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Winners and Losers in the budget debate

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-06-20


Anytime there is a grand debate about taxes there are winners and losers, and that is the case in Fort Wayne as we push and pull about how to pay for repairs to neglected infrastructure and to shore up our safety services.

The city faces higher expenses and lower revenues. The expenses are caused by inflation, the sprawling growth of our city and greater expectations on the part of citizens. The diminished revenues are caused by the property tax caps, the disastrous 2008 Great Recession, electric cars (yup) and the Republican dogma of no-new-taxes.

But the law requires a balanced budget, and City Council and the administration have been struggling to find that balance. The yearlong argument has produced two noticeable results, first among them winners and losers, and the failure of a dogma.

Those who are emerging from the debate with greater respect are Councilmen Russ Jehl, Geoff Paddock and Dr. John Crawford.

After an initial proposal to balance the budget by the Henry Administration, Mr. Jehl proposed a comprehensive alternative. Sticking your neck out in politics is akin to sunlight on a vampire, but twice Mr. Jehl has come to the table with broad, complex and comprehensive proposals. Mr. Jehl, both a rookie on Council and new to policy analytics, scored high marks from nearly everyone for his work.

High marks also go to Councilman Dr. John Crawford who served on the Fiscal Policy Task Force formed by Mayor Henry to structure a long-term solution to the city’s festering fiscal problems. He was also assigned by Council President Tom Didier to serve as the chair of Council’s finance committee through which Dr. Crawford has managed the discussion of the Mayor’s fiscal plan, the alternative Jehl Plan, and one of his own — which has now been endorsed by the Mayor! Each plan has been given a full and respectful hearing, lengthy and detailed debate, and offered to fellow councilmen as tax and spend options.

The big loser, currently, is Mayor Tom Henry. He was initially the big winner in this process, and, as political matters go, he may later again be the big winner. His mistakes were assaults against his own team of City employees. Not only will they will see both their benefits chopped and face new taxes, but the Mayor also tried to severely limit their collective bargaining options. Ironically, after years of patting them on the back for “doing more with less,” Tom Henry has all but stabbed his team in the back.

In fact, Mayor’s Henry’s assault on his employees is something more akin to Midwestern Republican governors than the descendent of a long tradition of worker-supportive Democrats. Mayor Henry has done as much to rent apart the fabric of the Democratic coalition as Steve Shine and Orvas Beers combined. The foundation of the Democratic Party has been labor since the 1880s, but in Fort Wayne, labor says it has nothing to lose in listening attentively to candidate Mitch Harper before deciding for whom to work in 2015.

Councilman Geoff Paddock is another winner, having stoutly defended City employees and their families by halting the Mayor’s attack on collective bargaining. Paddock felt the scorn of the administration, but has proven himself with the Democratic Party base.

But, the biggest loser by far is the Republican philosophy of suffocating government. That is the dogma that got us to this point where we have deteriorating roads, leaky water lines, fading parks and understaffed police and fire departments. The Republican dogma seeks to vilify the concept of self-government as well as the employees who we hired to work on our behalf. Once vilified, it is easier to mount an anti-tax movement and through the movement to suffocate government and the common wealth of parks and roads and such through inadequate revenues.

Meanwhile, Council diverts tax revenues from the general fund — which pays for the roads you use and the police who protect you — to economic development schemes that can only be described as trickle up economics, where your taxes go to business buddies in exchange for jobs they never quite create. If you disagree, check the number of “economic development” channels — abatements, special taxing districts, funds, trusts, and support through hefty infusions of tax money — to three “economic development” organizations that promise more than they deliver. Then check the unemployment stats.

The current Republican dogma of no new taxes really means nothing for the common good or community use. Council has spent much of the last 20 years undermining the city’s finances and neglecting the infrastructure, while taking credit for saving you a few tax dollars along the way. You can have your cake and eat it, too, they preach.

How do you think we got $50 million behind in street maintenance? That simply means decades of unfunded needs. Neglect. The body has been consuming its muscle.

This is not unlike your home: if you leave a leak to drip, drip, drip it will eventually bring down the ceiling, ruin the floor and undermine the foundation. That is what the Republicans have unwittingly advocated to the point where now even Councilman Dr. John Crawford, faced with the increasing deterioration of our “house,” has come to the side of Tom Henry in advocating investment in our common property, creating jobs through public works and benefiting from the taxes those jobs will spin off. It is classic Keynesian stimulus economics of the sort that Republicans have long tried to discredit.

Should a hybrid Henry-Crawford budget pass, you can bet the summer of 2015 will be busy with road repairs, park improvements, rosy cheeked new fire fighters, a new class of police officers helping little old ladies across streets and myriad new downtown attractions.

And, perhaps, when all that work is finished — just before the mayoral election of 2015 — Tom Henry will find himself, again, the big winner.

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