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Interview with Tom Henry
The Mayor talks Legacy Fort Wayne, taxes… and are we really half-a-billion in debt?
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne Reader: There were a number of “balls in the air” when you took office — Harrison Square; CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow); Light Lease with I&M. How did you get up to speed on all of this?
Tom Henry: Fortunately, I was not a novice in the political process. I had served 20 years on City Council. But I realized this office is a 24-hour a day job, and it took a lot of elbow grease to learn to get things done. But one of the things that impressed about Fort Wayne is how many people are willing to give their time, their talent, their treasure to make Fort Wayne a better place. This certainly has contributed to our current sense of optimism and pride in Fort Wayne, there’s no question about that. Whenever I do need help from the local business community and not-for-profits, I do have a social service summit committee, I go to them from time to time, I go to neighborhoods, I meet with partnerships once every quarter. Whenever I need them, our community steps up, and I think with all of that being said, it makes job well worth it and really one of the best jobs in the world.
FWR: Anything that surprised you about the mayor’s job?
Henry: Probably the fact that when there is an urgent situation in the city, the Mayor is looked upon to make the big decisions. For instance, right after I became Mayor, we got hit with the ice storm. It was a brutal ice storm that put thousands of people out of electricity, and they all came to me and said “okay, Mayor, what do we do? We’ve got thousands of people without electricity, we’ve got thousands of people who are cold, what do we do? So you’ve got to sit down and in a very short amount of time put together a plan to react to an emergency like that. We had to set up shelters, we had to set up food distribution centers, we had put all of this stuff in place, we had to get hold of I & M and have them bring in emergency crews from Ohio and Kentucky to try to get us back into shape as far as power. From time to time the mayor is asked to make very quick decisions to be able to weigh everything.
FWR: How would you describe your relationship with City Council?
Henry: (laughing) How would you describe my relationship with City Council? No, really, the entire time I’ve been Mayor, as you know, we’ve had a majority of Republicans on Council, so everything I’ve done I’ve had to achieve it with the Republican votes. With that being said, I’m really proud of the bipartisan work that we’ve done together. Proud that every budget I’ve submitted to Council has been balanced and has been flat and has passed ultimately with the support of Democrats and Republicans. I’ll give you two examples of bipartisanship in working with the Council. One, we cut the residents’ recycling fees. Actually, we’ve done it twice. Also, I think we did a great job in streamlining the permitting process. That was a really tough assignment that was brought to us by businesses in the community, simply saying it’s too hard to get through all these steps trying to get permits. So I worked with Council, and now we’re helping businesses create good paying jobs. Speaking of budgets, this coming budget for 2012 is 200,000 less than it was it 2008. Talk about asking my staff to do more with less. But it’s true.
FWR: In the primaries, there was a lot of talk from the GOP contenders about running government as a business model. In your 2007 campaign, you also stressed your business experience. Do you think that is a realistic goal for government? Where do you think the business/government model falls apart, if it does?
Henry: There’s no problem is running government like a business as far as your budgets. You need to keep your spending flat. I think we’ve been able to do that. In fact, we’ve come in under budget three of the last four years, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, our current budget is $200,000 less than it was four years ago. Even though inflation has been over 5%. I come from the business world, and that’s the reason I made those comments. I’ve taken ideas from the private sector, things I did with my old company, and I think I’ve done a lot to make the city more efficient, more cost effective, and more service oriented. That being said, there are obvious differences. For instance, government should not try to make a profit, it should try to provide good, quality city services at a reasonable cost. Our public safety division isn’t run like a business, nor should it be. How can you put a price on our children’s safety, on the protection of our homes, the welfare of our parents and grandparents… those are city services that should be provided to our residents, to provide the quality of life they have become accustomed to, and profits should not be anywhere in the discussion. So, you run it like a business from a financial perspective, but when it comes to city services, obviously we’re a public organization.
