City, county: Get initiative to work for us

March 30th, 2016

News Coverage:

March 30, 2016

City, county: Get initiative to work for us

Team up on best use of Regional Cities

Dave Gong | The Journal Gazette

Tuesday’s joint meeting of the Fort Wayne City Council and Allen County Council consisted largely of a question-and-answer session about the Regional Cities Initiative and the body created to oversee it.

“I think it was great that those who presented were very transparent and said that there’s still a lot of moving parts,” City Council President Russ Jehl, R-2nd, said.

Northeast Indiana was awarded $42 million as part of the Regional Cities Initiative last year along with the north central and southwest regions. Total state funding for the Regional Cities Initiative is $126 million.

The meeting was the first joint meeting the councils have had in about five years. Questions were fielded by John Stafford, a consultant to the Northeast Indiana Regional partnership; Alan Tio, the regional partnership’s senior vice president; and Jeff Turner, chairman of northeast Indiana’s Regional Development Authority, and they focused primarily on how the authority will prioritize projects and govern its funds.

The first quality projects to make it to the development authority will get first crack at funding, Turner said. There won’t be enough money to fund every project, he added.

As far as how the development authority will govern funds raised by local taxing bodies, Stafford said any public funds contributed to the authority itself – not an individual project – would come with an interlocal agreement stipulating how the money will be used.

“I can’t imagine you doing that without a written agreement saying it will go (for a specific purpose),” Stafford said.

County Councilman Tom Harris said he was concerned that the Regional Cities Initiative is a precursor to higher taxes for Allen County residents. Tio responded that fundraising issues such as tax increases are the purview of local governments. Those entities, Tio said, should come up with policies moving forward to help guide how local contributions will be funded.

“Those are local decisions that have to filter up from each community and together as a region to make those kinds of fiscal decisions and set those policies,” Tio said. “We want to make sure we have a framework in place to work with every project and to see this program be successful. But we certainly appreciate the importance of our business climate to our state in attracting companies here.”

Ultimately, the purpose of the Regional Cities Initiative and the Regional Development Authority is to improve quality of life and to attract and retain young talent, Turner said. He noted that three of his four children didn’t stay in northeast Indiana after leaving school because of a lack of jobs that match their skill sets.

“We are now competing with communities the size of Des Moines, Iowa, or Boise, Idaho. That’s the population range that we’re dealing with in northeast Indiana,” Turner said.

“Why can’t we compete with Des Moines, Iowa? Because we don’t have the quality of place that Des Moines, Iowa, has or Boise, Idaho, has. That’s what the Regional Cities Initiative is all about.”

Turner also said that while none of the development authority’s five-member board is from Allen County, it’s evident that Allen County is the economic engine for the region.

“There is no question in my mind – and I’m only one of five, and we haven’t even taken the first vote about where this money’s going, but I can tell you – the majority of this money is going to Fort Wayne and Allen County, in my opinion,” Turner said. “That’s where the economic vitality is, and that’s where the center of the economic engine is for northeast Indiana.”

Turner stressed that there have been no votes or discussions about which projects will be supported.

After the meeting, Jehl said he thought the most revealing part of the discussions was the sense of urgency to bring Allen County projects to the Regional Development Authority.

“Even though we are a region, we are in competition for a very limited amount of funds,” Jehl said. “It is going to take a very well-organized and coordinated effort to initiate as many of these projects as possible, should we choose to participate in them.”