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After spending millions on new office space, the city wants to rent

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Time to speak

What: Public hearing on lease for Metropolitan Human Relations Commission

When: 5:30 p.m. June 11

Where: Omni Room in lower level of Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St.

Metro Commission's move may be justified, but case has to be made

Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

Less than two years after a multimillion-dollar project brought most city and county offices together in two downtown buildings, Fort Wayne taxpayers may soon be paying more than $52,000 in annual rent to move one agency several blocks away.

When compared to the annual city budget of about $174 million, that's not a lot of money. But in the wake of sometimes-contentious co-location negotiations between city and county officials, and with tax increases being sought to help close a $6 million deficit in the city's budget, the public is entitled to answers all the same.

Under the proposal already approved by the Board of Works and scheduled for a public hearing before City Council later this month, the city would sign a five-year lease on 4,739 square feet of space in the eight-floor building at 202 W. Berry St., which would then become home to the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission, the city's civil-rights agency. If renewed for another 10 years as allowable under the lease, the rent would total nearly $782,000 – and that doesn't include new phone service, computer lines and security upgrades (the landlord would pay utilities).

With a space crunch forcing the city-county emergency communications center out of the basement of the Rousseau Centre (formerly the City-County Building) and onto the 6th floor now occupied by Metro, something had to give and “after a thorough analysis this was the most cost-effective, best solution,” city spokesman John Perlich said.

Perhaps. But the city spent about $14 million to buy and renovate Citizens Square. The city and county spent another $4 million to convert the county-owned Rousseau Centre into a headquarters for police, fire and other offices. Despite selling two now-vacated buildings, the county still owns other properties, as does the city.

So surely the question must be asked: Could better planning or city-county cooperation have avoided the need to pay rent where none currently exists?

Answers to such questions are elusive because city and county officials often consider only their own needs and budgets when making decisions. That's understandable, but it can also produce results that ignore the bigger picture.

The county, for example, has already sold its former tuberculosis clinic on South Calhoun and an information technology center on Wallace Street. But it still owns the Courthouse Annex on Berry Street and the former headquarters of the Highway and Building departments on Superior Street, now occupied by Voters Registration and Election Board offices. County Commissioner Nelson Peters said the county hopes to sell the Courthouse Annex by the end of the year and move the election-related offices back into the Rousseau Centre. But is the county -- which at one point considered renting space for the expanded 911 center -- meeting only its own needs, or were the city's space requirements also considered?

City residents are county residents too, after all.

As for the city, is there really no room in the cavernous Citizens Square, where atriums and an open design create plenty of wasted space? Are no other facilities – such as the building on Murray Street vacated by the Fire Department – suitable for Metro?

In the end, the Metro Commission's move into what used to be called the Metro Building may benefit all involved. Owner Bill Bean said he made the city an “extremely competitive” offer, and Metro Board Chairman Larry Wardlaw said the agency's stand-alone location could improve security and clients' peace of mind, since some could be intimidated by having to file complaints in a building now teeming with police. And compared to the cost of creating new offices in Citizens Square or the savings possible through the sale of now-unneeded public buildings, perhaps the rent will prove a bargain for taxpayers.

But after having so recently been assured that their generosity had provided local government all the space it needed, you can't blame residents for being skeptical unless city and county officials can convince them that there simply is no better choice.

Short of that. City Councilman Tom Smith's reaction to the proposed rent deal may reflect that of many others: “Unless there's some reason, it makes no sense to me,” said Smith, R-1st.

Hopefully he and his council colleagues will know before they vote to add rental expenses to a budget so tight we supposedly need higher taxes just to make eneds meet.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.