FWR: Legacy Fort Wayne Task Force — It seems you convened the “task force” very soon after these funds became available. Why do you feel it was important to start that discussion so soon? What’s the rush?
Henry: There is no rush. This is an incredibly important decision to have. And keep in mind that our Task Force has been meeting for months. They’ve been meeting since January or February. They have been very thoughtful and very deliberate during their decision making process. They’ve had numbers of public meetings, they’ve allowed people to communicate with them through the website, through Facebook, through Twitter… with all that being said, they’ll soon be in the position to deliver their findings and recommendations to me. But let me be clear: these are tough economic times, and my number one priority has been and continues to be job creation. I believe the Legacy Committee — although I have not seen their report yet — will recommend that we invest some of the money to help us attract, retain, and grow businesses that will retain jobs.
FWR: Do you anticipate anything specific there as far as that goes?
Henry: I think it’s a matter of getting recommendations, and at the end of the day, the City, the Council and I will figure out what to do next.
FWR: When we interviewed you in 2007, you said you wanted to make “inclusiveness and diversity” a focus of your administration. Do you feel you’ve made any progress on that issue? How so?
Henry: I think I’ve made significant progress. One of the things I continue to work on as Mayor is to try to include as many folks from around Fort Wayne in the decision-making process. For instance, I’ve had Mayor’s Night In. I’ve had Mayor’s Night Out. I have neighborhood walks. I meet monthly with small businesses. I meet about every six weeks with members of the faith-based community. I’ve created task forces on big issues like our combined sewer overflow problem, and the light lease settlement. We’ve put together SmartGov as part or our computer access capabilities. Also, to me, the best way to ensure diversity is to make sure we hire the best people for government regardless of their race, creed, religion gender… so I think that by and large, we’ve been pretty successful, but there’s always more work to do. As I said, I’m proud of my record, but we continue to work at it.
FWR: A couple years ago, you organized a group of mayor’s of Indiana’s 30 largest cities to lobby the state legislator to look at whether some properties owned by non-profit groups should be tax exempt. What is the status of that? Do you still favor some sort of PILOT program to make up for lost property tax revenue?
Henry: That’s not quite accurate. The Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, of which Fort Wayne is a member, they organized the group of mayors. They felt that there were significant urban problems that differed from the rural communities, the smaller cities and towns. So they created this group, the Urban Mayors Roundtable, and we would discuss the various needs and wants of our larger communities. In that, they talked about this PILOT program that other states utilized. We took that to the legislature and said “other states are doing this; would you consider it?” And they said “probably not at this time. There are other options available.” So we said “Fine.” That was it.
FWR: Speaking of taxes, a candidate for City Council has proposed freezing property taxes for next year’s budget and possibly 2013. Everyone loves the idea of no tax increases, but have things settled out from property tax caps to the point where we can talk about freezing and or lowering taxes?
Henry: When we submitted our budget to council, we wanted to show Council all the options on the table, including a levy increase, which was allowed, but we had other options as well. We originally said, “let’s go ahead and use what’s allowed by the state as far as a levy increase.” We wanted to avoid dipping into our reserves. Our reserves are there for a particular purpose, and we need those for catastrophic natural events. But Councilwoman Goldner proposed using the reserves instead of the levy change. She met with the Controller, and after talking to the Controller and talking to me, the Controller and I felt that we had enough in reserves to make her suggestion work. The reality is that we contributed to our reserves every year that I’ve been Mayor because, as I mentioned, we’ve come in under budget, so we put that in reserve. Using that reserve instead of raising taxes… it’ll still leave us with a healthy reserve, and I support Councilwoman Goldner’s suggestion we use that reserve. State law has changed, and it does give the City more flexibility in those areas. We need to constantly take a look making sure that quality of life in our community does not change. Our citizens deserve a good quality of life, and I’m not going to sacrifice that. Incidentally, I am not proposing any type of tax increase in 2012, and if it works out right, I’m not going to have one in 2013 either.
