On a recent afternoon, Michael Allison strolled with a reporter down Holliston Trail – an idyllic northwest-side suburban street with spacious homes, shady backyards and nice views of a pristine man-made lake.
Along the way, he paused every minute or so to point out nasty cracks that had formed in the concrete pavement or to rake his shoe over the gravelly mixture used by city crews to quickly fill big potholes.
“It's an ugly Band-Aid on a deep problem,” said Allison, president of the Woodland Lake neighborhood, of the gravel and asphalt patch-up jobs.
“There's really nothing that can be done, other than tear it up and put in new concrete. And the city agrees that something needs to be done, but they haven't done anything yet,” Allison said. “They'd love to do it, but they don't have the funds.”
Woodland Lake homeowners aren't alone.
In 2012 alone, at least two dozen street reconstruction and paving projects requested by neighborhoods – work estimated at $4 million or more – went undone, according to city documents, as Fort Wayne faces a backlog of street work totaling $65 million and counting.
Bob Kennedy, the city's director of public works, said the city tries to prioritize where to spend its limited funds.
“We always try to do a fair amount in each (City Council) district,” Kennedy said. “We meet with council district representatives to review not only the petitions and the neighborhood requests that come in, but we also look at the worst-rated projects, as well.”
Interviews with multiple neighborhood leaders provide a snapshot of homeowners who understand the city's limited ability to respond to every request yet remain concerned about how the worsening infrastructure problems affect their community.
The News-Sentinel compared last year's annual list of neighborhood requests with the city's final list of 2012 transportation projects and found that most requests for major street projects – many estimated as six-figure jobs – did not make the city's list. The analysis focused on concrete streets and did not include small improvements, such as curbs and sidewalks, or most asphalt streets.
The unmet neighborhood requests offer a small, ground-level look at the city's $65 million backlog of street work, which has accumulated over decades. Just to keep up with the industry accepted schedule, the city faces an annual shortfall of $12 million to $18 million in street repairs, according to a special fiscal policy group formed by Mayor Tom Henry.
“It is kind of forcing us to prioritize and sharpen our pencils and make sure we're spending on the needs that are most obvious,” said Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th.
The News-Sentinel asked for annual lists of neighborhood requests from the past three years, but city spokesman Frank Suarez said information going back further than 2012 was not immediately available.
According to city officials, many of the street projects were left off the list because they did not get critical ratings under the city's scoring system, which rates pavement using a scale that ranges from less than zero for the worst streets to 100 for the best.
“We're not going to do a request if the rating's good compared to something that's rated a 10 or a five on a 100 scale, so sometimes projects are not selected for that reason,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said there are still some streets rated below zero that have yet to reach the top of the project list, while many of the neighborhood requests don't yet warrant action.
Of the neighborhoods that requested specific projects in 2012, one asked for the city to repair streets that scored ratings of 95, 89 and 82 on the scale of 100, according to city documents. Three other neighborhoods asked for repairs to streets with ratings of 50 or higher, and many asked for the city to fix streets that scored in the mid-20s- and 30s.
For the streets that did get repairs in 2012, the old ratings are no longer available because the city's pavement database shows only the current ratings, Suarez said. That means there is no way to compare the ratings of projects that made the list with the requests that did not.
Mario Trevino, the city's manager of transportation engineering, said the city may have repaired some streets with ratings well above single digits. For example, the city often tries to lump a package of adjacent streets – even those in fair condition – into one contract to save time and money, he said.
But at least 10 of the requests that went undone had ratings below zero or in the single digits, according to information provided by the city's public works department. Trevino said the city cannot afford to do some of the worst-rated streets because of the costs.
“When we have the lowest scores, those are also some of the most expensive segments we are doing,” Trevino said.
City officials have not released their final project list for 2013 but are considering streets rated as low as minus 50 and as high as 20, according to documents provided by the public works department.
The worst-rated street that was requested by a neighborhood last year but did not make the city's 2012 project list was in the Oakhurst Park Civic Association, where sections of Lionel Drive got scores of minus 36 and minus 12. Oakhurst Park requested two projects – a $146,429 package of repairs to Lionel and a $167,919 project along Oakhurst and Darwood drives.
