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Paula Hughes

“Assuming you’re elected…” and more questions with the GOP Mayoral candidate

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-10-06


Fort Wayne Reader: Going back to the primaries — a poll released about a week before the primaries showed you running about 6 or 7 percentage points behind one of your opponents. It seemed like it was going to be a close race, but in the end you won pretty handily, garnering around 56% of the vote. Why do you think that was?

Paula Hughes: What I attribute my victory to is the grass roots work we’ve done. When you look at campaigning, there’s kind of this “ground war” and “air war”. The “ground war” is grass roots, talking to people, getting out there. I enjoy that part of the campaign, and I’ve been very lucky to attract people who are passionate about the same things that I am, and energized about the potential for the future of Fort Wayne.

We made thousands of phone calls, and the numbers we were getting back from people lined up more closely with what the actual election results were. So we didn’t panic too much when that poll came out, and I have to wonder if that poll didn’t really engage people that were hoping I’d win the primary because they thought “oh my gosh, she’s behind, I’ve got to get to the polls and vote.” It’s all about voter turn out. It was then, and I think it will be in the fall as well.

FWR: What do you think it was about your message that got you the vote?

Hughes: The message is timely. It’s something that resonates with people. People in Fort Wayne understand. They’re watching what’s happening at the national level, the fiscal irresponsibility that seems to be tying down our federal government, and we made a pretty strong case that that’s what’s happening in Fort Wayne, too, on a different level. This came out after the primary, but with the City of Fort Wayne being half-a-billion dollars in debt, that’s something that really gets people up in arms. They start to say “what’s going on in our city? How have we not known what’s happening?” And they want to get engaged and they want to change it.

FWR: Put the words “Assuming you’re elected…” in front of the next few questions. So, assuming you’re elected, what are the first five things you’d want to do as Mayor?

Hughes: I’ve talked about some of the basics. I’ve talked about cutting my own pay, and I’ll go into that in a little more depth. Fort Wayne’s mayor is the highest paid in the state of Indiana, and we have on average the lowest paid police force. So there’s a discrepancy there. I think it speaks to a disconnect between the administration and the people who are on the streets doing the work and having the most direct contact with the citizens. So, for me, talking about cutting my own pay sends a couple of messages: (1) Sacrifice is going to start right at the top; we have to evaluate what we’re spending money on in City government; but (2) I want to send a very clear message to city employees and let them know that I want us to be a team. I’m there to be a part of what they’re already doing for the City of Fort Wayne. I think the administration has been out of step with some of the good things that city employees are doing. It sets us on the path of putting our financial house in order, and puts us on the path of strong leadership and management within the administration.

I’m going to start a “people’s audit.” There are 52 different departments in city government: do we need 52 departments? And what are the programs and projects that are in place that are truly effective? A “people’s audit” is a method of engaging citizens that use the services of each department with the people who are managing the department to evaluate top to bottom what’s happening. As Mayor, for me, it’s not that I need to be micro-managing every single department, it’s that I’ve got to have good leaders and good programs in place in each of those, and that’s how we’re going to make it all work together.

There’s going to be a thorough evaluation of all the department heads in city government. I have a human relations team, professionals that do HR work with Fortune 500 companies, and they are going to help me with the transition. I expect we’ll be able to get key people in place (before taking office), but there will be some of that work still to be done.

Then forming relationships is the next part of it. I think there should be a strong relationship between the Mayor and City Council, there should be strong relationship between the Mayor’s office and County Commissioners and County Council. I have some of those relationships already, but we’re going to have to revisit those because I’m going to be in a new role.

I also think there’s a lot of opportunity in Northeast Indiana for the Mayor of Fort Wayne to reach out to the mayors of all the other communities and start to build a very strong “mayor’s roundtable,” if you will. There’s one in place now; the Mayor of Fort Wayne does not actively participate. I think it’s crucial to our future success as a region for Fort Wayne to be fully engaged in what’s happening with all the communities in Northeast Indiana.

FWR: Who are the business and community leaders you’d like to meet with?

Hughes: It’s interesting to me when I look at economic development. Certainly, doing things to put in place a very strong job creation engine is something that needs to happen in this community. The Mayor, as CEO of the city, is on a peer level with the CEOs of major corporations in Fort Wayne and Allen County, so I’d like to set up one-on-one visits with all the CEOs of major corporations.

