KEVIN LEININGER: Effort to rebuild bridges only partially successful, but public shouldn’t pay the difference

A plan to fund maintenance of bridges in Allen County is being challenged. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
There's nothing left of the old Edsall Avenue Bridge, but that will soon change. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Nelson Peters
John Perlich
Nick Jordan
Kevin Leininger

Forty-two years in journalism have taught me that stories are a lot like icebergs: No matter what the headline says, sometimes the real news is hidden below the surface. A recent news release from the Allen County Commissioners about a possible increase in the tax used to maintain, repair and construct bridges is a classic example.

That’s because, over the past few months, the commissioners quietly have been meeting with representatives from Fort Wayne, New Haven, and other towns in an effort to restore a revenue-sharing agreement that began in 2009 but ended in 2017 when Fort Wayne and New Haven balked at the county’s request for more money and decided they could do a better and more efficient job of maintaining their own bridges than the county’s Highway Department had done.

Another meeting is scheduled for Friday, and Commissioner Nelson Peters said everybody seems to be on board with one major exception: the city of Fort Wayne.

“We’re going to lay out our effort (at the Friday meeting) to make things work. This is a community wide problem and needs a community wide solution,” said Peters, who believes the county can return the funding it needs from the cities and towns to pre-2018 levels because bonds used to fund improvements to the jail and juvenile justice center will be paid off this year, meaning the bond tax rate of $.0095 per every $100 of assessed value could be transferred to the bridge fund instead, providing an additional $1.3 million for bridges every year without the need to increase a bridge tax that currently raises $1.9 million annually on a tax rate of $.0129. Peters believes repurposing the jail bond payments, along with what the county will receive in wheel tax reimbursements from the various cities and towns, would be enough to do the job without an overall tax increase.

The job is a big one. About $54.2 million will be needed over each of he next eight years for bridge maintenance, including $25.3 million in unincorporated Allen County (270 bridges), $23 million in Fort Wayne (96 bridges) and $4.5 million in New Haven, which has 17 bridges. Historically the county cared for all but state or federal bridges, but in 2003 County Council responded to a tight budget by eliminating a property-tax supported bridge fund, making $728,000 available for other purposes. That made less money available for bridges, however, and six years later the county stopped maintaining spans of less than 200 feet in all but the unincorporated areas. That in turned sparked the 2009 agreement that saw the county double its wheel tax in return for a pledge from Fort Wayne, New Haven and other towns to a portion of the additional cash to the county to cover bridge-related costs.

But the agreement began to unravel in June 2016 when City Council passed its own wheel tax of $20 per car and more or less for other vehicles, generating an estimated $4.8 million per year. Three months later County Council extended its wheel tax to 2029, and an increase in state gas taxes and city council’s decision that July to increase local income taxes by 0.15 percent generated an additional $9.6 million annually for the city, about $2.8 million for the county and $562,000 for New Haven.

So when the county in 2017 suggested the city increase its annual bridge payment from $1.35 million to $2.7 million and New Haven from $70,000 to nearly $470,000 — an increase county officials insisted reflected real-world needs — Fort Wayne and New Haven balked.

This year the city intends to spend more than $2.5 million on bridges on Stonehedge Boulevard near Canterbury Green apartments and on State Boulevard and Edsall Avenue, but if the city really could revert to the revenue-sharing deal as it existed prior to 2018, why wouldn’t it? Allen is the only county in Indiana not solely responsible for the local bridges within its borders.

“One of the advantages . . . is that we can cash flow them over multiple fiscal years,” city spokesman John Perlich said. “We have invested in staff, equipment, and training for staff and have a multi-year plan . . . (providing) more autonomy to prioritize projects and ensure that bridge repairs and maintenance get done in a timely manner.” Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer pointed out that the county lists just 61 of the city’s 96 bridges as possibly needing rehabilitation through 2026, “leaving 36.5 percent of its spans unaccounted and unbudgeted for.”

But Peters said there was no need for the county to include bridges that shouldn’t need repairs and questioned whether the city’s independence is really in the public’s best interest. “The city took two of the county’s bridge guys. Do you think they could duplicate something (the county was already doing) and get it done cheaper?” he asked.

County Auditor Nick Jordan said the Commissioners should consider something else before they even think about increasing taxes: the county’s steadily growing cash balance that now stands at more than $114 million. Peters said much of that money is already spoken for or should be reserved for anticipated large projects, and even Jordan admits the reserves cannot be a long-term solution to bridge needs. “But I believe we should spend some of these balances down if repairs are needed before we seek more from the coffers of the taxpayers,”Jordan said.

A truly titanic idea.

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.

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