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5th Tuesday comes of age

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-05-03


The Fifth Tuesday forum for May is starting to take shape and with it a vision is growing of how the concept can benefit the community.

For the last five years a debate has developed concerning Fort Wayne’s, and by extension Allen County’s, tax abatement policy. More than a few people have questioned the value and fairness of the system that allows businesses to avoid paying taxes on equipment or structures in exchange for creating new jobs.

Labor leaders Tom Lewandowski and Cheryl Hitzemann are two of the most vocal critics, having appeared often before council to point out problems with abatement concept, administration and oversight. They, in essence, have said that it is impossible to determine if after millions and millions in taxes have been abated whether the first job has been created.

They have asked that fundamental question repeatedly and are still waiting an answer.

Should abatements be granted to any business, or just manufacturing? Should there be thresholds for the number of jobs created and the amount of investment brought to the community? Should companies that fail to deliver on their promises be required to repay those taxes abated?

Critics have asked other questions: why, if the abatements are supposedly for distressed areas, could Lutheran Hospital availed itself of millions in abatements; same with a medical facility that moved from one side of that terribly blighted, distressed campus to the other? Then, there is oft touted goal of attracting outside businesses to come to Allen County, but an abatement was granted a company that hardly moved at all, merely crossing a jurisdiction boundary to qualify for an abatement. And, abatements are supposed to spur economic development, but recently a dentist pressured members of city council to let him suck at the public tit. Didn’t he qualify by hiring a receptionist and buying some new equipment?

Can council turn down an application? Is the whole abatement game a “katy bar the door” giveaway that will shift the tax burden from businesses to home owners?

Freshman Councilman Russ Jehl brought up those questions and more at a council meeting in April when he questioned whether the system was fair to the taxpayers he represents, not to mention the general business community in Fort Wayne. Council President Tom Smith gnashed his teeth and decided to put Jehl in charge of the May 29th, Fifth Tuesday meeting. It was a significant step. Mr. Smith, who conceived the Fifth Tuesday concept, knows that the questions go to the very heart of taxation policy in Fort Wayne because abatements are just one weapon that policy makers use to lure jobs to Allen County, or to encourage expansion. The rest of the weapons, such as tax incremental financing districts or economic development zones, overlap with the abatement game. To question one is to question them all. Mr. Smith saw a can of worms being opened at the dinner table. Mr. Jehl wonders whether the weapons are misfiring.

But the question has come up so frequently that Mr. Smith decided the Fifth Tuesday forum was the appropriate venue to educate council members and the public and he sent Mr. Jehl off to do the research and to create a format to inform and educate, council members, as well as the public.

The Fifth Tuesday in a month occurs about four times a year. Over the past couple of decades council has given themselves that night off to attend to other matters or just enjoy a quiet night with the spouse. Mr. Smith, rather in the spirit of “let’s roll” informed the other council members in January right after being sworn in as the new council president that he intended to put that Fifth Tuesday back to work.

The initial Fifth Tuesday came quickly at the end of January. It was essentially a hearing where city officials came to explain how they had misjudged to the tune of almost $1 million the condition of elevators in the new city hall. Controller Pat Roller sat in the hot seat and apologized as council grilled her on the details.

Now comes the second Fifth Tuesday and Mr. Smith has asked Mr. Jehl to carry the concept forward substantially, and Mr. Jehl seems to have taken the baton and run with it. We can expect the forum to feature experts offering their studied insights as a way of framing the discussion. We can expect to hear the results of a survey of other states and other communities to place Fort Wayne’s system in context. Them we can look forward to discussion among council members and others as to whether the local systems needs sweeping reform or just a tweek or two.

Is our system the norm in Indiana? Do other states abate taxes as an economic development tool? Have other communities reviewed and reformed their systems? Are there systems where the return on investment is more clearly measurable?

Such studied discuss of matters of public policy seldom happen in Fort Wayne, and even more rarely for the public to see.

That gets to the heart of a matter that troubles most citizens: government seems impenetrable, opaque, and a game played only by insiders. Much of the current political unrest comes from frustration that doors are closed and a political class makes decisions regardless of public input. Mr. Smith and Mr. Jehl will tackle that matter head on and the forum will be on City TV. Among their primary efforts should be to encourage presenters and council members alike to speak in common English, to avoid acronyms and self-serving “insider jargon” so we common folk can follow along.

Additionally, Mr. Jehl has a chance to raise the level of expectations for coming Fifth Tuesdays. He has the opportunity to foster other studied examinations of government so that all in the community can learn and, in the process help narrow the gap between citizen and their government employees.

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