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COMMUNITY VOICE

Unions contend city misled about true intentions for LOIT funds

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 12:01 am

When the city set out on a quest to save money through the use of the budget commission, all ideas, we were told, had been explored.

This commission recommended making changes to the Fort Wayne Police Department not through contractual changes with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association but by ordinance to remove police officer benefits as cost savings and adopting the Local Option Income Tax.

While PBA will make no apologies discussing the topic of the LOIT, it is rather presumptuous to assume that Kevin Leininger wrote an article without checking both sides. I believe within his column he even said he reached out to the city for comment and they declined.

As for the issue of the LOIT, I remember those council meetings last summer. I sat there for hours listening to the city insist that without the LOIT they would be forced to lay off 15-20 police officers and firefighters. The PBA has never stated that anything the city has done was illegal. We would never make such an accusation without factual evidence.

However, the city proposed the LOIT at a time when violent shootings were encroaching on every part of this city and the people were scared. Citizens were concerned, and they wanted more police, so much so that they voiced their concern and opted for the tax.

However, what the public safety unions will contend is that the city administration misled the citizens of our community about the true intentions of use of the majority of the LOIT funds.

In preparation for the current collective bargaining with the city of Fort Wayne, the PBA conducted an extensive two-year study into several factors facing police officers in our community. This also included analysis of the last five years of city budgets. This study found that the 2014 budget included an over $3.5 million reduction from the wages line in the city police budget. This line was then reappropriated with approximately $4.7 million of LOIT funds.

The difference in the two lines is roughly the cost of the new class of police cadets that are currently in the police academy. The rest of the money cut from the police budget, as City Councilman John Crawford clearly stated in his recent response to Leininger’s column, went “to other needs such as roads and parks.”

Although we all appreciate nice roads and beautiful parks, Mr. Crawford, this is not what the city administration told the public it needed this tax to cover.

Indiana Rep. Robert Morris was correct in his analysis of the city’s actions regarding the LOIT. He should be commended for attempting to close this loophole through proposed legislation changes. As Crawford and the city administration contend, they did nothing illegal under the current construct of the law. Rep. Morris’ proposed legislation would make future attempts to use this loophole illegal and prevent municipalities from reallocationg LOIT funds from their intended use on public safety budgets.

If the city truly needed the LOIT tax, fine, but have we really tightened everything in this city that we could? I would say the answer is no. We seem to have gone from cash-strapped city on the verge of collapse to a city that adds a new public safety director and additional police command personnel at a cost of over $200,000. This is not to mention splash pads at parks and other consultants’ fees for every project this city deems necessary.

During the two-year study conducted by the PBA, it was also discovered that the police officers of our community are 34th in pay in Indiana and are far behind other similar-size cities from the 2010 U.S. census, many of which Forbes Magazine lists as the safest communities in the country.

The PBA contends that these conditions will create an environment where the FWPD will fail to attract and retain skilled employees for the position of police officer in the future. Furthermore, the city administration has allowed the staffing levels to diminish over the last three years, resulting in slower response times and fewer overall officers patrolling our streets than in years past.

Police officers remain committed to their mission to protect this community while working under these difficult conditions, often facing extremely dangerous situations. Our community needs to then question if the city administration and City Council have fulfilled their commitment to public safety given these facts.

I would like to thank Rep. Morris, Leininger and Jeff Neumeyer with INC News for addressing the issue of the city’s use of LOIT funds. In the future I hope that our community begins to hold those elected to municipal office accountable for where their hard-earned tax dollars are going.

The PBA and the police officers of the FWPD will continue to dutifully serve our community and look forward to your support in making our city one of the safest in the nation.

Sofia Rosales-Scatena in president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association.