In a year of legislative victories for northeast Indiana, $30 million in state funding for a long-anticipated highway project may be the crown jewel, said area government and business leaders Wednesday.
But the spirit of unity advertised in the news conference at Indiana Tech was belied by some officials' serious reservations about one of those supposed successes.
First proposed when General Motors opened a truck plant in southwest Allen County in the mid-1980s and seriously promoted by Allen County officials and others since at least 2010, the widening and improvement of Lafayette Center Road between the GM plant and U.S. 24 near Roanoke seems poised to become reality. State Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, announced the $30 million from the Indiana Department of Transportation for what he called the “No. 1 priority” for regional legislators.
“It's the final piece of the 'Hoosier Heartland Corridor,' ” he said. The corridor refers to improvements to or near U.S. 24 between Lafayette and Fort Wayne.
Although some estimates have placed the cost of the four-mile project as high as $66 million, Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership President John Sampson said the state funds should be enough to complete work.
Long said that although northeast Indiana has not always received the
attention it deserves in Indianapolis, he said cooperation among area delegates is beginning to pay off. In addition to the Lafayette Center funding, he mentioned two other examples: bills that would replace the three Allen County commissioners with a single executive and extend the life of the Memorial Coliseum's Professional Sports and Convention Development Area through 2027, providing enough income and sales taxes to pay off a proposed $12.4 million expansion of the Expo Hall.
Long said the county executive bill, which would give County Council legislative authority and expand the body from seven members to nine, would modernize county government while protecting the interests of rural residents.
“The collaboration between northeast Indiana business and government leaders ensures that we are setting the best policy possible, and at the end of the day our economy will benefit,” Long said.
One of the bills intended to make Indiana more business-friendly has created concerns among some county, city and school officials, some of whom showed their displeasure by staying away from Wednesday's news conference.
New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald did attend, but made it clear he questions the bill that gives counties the ability to eliminate business personal property taxes – a tax that now collects $1 billion annually statewide for distribution to local governments.
“That sticks in our craw,” McDonald said. “We see it as the beginning of a slide toward the total elimination of the tax.” And although some state officials have said the lost revenue would be replaced, McDonald said that would require an additional “burden on other taxpayers.” The tax generates about $51.6 million annually in Allen County, with about $1 million going to
McDonald also said allowing counties to keep or eliminate the tax will pit one against the other, thereby undermining the very notion of regional cooperation stressed Wednesday.
But John Sampson, president of the 10-county Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, noted that there is still time to make the bill more palatable to McDonald and other local officials. A meeting was scheduled with McDonald and others later Wednesday to address those concerns, he added.
“There is passionate disagreement on some issues,” Sampson said. “But we stand together on areas of common principles, such as improving our economy. The fact that the area has identified its priorities through the Vision 2020 process, he added, gives legislators a clearer understanding of what their constituents want.
And that, said Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana President Vince Buchanan, produced “phenomenal results” for northeast Indiana in 2014.