A balancing act
While Oakhurst Park residents believe poor infrastructure has a negative effect on property values, they also understand that the city has a limited amount of money to work with, said neighborhood president Wayne Ballentine. “We expected no service at all because there wasn't enough money to go around, so we were happy to get a couple of things done,” Ballentine said, adding that the city has made a few recent improvements in Oakhurst Park. Elsewhere, the Deerfield Estates neighborhood in southwest Fort Wayne requested a $472,317 project – including sections of Buckskin Drive that scored minus 14 and minus two – that did not make the list. Similar to Ballentine, Deerfield Estates president Roy Padgett said his neighborhood was grateful for a large project completed in 2012 – a $155,783 reconstruction of Caribou Drive – yet frustrated by a lack of funding for the $472,317 in repairs to Buckskin. Padgett, who has been on the Deerfield Estates board for five years, said the neighborhood has requested the Buckskin project four years in a row. Last year, a city official told Padgett that the entire project would cost about $600,000 and suggested that the neighborhood divide the request into smaller pieces, Padgett said. “It's so big a project, it's going to be difficult to get it done all at once,” Padgett said. “But I understand it's a balancing act. I know it's been ongoing, I know it's not a problem that's unique to us.” Holliston Trail, the project requested by Woodland Lake, had a section rated minus 11. Other parts of the street scored ratings of 20 and 72, according to the city. Allison, the Woodland Lake president, said the neighborhood has asked for Holliston to be repaved almost every year since he became president eight years ago. “It was a problem when I came on as president, and it's only gotten worse over the years,” he said. Lenny Duff, president of the Wildwood Park neighborhood, said he has requested the same $145,532 package of street repairs each of the last three years. Although most Wildwood Park streets are paved with asphalt – which is less expensive to replace than concrete – the city keeps trying to patch the worst spots instead of repaving the streets, Duff said, pointing to a crumbling spot at Hickory and Mulberry streets. “Hickory is just a mess. A lot of this has just gotten worse and worse and worse,” Duff said. INTERACTIVE MAP: Click on the pins to view the locations and estimated costs of the major neighborhood requests that did not make the city's 2012 project list. Also shown are the city's ratings for the condition of each street, with 100 being the best.
A problem 20 years in the making
Fort Wayne officials say the city's $65 million backlog of unfunded street work stems from the early- to mid-1990s, when local public officials began to strictly limit property taxes and spent far too little on street construction.
In 1993, for example, Fort Wayne spent less than $3.8 million – including federal matching dollars – on transportation projects, compared with $12.6 million last year, according to figures provided by the city.
And since 1990, the city has given up a total of about $452 million in property taxes that it could have received if it would have collected the maximum amount allowed by the state each year, a special fiscal policy group told City Council last year.
“I think some of it has to do with, you know, everyone was very conscious of the tax rate,” said city Controller Pat Roller. “And in that effort to keep property taxes low, the give-up, if you will, would have been the maintenance of streets and roads, and that probably goes back to the early '90s.”
The city now funds the majority of its construction work – including all neighborhood projects – with the Community Economic Development Income Tax, or CEDIT, which council established in 1993 and increased in 1998.
The city's budgeted CEDIT funds for street work decreased to $2 million last year from $2.5 million in 2010 and 2011, but Kennedy, the public works director, said the city has put a greater focus on neighborhood projects.
“We've ramped up our concrete that we've spent in the neighborhoods the last three years, and we've tried to spend between two and two and a half million in the neighborhood concrete street reconstruction,” he said.
Of the $12.6 million of transportation projects in 2012, $5.5 million were funded through CEDIT, while federal matching dollars accounted for $4.5 million, Kennedy said. The rest came from state Motor Vehicle Highway (MVH) and Local Road & Street (LRS) funds.
But of the $5.5 million in CEDIT money that went toward street work last year, $3.5 million was available only because of a reimbursement after the state found it had shorted local governments by more than $200 million in income taxes in 2011 and 2012.
This year, the money available for neighborhood street projects will drop back to $2 million, with $1 million going toward asphalt paving and the other half toward more expensive concrete resurfacing, Kennedy said.
