The interview with Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard was conducted on election day, when Fort Wayne residents (well, a few of them, at least) were headed to the booths to cast their vote for his replacement. The first question is what advice he would have for the next mayor, whoever that might turn out to be.
Mayor Richard offers up three items. The first: as quickly as possible, get comfortable and knowledgeable about key issues and the people he’ll be working with.
The second: carefully interview and select team leaders. “People look to the mayor’s office for economic development and growth, and issues that concern public safety, parks and recreation, public works, downtown development…” Mayor Richard says. “So, it’s important that he have team members who can execute effectively, on a day-to-day basis, the many, many different challenges and issues that you have.”
So far, it seems pretty sensible, sound advice. But it’s Mayor Richard’s third point that’s particularly telling. “Make sure you get plenty of time to deal with the important and not just the urgent,” he says. “Ask yourself everyday, what did we do today that will make a difference 10 years from now, 15 years from now, versus what will make a difference tomorrow.”
That emphasis on having an eye on the bigger picture, to stick to a plan and work towards a long-term goal, has been a trademark of Richard’s administration. In fact, it’s sort of the way Mayor Richard handles interviews. The outgoing mayor doesn’t just answer a question, he delivers a mini-course on the issue. For example, a follow-up question to the important/urgent point takes a turn into the glamorous world of Combined Sewer Overflow and the Clean Water Act. “In 2000, when I came to office… the city had been under discussion with the EPA, the IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management), and the Justice Department concerning the failure to comply with the Clean Water Act,” Mayor Richard explains. “The combined sanitary and storm water sewer system, which is an issue that a hundred other Indiana cities have, was engineered to create a pollution situation. In a wet weather condition where lots of rain comes down, the storm water and the sanitary sewer flow together and flow in the river and create pollution in the river. What I chose to do, looking at the long term, looking at what I thought was important, was to go to the public, explain the situation, and we raised the utility rates 40% and began to invest that money in improving the storm water/sanitary sewer infrastructure — separating those, making major investments in the waste treatment plant.”
So, there you go: a brief on Fort Wayne’s non-compliance with the Clean Water Act; an explanation of combined sewer overflows; and a summary of how Mayor Richard chose to tackle the issue. The Big Picture.
Of course, it also proves the truth behind that third item of advice. Addressing the CSO issue was important work, and something that obviously needed to be done. But back in 2000, it ran the risk of being overlooked in favor of something more immediate and perhaps more easily solvable. “I tried to balance those things where people were pounding the mayor’s door saying ‘I want help right now’ with those sorts of things that… well, nobody came and pounded on our door and said ‘the sewer system is old and falling apart. We aren’t replacing water mains. We aren’t re-surfacing our streets…’” says Mayor Richard. “People would be irritated about potholes, but they wouldn’t say ‘gee, what we really ought to do is rethink our whole street repair and maintenance. We ought to double the amount of road re-surfacing and radically improve our street-lighting system.’ People don’t generally come and complain about something that’s long term.”
As a result of making those long-term issues a priority, Mayor Richard points to several success stories from his two terms as mayor. He cites the progress the city has made on infrastructure; the quadrant public safety system; the 311 system; his “action plan” for economic development, job retention and job growth… all things which, as he says, took a while to get off the ground, but which he felt needed to be addressed. “I get invited to speak all over the country, to talk about how the city of Fort Wayne got so much high-speed, broadband available,” Mayor Richard says. “I’m asked ‘how did you do that?’ Now, that was a strategic six-year plan starting in 2000. You have to have a vision, a plan, and then you have to work on it everyday. It may take months or even years where you get to the point where you can look back and say, ‘now we’ve really accomplished something’.”
Mayor Richard would have liked to accelerate the pace of a few projects he worked on during his terms, and he particularly wishes they could have been more successful in retaining some of the companies — he names Tolkheim and Dana — that left the area.