But also, I intend to be more actively engaged in a “realignment” of the economic development organizations in Allen County. We have a long list of organizations that touch on business development and economic development in some way. They work together well on a staff level, but as of yet have not been forced to come together and talk about where there is overlap, and where there are gaps. Again, I see the City as having a key role in that, because the City funds many of those organizations, and to say “let’s outline what everyone does, clearly identify who is doing what, and then figure out how we can more effectively help.” Not just with the big companies in Fort Wayne. We know that 80% of our job creation is going to come from the small to medium-sized companies; how can we reach out and make sure that they have access to the sorts of things that are going to help them grow?

FWR: What do you think would be the biggest challenge to a Hughes administration in achieving its goals?

Hughes: It’s going to be a dramatically different way of governing. One of the things I’ve noticed is that Fort Wayne has somehow slipped into an era where we’re looking towards government to tell us what’s going to be successful. The difference in what’s happening between the Harrison and the Anthony Wayne building is a very stark example. Whereas (with the Harrison) the planning department has tried to dictate what would happen in certain areas, and it’s not succeeding, and there’s a little bit of an… expectation that government is going to fund things. But contrast that with the Anthony Wayne Building, which does not have the public sector involvement — the owners bought it, they’re going to make changes as the market demands it.

I think the challenge is reintroducing people to the idea that when the private sector leads a project, that’s what’s going to be successful. Holding government back a little bit is going to be the challenge, because unfortunately, we have become a community that has an expectations of government funding as part of the recipe for success. I think government needs to set the table and back away, and let projects rise or fall on their own merit, because if you need government funding to make a project successful, then long term it’s not going to be sustainable.

FWR: Once again, assuming you’re elected, name three things you should have accomplished four years from now to make you worthy of re-election.

Hughes: We have to thoroughly re-evaluate how we’re approaching our CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) mandate. I am not satisfied with the decision to increase the rates as the sole way of addressing the financing of that project. From my understanding, the federal government is helping communities who have a regional approach to that project, so I think a complete review of how we’re handling the CSO mandate will have to occur.

We will have reduced the city’s debt, which is a big thing to tackle because of this CSO mandate. We will be on a cash-based budget; we will not be spending more in the annual budget than we bring in in revenue.

And you will see Northeast Indiana truly coming together. Again, the Mayor of Fort Wayne has a key role in that. With 50% of the population of Northeast Indiana being in Fort Wayne, the Mayor of Fort Wayne has the ability to really be a champion for regional development. I think the immediate areas that we will see benefit from that are in our legislative platform, the way we as a region approach our state legislature and the federal delegation, and also transportation — we are ideally situated right here in Northeast Indiana to take advantage of the growth and logistics industries, moving good and services across state lines. That industry is estimated to double its business in the next 15 years. We can benefit from that, but only if we have the infrastructure in place.

FWR: Where do you see Fort Wayne in 10 years?

Hughes: One of the things is a recognition and ownership, kind of a pride, in our position as the second-largest city in Indiana. We’ve kind of looked at Indianapolis and central Indiana with envy. “Those counties have their act together. They understand what it takes to grow and come together.” We’re going to see that in Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana. That is our true potential — thinking from a regional perspective and understanding what is good for one of us is good for all of us. We’re also going to see a confidence and understanding of just how great this city is, and how much we have to offer the rest of the world. We’re doing it now, but we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders about it, and I would like to have that sense of pride.

FWR: In the past, you have supported some amount in public investment in downtown development. A lot of Republicans and conservatives don’t support any kind of public spending for those kinds of projects. How do you reconcile that?

Hughes: It goes back to the belief that the role of the public sector is to facilitate opportunity for the private sector, not dictate opportunity. I supported Harrison Square originally because it was supposed to be a 50/50 partnership between the public and private partners.

But what has happened is that we got so married to the idea of the project happening, that the government and the public sector has just kept throwing more and more money at it. That’s what we saw happen with the hotel. The City built Parkview Field — $35 million. We built the parking garage. The Courtyard, the hotel, was supposed to be a private sector development. Now, what we have in place is that the City of Fort Wayne is guaranteeing revenues of 16% to that hotel, so if those investors don’t make as much profit as they thought they would, the City is giving them money, so we’re guaranteeing their rate of profit. That’s overstepping our bounds.

