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For Henry, year of the 'good, bad and ugly' heralds new year of optimism

As Mayor Tom Henry ends the first year of his third term, he wishes for a new year that is less stressful — for himself and the city. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
As Mayor Tom Henry ends the first year of his third term, he wishes for a new year that is less stressful — for himself and the city. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Thursday, December 29, 2016 8:19 AM
For all of its undeniable bright spots, you could say 2016 has been an "H" of a year for Mayor Tom Henry.

As in: heart and homicides.

"It's been a pretty good year but there were a couple of challenges," Henry said as he reflected on continuing improvements downtown and in the neighborhoods but also the unexpected Nov. 7 quadruple bypass surgery that continues to affect his schedule and a murder total that established a dubious all-time record.

"I felt a pain in my chest and had a screening. They said it was best if I didn't go home (from the hospital)," Henry said of the events that led to his temporary absence from the office he has held for nine years. There had been no previous warning signs or symptoms, but heart trouble in other members of his family persuades Henry doctors are right when they say "70 to 80 percent of heart issues are probably genetic. The first two weeks (after surgery) I was very weak, the third week staff would come to my house and by the fourth week I was working part time.

"But they say recovery takes 12 weeks, and I'm delegating more (responsibility to staff) by design."

When it comes to crime, however, Henry knows the buck stops with him — even though he insists the three main causes of this year's spike in homicides are neither new nor easily corrected by government.

"There are three huge concerns: Guns are easy to come by. Thousands of people have them who shouldn't. Drugs have always been around, but opioid abuse if growing and some are going right to heroin. And we have a handful of gangs," Henry said as we talked in his Citizens Square office for his annual end-of-the year interview. But while the diagnosis is relatively obvious, the cure remains painfully elusive.

So far this year Fort Wayne has accounted for 42 of Allen County's 48 homicides, with the cause of two suspicious deaths undetermined. The mayhem occurred despite changes implemented by former Police Chief Garry Hamilton following a previous spike in 2013, including creation of a task force to combat violent gangs. In addition, Henry said, police continue to use social media both to reach out to the community and to monitor possible illegal activity. Schools also have a role to play, as do ordinary citizens.

"We want neighbors to be our eyes and ears," Henry said. "I'm not sure that our approach is not working; there's more volume (of crime to deal with)."

Henry doesn't claim more police alone can stem the tide, but he is optimistic the 28 new officers expected to join the force in 2017 will help.

What else might the new year bring for Henry and the city he leads?

Neighborhoods will remain a priority, he said, with another $25 million in planned infrastructure improvements. With City Council's recent award of $10 million in Legacy funds and expected help from the state's Regional Cities program, riverfront development should begin, as should improvements to the Columbia Street "Landing," an historic block downtown. Redevelopment plans for the vacant GE campus could also be announced, but Henry said developers continue to seek "anchor" tenants and may have been slowed by railroad right-of-way issues.

As for Henry's future, he's keeping his political plans to himself — if he even knows them himself.

When he appeared on my "Fort Report" show in November, I asked Henry whether he intends to seek a fourth term. Coming the day before he entered the hospital, he could not have known how timely his answer was: It all depends on my health, he said.

Even though Henry expects to be as healthy as ever following his recovery — perhaps even stronger — he's still not ready to speculate about a fourth term. He'll discuss that at some point with his wife, Cindy, whom Henry admits is glad to be seeing more of him these days.

When I asked for his New Year's resolution, the mayor replied with a familiar but legitimate theme: Because of downtown improvements and other things, it's fun to live in Fort Wayne right now. But we can't take that momentum for granted; we need to capitalize on it while we can.

I would suggest on addendum to that. The very momentum Henry touts is threatened by the violence he seems more able to explain than confront. Yes, homicide is cyclical and, no, a police state is not the answer. Nor is the breakdown of family and social norms easily corrected by government. But government does have the capability — and the obligation — to wage a more aggressive battle against gangs and the abuse of guns and drugs.

For people who aren't part of the problem but are affected by it and want to enjoy all the good things happening in Fort Wayne, that could indeed be a harbinger of a happy new year.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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