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T.I.F. for the P.T.C.?

City councilman Mitch Harper says a new era in public transportation is dawning, and Fort Wayne is not ready for it

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-06-23


On June 10, Fort Wayne City Council unanimously voted to approve Citilink’s pursuit of $518,000 in tax revenue from Indiana’s Department of Local and Government Finance (DLGF).

It was the latest chapter in a story that began last November, when Citilink asked for a tax levy appeal by the DLGF after Citilink realized it hadn’t collected the money from recently annexed areas. But in February, the Department of Local and Government Finance said that by law Citilink couldn’t collect the revenue without city council’s approval. Not getting the revenue, Citilink warned, could lead to increased rates and reduced services.

Citilink got the approval, but it came with a hefty and some would say well-deserved dose of public chastisement care of council members Mitch Harper (R-4th) and Liz Brown (R-at large), who took Citilink President Fred Lanahan and Assistant General Manager Betsy Kachmer to task for mismanagement. Among their complaints was the fact that Citilink had also failed to ask for a $500,000 tax levy the previous year, and now the organization was predicting a $1 million budget deficit that they blamed on fuel costs.

“At the 11th hour, they bring before city council something that’s not really debatable, to give our assent to their levy increase,” Harper says. “We can’t have a proper hearing on it. It’s introduced on a Friday afternoon, we’re hearing it on Tuesday, and we have to pass it because they’re meeting the next morning. If we didn’t do it, we would have held up the levys for all the other units in Allen County and delayed the tax bills.”

Harper continues: “I‘m really unhappy that Citilink, since February when they were told they couldn’t get this — due to their own mistake — have set out to scare the beejeesus out of people.”

Perhaps more importantly, Harper believes they missed an opportunity to take a serious look at the issue of public transportation. “We’re entering a new era with public transportation,” explains Harper. “With high energy costs, we are really going to have a different user base.”

As fuel costs rise and many major employers — like hospitals — move their operations to the outskirts of town, public transportation needs to be able to serve its customers efficiently and inexpensively. And Citilink, according to Harper, isn’t prepared. He says that many people, even people who manage bus companies, tend to see the bus system as something primarily used by the economically disadvantaged and the developmentally disabled. It’s a stupid attitude, and even if it were the case that “only” the disadvantaged took the bus, Harper says it’s no excuse for shoddy management. “I think they’ve gotten into this mantra, that they’re sort of a social service agency and as long as you’re intending to do good for the people you serve then you are doing good,” Harper says. “I find that in a lot of the social service arena, and you want to shake them up and say ‘you know what? Your agency is doing a lousy job!’ Somehow, with people who have this social work mentality, the worst sort of service to the disadvantaged is okay. I’m sorry, but if you’re providing the bus service, you’re providing the bus service.”

During the June 10 city council meeting, Harper outlined a plan to address high fuel costs for public transportation. To summarize, Harper proposed that new assessed valuation inside Tax Increment Financing District remain subject to the property tax for the Public Transportation Corporation. (PTC/Citilink). The levy – that is the total amount to be raised by property taxes – would be spread over a larger assessment base, resulting in a lower rate for all.

“TIF districts take the taxes that would have been collected on any new assessed value in the TIF and pour those revenues into a special fund,” Harper writes. “That means taxes that might have been shared by the county, a library board, a township, a fire district, a school district, a public transit corporation or a city are all poured into one capital fund that only the city controls.”

“This would be a change in the state statute as it relates to all communities that may be under the public transportation corporation law,” Harper says. The proposal is detailed in full on the website he maintains, Fort Wayne Observed (www.fortwayneobserved.com). He says he has shared the idea with State Representative Jeff Espich and others who have expressed interest in the idea.

Harper writes that this plan would encourage economic development, protect the taxpayer from even higher property taxes, and maintain the public transportation system. Harper says he’s heard grumblings from a few fellow Republicans that a public transportation is not worth the amount of money the city is spending on it, but he doesn’t agree with them. Maybe, if the busses were packed full because gas prices had risen to $5 per gallon (not all that farfetched), then the system wouldn’t need to be subsidized. But right now, it does, and we need to figure out a way to do that that’s revenue neutral. Of course, that’s just the beginning, and doesn’t get into the question of the services Citilink provides and if or how they might be improved. “We need a whole lot of thinking (towards this issue) as this decade goes forward,” Harper says. “I’m not sure, in talking with other people in terms of public policy, that they’re much beyond this idea of ‘yeah, there’s going to be increased riders and we have to do something. We’re going to put that off and somebody will approach us with what these policy choices are going to be.’ We have to get ready for this now.”

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