KEVIN LEININGER: Lack of development near Maplecrest Road is fueling drive for bridge taxes now

The Maplecrest Road extension between Lake Avenue and Indiana 930 has been a transportation success but has failed to generate the expected economic growth -- one reason county officials want to increase bridge taxes. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Darren Vogt
Nelson Peters
Nick Jordan
Kevin Leininger

Eleven years ago next month, Allen County Council by a 6-1 vote approved issuance of a $25 million bond for the extension of Maplecrest Road 1.5 miles south across the Maumee River to Adams Center Road. The lone dissenter was Darren Vogt, who feared the county’s ability to maintain its bridges would be jeopardized if the $55 million project failed to generate the economic growth that would generate the taxes needed to repay the debt.

“My job is to be pessimistic when it comes to (financial) projections,” said Vogt, who left the council after declining to seek re-election in 2014.

But the expected New Haven Wal-Mart never came and other development along the corridor has been spotty at best, meaning the tax increment financing (TIF) district that by this year was expected to provide enough money to cover $1.9 million in annual bond payments is providing little or nothing. That means other county funds must make up the difference.

Vogt, an insurance agent, figures that’s as good an explanation as any as to why County Commissioners last month felt compelled to authorize a property tax of up to $.0224 per $100 of assessed value for bridge maintenance. And that’s not just self-congratulatory hindsight: Even Commissioner Nelson Peters concedes the proposed $.0095 increase per $100 in bridge taxes (offset by money saved on two expiring bonds) would not be necessary had the Maplecrest project’s economic benefits lived up to expectations.

“It was sold as an economic development road, but it takes so long for business to develop” said Vogt, who still believes the fact that it improves public safety by bridging railroad tracks and has exceeded traffic expectations by carrying more than 17,000 vehicles daily fails to justify the expense or risk.

But that, as they say, is water under the bridge. With an estimated $31.4 million needed to maintain bridges in unincorporated Allen County, and other cities and towns (excluding Fort Wayne) over the next eight years, blaming past disappointments for future challenges is not a productive option.

A potential challenge to the tax would be equally shortsighted, and probably futile in any case. Members of the Neighborhoods United Group and County Councilman Robert Armstrong have suggested they may file petitions in opposition to the tax, but Peters said the effort would succeed only if they could prove the commissioners made a procedural error prior to their April 26 vote. “And I’m 99.9 percent certain that didn’t happen,” Peters said. In fact, the commissioners conducted a second public hearing on the tax April 12 because the first was not properly advertised as required by state law.

But what if an appeal is filed and succeeds? Those bridge expenses would still be there, and the $1.9 million generated annually by the current bridge tax is not up to the job. The county could cut its expenses by caring for only its own bridges, Peters said, but that could cause financial hardships for New Haven and other smaller towns (Fort Wayne is already planning to care for its own).

At last month’s County Council meeting, Neighborhoods United representatives urged members to resist any proposal to increase bridge taxes because, with cash reserves in various funds of about $114 million, “We’re either overtaxed or underserved.” John Modezjewski insisted.

Modezjewski has an ally in County Auditor Nick Jordan, at least up to a point. Jordan has identified nearly $5 million from four accounts he believes could be set aside for bridges without affecting county services. Peters said he’s willing to consider at least $2.5 million in transfers, but points out that most of the county’s excess funds are controlled by council, and that millions must be kept in reserve to pay for anticipated projects such as a new Community Corrections facility and as a hedge against an economic downturn.

There’s one other consideration at play here: If the county does not transfer the taxes used to pay off the expiring bonds for bridge use, that money won’t necessarily go back to property owners. Thanks to the state’s tax caps, it could simply be claimed by other taxing units. The county doesn’t really want to give that up — especially when to do so could also cost it $200,000 in annual income taxes.

So for now at least, the best course is for the county to proceed as planned. But Modezjewski is right: Sooner of later, the county should find some constructive use for its excess cash — or allow it to go to someone who can put it to better use. Maybe even the people who earned it in the first place.

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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