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The Journal Gazette

Monday, April 15, 2019 1:00 am

Streets taking back seat

Budget tweaks needed to maintain promises

Russ Jehl

Russ Jehl represents District 2 on Fort Wayne City Council.

Last year I felt compelled to vote against the city budget because it did not adequately fund neighborhood infrastructure and the administration refused to create a plan to begin addressing these shortcomings. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the administration's recent infrastructure project list rollout, my conviction that neighborhood funding needs more sober planning and less self-congratulating has only grown stronger.

As part of a grand bargain with the taxpayers in 2013, the city promised to aggressively fix all poor streets in five years. The bargain included an income tax increase, an infrastructure bond and a capital improvement plan that included placeholders for neighborhoods so they had an idea of when to expect relief. Because they are the most expensive to fix, generally the neighborhoods in the worst condition were those with concrete streets.

After that first income tax increase, a wheel tax was adopted in 2016 to get the capital improvement plan back on track. It was to offset inflationary construction costs. A second income tax was adopted as well in 2017. Five years later – after three tax increases and with the conclusion of the capital improvement plan's time frame – half of the 60 placeholder neighborhoods are fixed and half remain in limbo with unfulfilled promises. That forgotten half deserves an updated plan.

When advocating for tax increases, the administration noted the city needed to fix 10 miles of concrete streets to initiate a sustainable replacement schedule. This year's hyped project list only fixes five miles. I'm the District 2 representative, and nine neighborhoods in my district still await fulfillment of the plan's original promises. Meanwhile, another six have since fallen into poor condition. Only one neighborhood in the district will receive substantial concrete street repairs this year. For concrete streets, we are behind sustainability investment levels and only falling further behind.

The increased cost for concrete and asphalt street construction is cited for these shortcomings. However, that is just one excuse among several controllable policy decisions:

 • Most price inflation occurred before the wheel tax increase, and that tax increase was designed to offset the challenge. Road construction prices leveled out and recent cost reports to Council indicate they may have actually come down slightly since 2016.

• Regardless of the construction inflation after the wheel tax increase, the amount presently budgeted for concrete doesn't appear to be sufficient for sustainability levels and is less than promised when taxes were raised. When the wheel tax was adopted, concrete streets on average cost $1.3 million per mile, and the budget figure at those prices was $9.8 million. This year's budget is only for five miles although concrete streets at an average $1.25 million per mile – nowhere close to the funding levels promised.

• The amount of money budgeted for neighborhood concrete streets in the city property tax budget decreased this year. The 2019 neighborhood concrete budget is $5.7 million, while it was $6.6 million in 2018.

• The city's revenue has been increasing healthily, but the expenditures for streets and roads have been flat, meaning the percentage of the budget spent on them has been decreasing.

• The perception that street budgets are increasing comes from new revenue from the state, most notably gas tax revenue. That generous revenue from the state has offset the sliding priority of local funding.

• The second income tax was designed to raise funds for sidewalks, alleys and the Riverfront. It gave a short-term funding injection in sidewalks and alleys. However, the administration expects Riverfront funding to increase at the expense of neighborhood projects. The administration recently briefed Council that as soon as next year, that amount could be cut by $4 million in favor of Riverfront.

Going beyond identifying the funding shortcomings and the controllable funding policies affecting them, I continue to note the beginning steps toward solutions:

• Reinstitute a five-year capital improvement plan.

• That plan should include the remaining neighborhoods which were previously on the plan but which have not yet been included, as well as any other neighborhoods whose concrete streets have become rated as poor.

• For neighborhoods originally on the plan which have not yet been improved, Public Works will create a spring cleaning list which will prioritize these neighborhoods. Those services will include patching and street cleaning.

• Reinstitute 2017 funding levels plus the capital improvement plan for the next three years.

A three-year funding plan is vital, after which an infrastructure bond retires, freeing up about $4.5 million annually. Those funds can then be used for neighborhood improvements.

• Also, the city should fully explore a new bridge repair agreement with the county. The county has shown willingness to reach such an agreement, and it could free up millions of dollars over the next decade that could be reinvested elsewhere in our infrastructure needs.

I'm grateful for the improvements being made this year, and the overall progress the city has made in improving infrastructure has been tremendous. However, a gap is growing between the self-congratulatory rhetoric and the actual local funding. Neighborhoods need to be priorities, not afterthoughts, and the promises made need to be kept. Let's start with a plan.