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Henry: Fort Wayne faces tough financial choices

Thursday, February 7, 2013 - 12:01 am

While Mayor Tom Henry's sixth State of the City speech Wednesday focused on Fort Wayne's achievements, the mayor also acknowledged a tight fiscal situation that will lead to some tough choices in 2013.

Compared with many cities, Fort Wayne has maintained a strong financial position despite state property tax caps and other factors that have led to a steep decline in revenue for local governments, Henry told an audience of nearly 200 gathered in the auditorium of the downtown Allen County Public Library.

"City government finances are changing, and they're becoming more and more challenging," Henry said in prepared remarks. "In Fort Wayne, though, through strong fiscal management, leadership and bipartisan efforts, we've been able to weather the storm."

In response to the tight financial situation, Henry last year formed a study group of fiscal policy experts to look at ways to bridge a projected $6 million annual budget gap facing the city.

That group is expected to report back in the next few weeks, Henry said in his speech. City officials have said the group will assemble a menu of options, including new local income taxes and budget cuts, to address the budget problem.

"We have to figure out what we're going to do over the next few months to make sure our budget for 2014 is in check," said City Council President Tom Didier, R-2nd. "Hopefully we don't have to raise taxes. I'm sure that's not what people want to hear."

In his speech, Henry did not go into detail about what steps the city might take.

Overall, the mayor offered an upbeat assessment of Fort Wayne's position, pointing out a strong rebound from the Great Recession and the city's growing downtown.

He pointed to the expansions of 26 area companies in 2012 – including major projects by Sweetwater Sound, Edy's Ice Cream and Brotherhood Mutual – and to a recent study released by the Milken Institute, a California-based economic think tank, ranking Fort Wayne as No. 59 among the nation's 200 best-performing cities.

With a touch of relief in his voice, Henry cheered the completion of the long-delayed Harrison building, an $18 million retail, office and apartment complex at Ewing Street and Jefferson Boulevard.

Henry devoted more than 20 percent of his prepared remarks to outlining his proposals for the city's $75 million "Legacy" fund created from the lease and sale of old City Light utility to Indiana Michigan Power.

"Legacy puts us in a unique position to invest millions of dollars in projects and programs that will leave a lasting imprint for generations to come," Henry said.

Henry did not reveal any plans for the Legacy money other than the first package of nine projects, totaling about $20 million, that was approved by City Council in late 2012. However, he did announce that city officials will start seeking a contractor for the first project, a $500,000 riverfront development study, next week.

Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, said he liked Henry's focus on economic development but would have liked to hear more about how the mayor plans to create jobs in southeast Fort Wayne.

"I thought it was very upbeat, and he hit all the high notes of economic development, the trail system, the Legacy process," Hines said. "I thought it was a little weak on the southeast. My constituents are constantly looking for economic development in the southeast."

Cheryl Ferverda, a spokeswoman for the Allen County Public Library, estimated that about 190 people attended the speech. The auditorium has a capacity of 232, she said.