Of course, not everything can come to pass as anticipated. Lat year, when Mayor Richard announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, it was almost an open secret that he favored Republican Nelson Peters to take his place in the Mayor’s office. As we all know, that didn’t work out, and the Republican nomination ended up going to a candidate who was vehemently against quite a lot of what had come out of the Richard administration. “I anticipated he (Peters) would win the nomination up until about the last three weeks,” Richard says. “That’s when I began to realize Nelson’s approach to the campaign and Matt Kelty’s were so incredibly different. Matt’s was much more suited to kind of a… guerilla warfare. It was very small primary, and his campaign was very hand-to-hand, very grassroots, and unfortunately Nelson’s approach was to rely on major endorsements from elected officials.”
And this wasn’t the year for that to be an effective approach. “This was a year when people wanted to see you at the doorstep,” Richard says. “I think there is a great deal of disappointment in government at all levels.”
Richard believes some of that anger manifested itself locally in the petition drive against the $500 million bond for Fort Wayne Community Schools and in the negative reaction towards the Harrison Square project. That latter issue is something that still surprises Richard. “I’m just shocked when I bump into people and they will tell me something about Harrison Square that’s just flat-out wrong,” he says. “I mean, it’s just not accurate. There were months and months where a mayoral candidate, using this for his own political purposes, misrepresented the facts and continues to. For example, to say it will raise property taxes, which people have been saying, is wrong. Over time, it will actually lower property taxes.”
Richard explains that Harrison Square was simply too good a deal to let pass by. Fort Wayne needed the downtown hotel to encourage additional utilization of the Grand Wayne Center. The city needed to work with Lincoln Financial — downtown’s largest employer, with almost 1800 employees — for parking and amenities and investment that would encourage them to keep those jobs in Fort Wayne. “We had a very unusual situation: developers who came to town and said we will invest, it turns out in that first round, well over $50 million, close to $56 million in private money in Fort Wayne to do things we always said we wanted,” he says. “So, to me, it was worth it to go ahead and provide an incentive for that investment, which happens in every city around the country.” He points out that the new stadium in Indianapolis is receiving a far greater percentage of incentives from the public sector than Harrison Square. “ I think we get an absolutely great deal, and I believe it’s very much in the taxpayers interests to do that.”
“There are others who believe you should not provide tax incentives for any development,” he continues. “The distinction they make is that it’s fine to totally tax-fund the Coliseum and the original Wizard’s stadium, but it’s not good to do a public/private partnership where there’s potential for a private company to have some return on their investment. I just don’t fundamentally agree with that. So I think what you had was a strong — and I respect this — difference of opinion on philosophy. There are those who think it’s wrong to use any kind of tax dollars to support this. Well, if that’s the case, you wouldn’t invest in job training and the infrastructure investments for the GM plant.”
There are a few issues he wishes he had had more time to work on before leaving office. The city has not concluded the consent decree with the US Justice Department over sanitary water and sewer (Richard says they’re very close). He also would have liked to gotten a little further on the negotiations with Indiana Michigan power on the city light lease, and acquired the Omnisource property north of the river and begun development there. “That’s the next big downtown investment opportunity for, again, a public/private partnership,” he says. “I’m a believer in a region where people want to have a vibrant city with an active downtown. You can’t take me to a thriving city with a downtown that is not thriving as well.”
As far as the future of Fort Wayne, Richard says the biggest challenge for the next mayor is how to finance very important infrastructure improvements — water, sewer, airport, roads, etc. He says the state’s proposed “cap and cut” approach to restructuring the property tax system will make things difficult at the local level. “90% of the City of Fort Wayne’s budget is in public safety, public works, parks,” he says. “You can decide you want to live without those, but I think the issue is, everyone wants to cut government. The discretionary spending that doesn’t make much of an impact is at the state and federal level. At the local level, I personally believe there isn’t a lot that you can continue to cut. So I think the next mayor will be faced with a very difficult challenge, and that is, unless the state government makes some changes, which is currently not in their plan, there will not be the money particularly for some of the basic services that people want to have at the local level.”