A matter of perception
City Councilman Mitch Harper, R-4th, said poorly maintained infrastructure leads to a decline not only in individual home values, but also in what he calls the “collective wealth” of the city. That makes the problem bigger than just the $65 million backlog, he said.
“It's damage to the individual homeowners, but it's a decrease to the collective wealth of our city, as well,” Harper said. “The point I've been trying to make is that additional cost to the community that isn't included in the cost to the government.”
Some neighborhood leaders pointed to safety concerns over the worn-down infrastructure.
“The holes, pits and uneven patch jobs by the city makes for this street to be a safety hazard for cars, bicycles and walkers,” said Duff, the Wildwood Park president, of Hickory Street.
Allen County Councilman Roy Buskirk, who has held a real estate license for 40 years and was a licensed appraiser until last year, said poorly maintained neighborhood streets would not likely have a clear, measurable effect on property values but could make a difference to potential homebuyers.
“I'm sure if they've got two properties they're looking at, and one is on a real nice street, they'd probably go with the one on the nicer street,” Buskirk said. “Curb appeal is part of it, but to put a percentage on it, I just don't see that.”
Kim Ruffin, a spokeswoman for the Upstate Alliance of Realtors, would not refer The News-Sentinel to a Realtor for comment on this story, saying UPSTAR leadership declined to speak about how infrastructure problems affect property values.
“In a typical residential area, you'd have to have a tremendous amount of potholes before it would affect the value,” Buskirk said.
Councilman Paddock said the lack of funding for street repairs hurts neighborhoods, but the city still has time to reverse the trend.
“There's no question that when you fall behind, you tend to have an effect on the neighborhoods,” Paddock said. “I wouldn't say we're in a situation yet where we're seeing decay.”
Making a dent
According to Roller, the city controller, finding ways to make a dent in the huge backlog of street repairs was a driving force behind the fiscal policy group formed by Mayor Henry last year – a group that presented several options, including two new local income taxes, this week to address the financial crunch.
The new income taxes could raise about $14 million each year. Most of that would go to the police and fire departments, freeing up more money to pay for the $12 million to $18 million in recommended annual street repairs, Roller said.
“The goal is to pay for our streets and roads annually with a dedicated revenue stream,” she told council this week.
Council will not likely approve the new income taxes or any of the fiscal policy group's other proposed options until June.
At the same time, city officials are closely watching the biennial state budget making its way through the Indiana legislature, Henry said.
As proposed by House Republicans, the budget would free up $250 million each year to help fix streets, roads and bridges – in large part by diverting gasoline tax revenue that now goes to the Indiana State Police and Bureau of Motor Vehicles – according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The Senate has begun debating a similar budget plan.
“The fact that the state is trying to find an additional revenue stream, not just for Fort Wayne but for all cities... as far as bringing in a new revenue stream, there's no question it would help Fort Wayne immensely,” Henry said, although city officials have previously said the extra revenue may not amount to much once it's spread to counties and cities throughout the state.
Council also approved a proposal this month to take $1 million of interest accrued by the city's $75 million “Legacy” fund – created from the lease and sale of the old City Light utility to Indiana Michigan Power – and use it as a one-time boost for neighborhood repairs.
Council members said the infusion – which will provide about $167,000 more for each district – amounted to a tiny dent in the street-repair backlog but would help fund a few more neighborhood repairs while city officials debate possible long-term solutions.
“There's probably a $5 million need in the 6th District alone,” Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, said at a recent council meeting. “The need is so great, ($1 million is) a pittance, but it's a start.”
Another promising fact, Roller said, is that the city expects a greater amount of CEDIT money to become available in the next few years as the city pays off debt funded by the tax.
This year's budget projects that the city will have nearly $27.5 million in CEDIT funds available in 2015, compared with $23.1 million this year and $23.7 in 2014. The city could direct some of the extra money to transportation work, Roller said, although she has not ruled out the possibility that some of the CEDIT money could help finance new debt.
“If we could, it would be my desire, I think, to see the CEDIT dollars go into the backlog,” she told council. “I think tackling the backlog is something that can be done and is something that we can pay for as we go.”
In the meantime, some neighborhoods may again be left waiting until next year – although city officials wish that weren't the case.
“There's definitely, there's always more we'd like to do,” Kennedy said. “We'd like to fix all the streets, if possible.”