NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Big night on the agenda for Fort Wayne City Council, taxpayers

City Council has three items among several on its agenda tonight that we hope, for the benefit of taxpayers, have been given careful consideration prior to voting.

Those particular issues are (1.) the city’s purchase of the North River property; (2.) the “Pay to Play” resolution involving placing limits on campaign contributions by firms doing business with the city, and (3.) considering incentives for a $27 million, 125-room downtown “boutique” hotel.

1. The city has agreed to buy the 29-acre site on the north side of the St. Marys River for $6.3 million from Calhoun Investments LLC, but City Council must agree to have the city assume liability for any contamination remaining from previous industrial uses there, most recently an OmniSource scrap yard. Council delayed last week’s scheduled vote until tonight due to concerns over the possibilities of undetected problems and additional liabilities. And Lutheran Health Network subsequently gave up on plans to relocate St. Joseph Hospital to that site. reported officials have also said no cleanup will occur until the land is purchased and one or more developer is identified. Jason Arp, R-4th, questions why the city would foot the bill for purchase and cleanup rather than letting the market sort it out. But the market has left the property sit unused for years. We think the city should go forward with the purchase and cleanup to spur interest from developers.

2. Councilmen Arp and John Crawford, R-at large, proposed an ordinance at last week’s council meeting for the purpose of reducing the potential influence of campaign contributions on the awarding of city contracts. Arp says between 2011 and this year Mayor Tom Henry received about $980,000 in political contributions from firms that received $128.6 million in direct city payments. Council cast a preliminary 6-3 vote last week in favor of the ordinance that would place limits on campaign contributions made by firms doing business with the city. If the proposal is ratified tonight, it would not prevent firms from contributing to candidates but would merely make them ineligible for city contracts if they exceed the state-imposed annual limit of $2,000 to local officials. Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, called the bill a “solution in search of a problem,” pointing out council has to approve contracts of $100,000 or more and seldom is aware of the contributions of company officials. But we agree with Crawford that the perception of donors influencing city contracts “looks bad and is unseemly,” and the ordinance would change that.

3. reported Friday that Council is expected to consider two incentives for a hotel at Main and Harrison streets planned by Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Baekgaard and Oregon-based Provenance Hotels. One of those incentives is a proposed tax abatement that would reduce taxes on new equipment by $19,200 over seven years and by $3.8 million over 10 years on real estate improvements. Reporter Kevin Leininger wrote that Council will also consider a proposal under which the project would receive $750,000 in county economic development income taxes in annual installments of $125,000 over six years, funds that would be repaid by taxes generated by the project. City Council unanimously approved an ordinance in July to “temper its economic development incentives with fiscal responsibility.” That decision stipulated that to get an abatement for expansion, a business must invest at least $5 million, generate at least 25 percent of its revenue or customer base outside Allen County and to be located in an economic development target area created by council.

Now it’s up to Council to decide whether the abatement would pass muster.