INDIANAPOLIS – For Allen County and the city of Fort Wayne, the 2021 session is as much about defense as offense.
The local governments are pushing a few priorities but are mostly watching to fend off mandates and the erosion of local control.
“The city is very concerned about various proposals to remove or limit local authority and decision-making, which is why we work with members of the General Assembly to help them understand the local impact of decisions made on the state level,” said Stephanie Crandall, director of intergovernmental affairs for Fort Wayne.
She added this year's unusual session might make that more difficult.
“Each year, we work to educate state lawmakers on how Fort Wayne is a resource of good governing practices and sound fiscal stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Sharing what's happening in the city is a bit more difficult in the current structure,” Crandall said.
Zack Sand, director of government affairs for Allen County, said he is constantly looking for bills that would take flexibility away from the county.
One example, he said, would be an attempt to eliminate the business personal property tax – a major revenue source for local governments.
Crandall pointed to a landlord-tenant bill from last year that took power away from cities to craft their own policies. That bill was vetoed, but lawmakers could override it any day.
Crandall said that bill would contribute to an increase in the number of evictions in Fort Wayne and other cities when that number “was already at a crisis level before the pandemic.”
“Evictions have far-reaching impacts not only on residents and their families, but also on the community-at-large providing supports to those affected,” she said.
The city and county do have a few specific proposals for state lawmakers.
Sand said a key priority of the county is more flexibility on how to use road dollars sent from the state. Counties currently must spend 50% of the Motor Vehicle Highway Fund only on construction, reconstruction or preservation of roads.
The county would like to see that drop to 40%, freeing up more money for operations and maintenance. Or local officials would like the definition to change so that snow removal is included in the road infrastructure half.
“In years where we have excessive amounts of snow it is a big cost to the highway department, and right now the statue doesn't count that as preservation,” Sand said.
The issue has been exacerbated this year as revenue from gas taxes are down and local units are receiving less money.
Senate Bill 207 would make both changes – for two years. And to get that flexibility the city or county has to have a wheel tax, which both Allen County and Fort Wayne do.
“Not as much money is coming in, and they need a little flexibility,” said Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, author of the bill. “They would like it forever, but I told them no.”
But some road construction groups oppose the bill because it could shift about $60 million from building roads to operations.
Sand also said the county is pushing for flexibility for dollars from the Professional Sports and Convention Development Area. Currently, about $2.6 million a year goes to Memorial Coliseum and $400,000 to the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board.
Allen County's commissioners would like to see the $3 million cap of tax revenue allowed to be kept from that area raised to $4 million. Sand said that would allow the county to address unfunded capital needs such as a new ice floor soon at the Coliseum.
And Sand said the county also wants to mirror the Indianapolis-area law – allowing up to 40% of the dollars be used for operations.
The proposal is in Senate Bill 384, being carried by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.
Crandall didn't provide any specific bills but said the city is pleased that one of the House Republican caucus priorities is grants for local governments to equip law enforcement officers with body cameras.
“Amidst a global pandemic, we still have a local responsibility to serve and assist our residents and businesses, so this is the city's primary focus,” she said. “Specifically, we are watching for proposals that may impact how we locally manage and provide city services during events like the pandemic, including funding for additional costs incurred, offering paid leave to reduce spread among employees, holding public meetings safely, keeping our local businesses open while minimizing exposure for workers and patrons, and helping our neighbors struggling during these uncertain times.”
Crandall said if additional COVID relief dollars come for the federal government “we'd prefer not to have additional state-mandated restrictions on those funds.”
She said the state – the pass through entity for the federal dollars – initially set stricter use requirements than the federal government that prevented the city from using more of the money to help local residents and businesses.