Fort Wayne City Council members began the process of solving the city’s fiscal crisis Tuesday night, but it did not go smoothly, or quickly.
Officials are working to close an expected $11 million gap between the money they expect to receive in 2014 and the amount they need to spend, and by June 25 hope to have chosen among the mix of spending cuts, policy changes and tax increases currently before them.
Among the most controversial proposals is raising local income taxes by 0.5 percent. Allen County officials have criticized the idea – which would affect everyone in the county, even those outside city limits – and Tuesday afternoon the county commissioners released a statement praising Councilmen Mitch Harper, R-4th, and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, for their proposal to solve the budget problems without the income tax increase.
The commissioners also suggested the council have a public hearing outside city limits so those in unincorporated areas could give their input. If Tuesday’s meeting is any indication, they wouldn’t be well attended: the council conducted a courtesy public hearing to get input from anyone and everyone who wanted to give it, but only three people spoke.
New Haven City Council President Tim Martin urged the council to exhaust every option at its disposal before raising taxes, but admitted “we could use some extra money.” Southwest Area Partnership Chairwoman Carolyn DeVoe said no one wants taxes raised, but safety comes first. One of the income tax proposals would raise money for public safety.
“If you don’t have to do the tax, that’s one thing, but nobody’s going to want to come to this town if our safety isn’t where we need it,” DeVoe said. “If it takes the local option income tax to do it, then let’s do it.”
Former city councilman Tim Pape said the tax increase would be an investment in the city’s infrastructure and quality of life.
“Do we want this city to crumble? We have to invest. You don’t win high-wage jobs in a low-rate community,” Pape said. “There’s a jobs war, and we fight it by investing in ourselves.”
The council will hold statutorily required public hearings on the income tax proposals and the proposal for a new property tax, called a cumulative capital development fund, on June 11 and June 18, and is scheduled to debate them June 18.
By then, the council had been planning to have dispatched with a package of other proposals intended to save millions of dollars, but council members Tuesday instead put off the decision on those for three weeks.
The provisions would have dramatically altered the city’s sick-time policy for employees, required employees’ spouses who qualify for insurance at their employers to take that coverage, and done away with compensatory time and other changes, but council members found it difficult to make a decision after union representatives decried most of them.
Attorney Tim McCauley, representing the firefighters union, criticized the city administration’s attempt to do legislatively what it should be doing at the negotiation table.
“You’re not giving negotiation a chance,” McCauley said. “Gutting collective bargaining should be a last resort, not the first option.”
Union members have filled council chambers in recent weeks. On Tuesday, McCauley urged the council to tell the city administration to “sit down and first try negotiating some of these issues – they might be surprised where they get with negotiations.”
But City Attorney Carol Helton said that with 11 contracts with nine unions, she doesn’t see how it would be possible to negotiate any kind of concessions with them in three weeks. Fire union president Jeremy Bush vowed union members would make a good-faith effort to get it done.
The motion by John Shoaff, D-at large, to hold the measures until June 11 passed 6-3, with members Tom Smith, R-1st, John Crawford, R-at large, and Marty Bender, R-at large, voting “no.”