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The Journal Gazette

  • Left: Henry; Right: Burgess

  • Henry

  • Burgess

Sunday, April 21, 2019 1:00 am

Primary challenge awaits Henry in mayor race

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

Candidates

Tom Henry

Age: 67

Current Job: Mayor of Fort Wayne

Education: Bachelor's degree, MBA from University of St. Francis

Political experience: Mayor of Fort Wayne (3 terms). Fort Wayne City Councilman (1984-2004)

Gina Burgess

Age: 47

Current Job: Business developer, freelance paralegal, public advocate

Education: Associate in paralegal studies from Ivy tech; Bachelor's in business management from Trine University.

Political experience: Former candidate for Allen County Council at large; former candidate for Fort Wayne City Council at large; candidate for Allen County Clerk of Court.

Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry – seeking his fourth term – faces a challenge in the May 7 Democratic primary.

Gina Burgess, 47, is a business developer, freelance paralegal and public advocate. She has an associate degree in paralegal studies from Ivy Tech and a bachelor's degree in business management from Trine University. She has never held political office.

Perennial candidate Tommy Schrader is also running for the Democratic Party nomination.  

Burgess supports mayoral term limits and if elected, would strive to lower the mayor's salary to a level no lower than the highest-paid Allen County commissioner, but no higher than the governor's salary. Any excess salary, Burgess said, would be returned to the city's general fund for use in debt reduction or purchase of public safety equipment. 

The mayor of Fort Wayne earns $128,593.

Henry, 67, first took office in January 2008. Before that, he spent five terms on the Fort Wayne City Council from 1984 to 2004. 

“Obviously we've been spending the last 12 years trying to build the momentum of our city to make us a contender,” Henry said. “We have a lot of initiatives at play right now. Some of them will be finished this year, some of them will be started this year. I have an obligation to try to see them through to the end.”

Economic Development

Burgess favors an approach that shifts focus away from downtown development, but does not abandon the downtown area. According to her campaign website, she would do this by approving no new investments in the city's Downtown Improvement District from Jan. 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2023. Any potential investment, her website states, should be redirected to city neighborhoods. 

In Burgess' eyes, there has been so much focus on downtown, the neighborhoods have been neglected. Every district, Burgess said, should have a tourist attraction, recreational opportunities, adequate grocery stores and adequate medical facilities. Burgess said she is not a supporter of the Electric Works development south of downtown.

“Every district should have some basics,” Burgess said.  

As long as the city has access to capital, Henry said, it needs to create vibrant partnerships with the private sector. 

“We're competing with a lot of cities and not just cities in Indiana, but all over the Midwest,” Henry said. “We need to step up and say we want you to locate here, we want you to be successful, because we know in the long run if things work out it will do nothing but benefit the community.”

Henry said the city needs to be aggressive in its economic development strategy. 

But helping downtown doesn't mean the neighborhoods will be neglected, he said, adding that his administration will invest $31 million in neighborhood infrastructure over the coming year. 

“Yes, we've invested a lot of time and effort and talent in downtown, because I firmly believe downtowns are the catalyst for a lot of economic development coming from those employers who are looking to locate in Fort Wayne,” Henry said. “Now, once they make the commitment, you'd better have neighborhoods to support their employees.” 

Henry said the goal is to eventually fund neighborhood infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than needing to issue bonds for street improvements. 

Public Safety

“I'm not sure that we're an unsafe city,” Henry said. “As a matter of fact, right now we're below the national average in violent crimes and we're below the national average in property crimes.”

Last week, Henry and Police Chief Steve Reed released statistics that show overall crime in Fort Wayne in the first quarter of 2019 is lower than the same period last year, including homicides, shootings and other violent crime. Arrests for illegal handgun possession increased by 65 percent over last year. 

Moving forward, Henry said he wants to enhance the city's Gang and Violent Crime Unit. That means adding officers to the unit, as well as the city's Vice and Narcotics Division. But that's not all.

“It's going to take more than just enforcement, it's going to take more than just some additional cameras,” Henry said. “It's going to take education and not just educating parents, because their children might be put in an environment where there might be availability of drugs. I'm talking all the way down to primary education.”

The city will probably need to ask for state and federal help to reach those educational goals, Henry said. The city also needs more treatment facilities to help address the opioid crisis, which is a major driver of crime, Henry said. 

Burgess disagrees that safety and crime rates have improved. 

“Public safety has not improved. Crime has not improved, homicides have really not improved,” Burgess said.  

To combat crime, Burgess said she will implement programs similar to Detroit's Project Green Light program and make use of virtual neighborhood watch programs available on the market. Burgess also said she supports increasing the number of police and firefighters employed by the city.

Participants in Project Green Light install high-definition cameras and upgrade to high-speed internet connections capable of consistent streaming to the Detroit Police Department. 

Transparency and accessibility

According to her campaign website, Burgess plans to make all communication between the mayor's office, city departments and City Council a matter of public record and accessible online to the public. Burgess said she would also require all City Council members to fill out time sheets and hold regular office hours at Citizens Square.

Time sheets would be accessible online or in physical form at the Allen County Public Library, she said.

“Good governance requires that (council members) set aside X amount of time at X location consistently so people know where you're at so they can schedule time,” Burgess said.

Henry said he's worked hard during his tenure in office to make city government accessible to the public. He said that's why he goes on neighborhood walks, and why the city has a 311 call center and other options for residents to contact city officials.

The city's checkbook, all city contracts, budget books, comprehensive plans and other documents can be found online, Henry said. 

“I don't think there's anything that is not accessible, with the exception of maybe some sensitive contract negotiations that are taking place, and that's usually by request of the developer,” Henry said. “I think we've tried very hard to get rid of that shroud of secrecy that people thought existed in government.”

Taxes and finance

Burgess said she hates tax increases, but recognizes they are at times a necessary evil. However, there are ways to gain revenue, she said, without raising taxes. Selling property held by the city, she said, was one example to begin generating tax revenue where there was none before. 

The city, she added, is also “giving away money” to too many organizations.

“So many entities keep coming to local government, be it city government, county government, state government or federal government, for handouts,” Burgess said. “In the real world of business, subsidies can be good to help launch, but you don't want businesses dependent on government.”

Burgess supports ending the county's business personal property tax, an idea championed by City Councilman Jason Arp that drew immense opposition from area taxing bodies, including local school districts. Burgess said she understands that schools and other bodies are struggling financially, but there are ways to meet their needs.

The Legacy Fund, Burgess said, needs a four-year break from new expenditures to rebuild the base of money in the account. The Legacy Fund is comprised of money generated by the lease and sale of the city's old power utility. 

Henry vehemently disagreed with Burgess' views on Legacy spending. 

The Legacy Fund, Henry said, is not tax money; it's composed of funds that can be used for anything. The fund was designed, Henry said, to be available for all different kinds of investment opportunities.

“Why should we shut it off?” Henry asked. “We're still getting over $2 million a year in lease payments from Indiana Michigan Power and will for the next several years. Some of that money has been set aside for some potential investments, like Electric Works and the like. If they come to fruition, that's what the money's there for. If some of these don't come to fruition, that money's going to be made available again.” 

dgong@jg.net