FWR: Your opponent has made the claim that the city is half-a-billion dollars in debt. Several sources have countered that this is inaccurate and misleading. Do you want to tell us where that claim comes from?
Henry: What she is referring to are essentially three things, and this is not rocket science. She is pulling three things all together into one debt. First of all, the city debt, the debt that tax payers are responsible for — property tax, income tax — we are responsible for $180 million in debt. Incidentally, we have one of the lowest debt-per-capitas in the country. What she has thrown in there is city utility debt, which is not the responsibility of the civil city. I cannot take tax money and apply it to city utilities. Nor can I take city utilities and apply it to the tax base budget. It’s illegal. They are two separate organizations. The city utility is owned by the City, but it’s its own separate organization — separate employees, separate budget.
Now, the federal government mandated three or four years ago that we address our combined sewer overflow problem. We were dumping over 1 billion gallons of sewage a year into our rivers. We had to correct that situation; not only was it the healthy thing to do, but the environmentally right thing to do. We took that 240 million mandate from the federal government to the people. We had public hearings, we addressed City Council… everyone agreed that we needed to address this serious problem. We need to separate our sewers. It was the right thing to do. So we developed an 18-year plan with the federal government, and that’s what we’ve been doing. But that $240 million is what it was going to take to clean up our sewer system, to make sure we had good clean quality water to drink, that we weren’t being environmentally unfavorable… we had to make sure we kept our rivers clean and our water clean. That was the federal mandate, and we all agreed to it. $240 million. Also, we developed a clean rivers task force, which incidentally I put Paul Hughes on, and she decided not to attend any of the meetings. When they came out with their recommendations, one of them being we should financially invest in all of this, she resigned from the committee. But anyway…
So, there’s $88 million left. That $88 million we have to carry on our books, but it’s not our debt, it’s the state’s debt. The state said they would pay for a certain amount of police and fire pensions. Police officers and firefighters that were hired before a certain date, and the state legislature passed a law saying the state would pick up those pensions. But we have to carry them on our books so the state knows how much money they need to set aside. She herself admitted that she overstated that part of the debt. The Journal Gazette said back in July that she overstated the debt.
So if you add the civil city taxpayers’ debt with the city utilities rate payer debt — and city utility is offered not just to Fort Wayne but in Allen County — and the $88 million that the state is paying on the pensions, which is not ours either… Put those together, that’s the $500 million she’s talking about. But we have to put them all in our comprehensive financial report, and that’s what she’s referring to. But that’s how it’s broken down. It’s just that simple.
FWR: Where do you see Fort Wayne in 10, 20 years?
Henry: Can I give you several things? First of all, I really believe with the help of the Alliance and the regional partnership and the regional chamber and others who are all partnering with us, that Fort Wayne could be a regional economic powerhouse, and we’ll have one of the best quality of life offerings of any city in the Midwest.
Also, I’d like to see the Komets win their 5TH league championship; I’d like to see 4th all-star game at Parkview Field; I’d like to see the Mad Ants continue to thrive. In other words, our professional teams I’d like to see our professional teams continue to grow and be the champions that they are.
Third: Our medical and hospital systems. They’re already the best in the country, and I’d like them to continue to be the best.
Fourth: Our parks and trails. Again award-winning. I want to continue to grow them, to continue to have them as great recreational areas for our citizens.
Fifth: I would love to have that to begin to serve passengers again in Fort Wayne and to develop our intermodal transportation system. We’ve been talking about the depot in the New Haven area, we’re working very hard with the Alliance and others to put us more into an intermodal transportation system.
Overall, to create an environment and quality of life deserving or our children and grandchildren. When I talk about legacy, that’s what I’m talking about. We have a number of problems, concerns, needs in the present day, and we obviously need to take care of those, but I think our most important challenge and responsibility is to leave a legacy to our children and grandchildren.