The same thing is happening with the Harrison, where not only are we guaranteeing the bank loans, we’re also guaranteeing the rate of return for the investors on the apartments. If you have to prop up a project to that extent, it’s doomed to fail long-term. You have to recognize that when a project is not happening on its own, then you have to let it fail.

And that’s a hard lesson for government to learn, because we’re married to this romantic ideal of Harrison Square in its entirety, but I think that if we had gone into this saying we’re just doing the ballpark, and if there’s a business opportunity, someone in the private sector will step up and recognize the opportunity to make a profit… That’s how it works.

FWR: Do you foresee a Hughes administration even considering another big, ambitious project involving any kind of public investment, or do you think this is the time to hunker down?

Hughes: It depends on when. This is where the conversation about the City’s debt load comes into play. In 2010, the City had $13 million in CEDIT (County Economic Development Income Tax) revenue come in. $12 million of that went to debt service. We cannot afford to get involved in another project, and that concerns me. Not only can we not afford to another big project, we can’t afford to do some of the things we’ve historically always done with CEDIT — we’ve done a lot of road and street work and neighborhood development with CEDIT. That’s all off the table because we’re spending so much of the debt service out of that fund. So in the short term we can’t afford to, and it’s not going to be until we get that financial stability back in place for the City that we can really have those kind of conversations.

FWR: In January, you signed the famous Americans for Tax Reform Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Hughes: Absolutely. There were two points I wanted to make. One, during Tom Henry’s first week in office four years ago, he asked for a tax increase of $3.7 million. I’m appalled by that. He never should have done that. I wanted to make the point that I would not be doing that. I’m not going to come into office and ask for a tax increase.

Two, I don’t think the problem with the City of Fort Wayne is that we don’t have enough revenue; I think we’re not spending wisely. I think we’re not prioritized in how we approach city government. We’re just not looking at the expense side of the equation, and I wanted to make that point very clearly.

And honestly, the changes that have happened in the state of Indiana, with the way property taxes are collected, with the circuit-breaker in place, almost all the home owners in Fort Wayne, their taxes are capped at 1%. They’ve hit that 1%, so you’re already maxed out. The way to grow the economy is to attract new business, is to attract new people and grow the assessed value overall. That’s very different from a tax increase.

FWR: Have things settled out from property tax caps to the point where we can talk about freezing and/or lowering taxes?

Hughes: The short answer is “no.” The long answer is that there is opportunity in the future for better collaboration between all of the entities that are funded by property taxes in Allen County. I’ve moderated a fiscal summit — we got people coming together, but there hasn’t been as much benefit from that as I would like to see, because that happened right as the circuit breaker was coming in, people were scrambling to make the new budget with the reduced revenues work. I think we’re at the point where we’re at the new normal, and we can start to talk about how we can work together more efficiently. But that does not include tax hikes.

FWR: What’s your reaction to the recommendations put forth by the Legacy Fort Wayne Task Force the other week?

Hughes: It’s interesting to me that the Mayor formed this task force and then told them that he didn’t really want to hear the recommendations, and then they said “we think we should be making recommendation…” It’s been such a back-and-forth on this, and I think the confusion stems from the fact that it became a free for all where there were a thousand different proposals to weed through.

Initially, there was not a lot of accountability in the process. The people on the Task Force have worked really hard and really have had the best interests of the city at heart, but I’ve said all along that we are receiving the light lease funds because we are selling an asset. The arrangement that has been struck between the city of Fort Wayne and I&M is a termination agreement. In 15 years, I&M will own completely all the assets of the electric utility. If you look at it from a business perspective, when you sell an asset, and you have mountains of debt and leverage in other areas, do you use that money to go out and do other projects, or do you use it to lower the debt so you have cash on hand in future years?

This is, I think, a dramatic difference on what would be the conservative and not conservative approach to it. My approach as a conservative has always been that we need to pay down our debt. We’re selling an asset and we need to use that revenue stream to make ourselves more financially solvent. When you pay down the debt, the money isn’t just gone; you now have the money you were using to pay the debt load every year available for new projects.

Hear more of our interview with Republican Mayoral candidate Paula Hughes — including thoughts on how a Hughes administration would handle public requests for information; how government “sets the table” for economic development; and post-primary olive branches — on the Around Fort Wayne Blog at aroundfortwayne.com/blog

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