It was a taxing discussion – in more ways than one. Tuesday night, the City Council voted to raise the local income tax to fund riverfront development and sidewalk and alley work. But not before nearly four hours of focused public testimony and rambling debates among council members about a string of proposed amendments.
In the end, passage of the tax was not just a victory for those who want to see the city move ahead. It also provided a primer in how the democratic process is supposed to work.
“I don't think the decision could have gone much better,” Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, said Wednesday as he recalled the six-month process that began with a public seminar on tax alternatives he organized in January. In April, Crawford wrote an oped for The Journal Gazette proposing an 0.15 percent increase in the local income tax to fund the riverfront and improve alleys and sidewalks. Mayor Tom Henry and several of Crawford's fellow council members soon expressed support.
That triggered a long-running, public discussion culminating in a groundswell of public testimony during the past two council meetings. Opponents argued that a community that raises taxes isn't attractive to businesses or residents. But proponents, who seemed to outnumber detractors at both meetings, saw the new tax as the key to a successful riverfront project – and that project, they said, was a vital part of the plan to make Fort Wayne a growing and exciting city. The payback, they said, would come in better jobs and higher wages as well as better quality of life.
The public discussion was conducted with civility and intelligence, even, for the most part, when council members were struggling to deal with every tedious detail of the issue Tuesday night.
Most of the amendments council considered in the final lap of the tax-debate marathon Tuesday were attempts to assuage fears and concerns that had appeared along the way. The tax was never contemplated to be a funding source for the proposed downtown arena, but the council added an amendment making that crystal clear. For cynics who doubted that sidewalks and alleys would get their due, the council added a provision specifying that an average of a third of the revenue must be used for that over the next 25 years. The council wisely rejected a proposal to funnel the tax revenue through the city's Legacy Joint Funding Committee and another to seek a new funding commitment from the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board, which helps support a range of other local efforts and needs to be able to respond to such opportunities as the Electric Works.
It responded to Councilman Michael Barranda's argument that the tax, which would mean an additional $6 a month for the average household, could be reduced. Barranda, R-at large, proposed lowering the increase to 0.1 percent; Council President Tom Didier, R-#rd, proposed meeting in the middle at 0.13 percent – which means $5 a month, or $60 a year, for a family making $49,000 a year.
Crawford was happy with the compromise and happier still that Barranda was persuaded to make it a 6-3 majority on the final vote.
Putting the tax in place with a solid majority “encourages developers to say, yes, this is really going to happen,” Crawford said.
It will still be a while before the riverfront development becomes a reality. But the respectful and inclusive decision-making process the community just went through carries a positive message to those who live here and those who might consider joining us.