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We have to be a player in the global economy

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Thursday, December 15, 2016 8:01 AM
We want to thank Councilman Jason Arp for engaging in a public dialogue about the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Before we can get to the real discussion on the value of the RDA to Northeast Indiana, there are some errors in Arp’s article that deserve correction. These are not differences of opinion but are substantial and fundamental misunderstandings of the structure and basis for regional development authorities in Indiana.

• The Councilman asserts that the Northeast Indiana RDA is appointed by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and indicates in the subheading that the board is not accountable to public interests.

In fact, the RDA Board is elected by elected officials — and only elected officials — of Northeast Indiana. Each county and city came together to elect the RDA Board. Each county board of commissioners appointed one of their own to vote, and the mayor of each city also has a vote. Each RDA Board member serves a limited-time term and is held accountable to the officials that elected the Board.

• In addition, he indicates that the authority to create Regional Development Authorities was bestowed by the Regional Cities legislation of 2014 at the behest of the IEDC.

The ability to create an RDA outside of Northwest Indiana was driven by the General Assembly in 2007, not the Indiana Economic Development Corporation in 2014. The first RDA created in 2005 served only in Northwest Indiana with the regional transportation challenges.

In Northeast Indiana, however, the RDA is more recent and focuses on priorities unique to our region. Issues that the RDA is designed to confront include: How do we reverse decades of declining economic performance and population growth that lags far behind the national average? How do we advance the reputation of Northeast Indiana as dynamic, determined and one of entrepreneurial success?

• The article claims that there are four Regional Development Authorities in the state.

Actually, there are currently seven. If other contiguous counties and cities want to form an additional RDA, they are able to organize as a region to do so. Similarly, if the members of a current RDA want to opt out, they are able to do that as well. . 

• Further, the column claims that the RDA board reviews government-proposed economic development projects and funds those deemed to meet their requirements, which are given the highest priority.

The RDA reviews every proposed development that may be submitted without regard to the origin of the project. In some cases, government entities may present projects. In other cases, private universities, private developers or not-for-profit organizations may also originate a project. The guiding principles for deciding whether a project advances are specific and clear— does the project advance Northeast Indiana’s economic and population growth, and is it regionally significant?

• Further, the article states that the Regional Cities Initiative funding originated from a tax amnesty program the state conducted to retrieve back taxes without penalty. While this is true, it is stated that much of this money should have been returned to county auditors to be distributed to local governmental entities including funds from back county income taxes, which are collected by the state.

Not mentioned was the fact that the collected amnesty funds were indeed returned to county auditors. This includes county income tax, inheritance tax, innkeeper’s tax, and the food and beverage tax, and totaled over $13 million.

• Finally, the article claims that the full $42 million of Northeast Indiana’s Regional Cities funding is either spent or spoken for.

It is not all “spent or spoken for.” As of the RDA Board’s November 15 meeting, $13.6 million of the $42 million has been approved. That represents only a third of the total. The Board is currently reviewing projects that if approved would increase the total to $19.6 million; still less than half of the total.

In addition, Northeast Indiana’s Road to One Million projects have been approved for development throughout the region including four inside of Allen County and eight outside of Allen County. That amounts to a practically even split in dollars between Allen County and those surrounding Allen County.

With those misunderstandings addressed, we would like to respond to the questions that the Councilman poses to the residents of Allen County.

1. Why do we need a Regional Development Authority to direct our local projects?

It’s critical to understand that the region functions as an economic unit that is bigger than merely Fort Wayne, Allen County or any other arbitrary set of lines drawn on a map. For example, just because Steel Dynamics is just across the Whitley County line from Allen County doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to Fort Wayne’s economy. We all have friends and family who commute to jobs in other townships, counties and cities. Acting together, in cooperation, we as region can accomplish more if we collaborate regionally.

2. Should we be taxing people to fund an organization whose sole purpose is to arbitrarily pick winners and losers and distribute grants to the winners while taxing the losers?

First, the process leading to the launch of both the RDA and the Road to One Million Plan were designed to create a system of vetting based on clear standards and accountability to ensure projects are chosen strategically, not arbitrarily.

Second, since the late 1970s, and dramatically since the 1990s, Northeast Indiana has fallen behind the nation in both population and economic growth. We are faced with a decision. We can be proactive and try to increase the prosperity of residents, bringing us back to, and eventually exceeding, the national average. Or we can sit back, do nothing and try to manage our decline as our economy and population stagnate and shrink.

The Regional Cities Initiative grant from the state has a four-year expiration date. That means the money has to be used on projects ready for development now. Why? Well, we have tons of transformative projects that need funding assistance. Whether they focus on downtown redevelopment, greenways, arts and culture or ideas and information, these projects all are happening now, adding to our economy and transforming our regional brand.

Once the money is gone, there will still be great projects that need assistance and few mechanisms to help. If we don’t plan for our future, who will?

3. Do we want to empower with taxing authority an unaccountable board appointed by Indianapolis bureaucrats? The article is based on a clear misunderstanding of how the RDA was formed (election by local municipalities) and to whom it’s accountable (those same local municipalities). The specific points of inaccuracy have been addressed above.

The question that remains is should we be empowering the RDA? We believe the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Even more so, we should be empowering all residents of Northeast Indiana to be ambassadors delivering a message of persistent determination and success in our region.

We’ve turned the corner and our economy has positive momentum. Just this past week 2015 data showed the sixth consecutive year of faster than the state and nation growth in personal per capita income. Northeast Indiana is a player in a global economy and we must continue to invest through the efforts of effective, responsive and accountable regional development initiatives.

Tom Wall is Huntington county commissioner, and Ryan Daniel is mayor of Columbia City.

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