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Didier to lead Fort Wayne council in tough budget year

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 - 11:08 am

As Fort Wayne City Council's next president, Tom Didier will face what some of his colleagues say is a “monumental” challenge – guiding council toward perhaps the city's tightest budget year ever.

Council Republicans, who own a 6-3 “supermajority” and the power to appoint the president, chose Didier, R-3rd, as their leader in a closed-door caucus after Tuesday night's council meeting.

“I'm excited and nervous,” Didier said. “I was president once before, but it was under totally different circumstances. It's going to be a difficult year.”

City officials have projected a budget shortfall of up to $6 million in the 2014 budget, as property tax revenue continues to slide due to the state's tax caps. At the same time, Fort Wayne faces a backlog of overdue street work of $65 million and counting. And the city's cash reserves have dropped to about $12 million from more than $20 million just a few years ago.

“This is going to be a watershed year for how the city is going to set its financial future,” said Councilman Tom Smith, the outgoing president. “How are we going to raise money, so to speak, and save money? We've got a lot of things to talk about.”

So Didier will lead council as it considers ways to stop the bleeding and generate more revenue.

That discussion will likely include proposals for higher local income taxes and could start in the first quarter of 2013, as soon as a special fiscal study group appointed by Mayor Tom Henry returns to council with a list of options.

As a nine-year veteran of council, Didier has experience and served as president once before, in 2008, but is not seen as a fiscal hawk.

Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, said Didier's lighter touch could help forge bipartisanship as council members debate tough issues.

“I think there are a number of candidates who could do that job well, but certainly if it's Tom Didier, I would be very happy to work with him,” Paddock said. “He does offer that bipartisan spirit and bipartisan touch.”

As president, Didier also will have the authority to appoint committee chairs, including the chairman of the finance committee. The finance chair is powerful because that member runs the annual budget hearings.

Council will formally meet to appoint its president and committee chairs before the next council meeting, Jan. 8. Republicans have chosen Councilman Marty Bender, R-at large, as vice president, Smith said.