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KEVIN LEININGER: City and county officials should get along better than cats and dogs

Most of the inmates at the Allen County Jail are from Fort Wayne, but county government pays the bills. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Nelson Peters
Kevin Leininger

The city of Fort Wayne has been providing animal-care services for the rest of Allen County since 1993, so when the time came to renew the arrangement last month the County Commissioners’ unanimous approval seemed as predictable as a dog wanting to go for a walk.

Instead, the razor-thin 2-1 vote put an ironic spin on the “interlocal cooperation agreement.” But was longtime Commissioner Nelson Peters’ opposition simply a response to the city’s price increase after years of flat fees? Did it demonstrate a lack of city-county cooperation? Was Peters trying, however futilely, to make a point about consistency and fairness?

Maybe even all of the above?

Opinions vary. Of course.

Previously the county paid the city a flat annual fee of $97,844 for the care of stray animals found outside Fort Wayne. Under the new deal, however, variable fees could drive the county’s expense as high as $170,000, so Peters thought it would be only fair to suggest that Fort Wayne reciprocate by reimbursing the county for some of the cost of holding people arrested in Fort Wayne in the county jail. For taxing purposes the city accounts for about 59 percent of the county’s property values but provides more than 80 percent of the jail’s prisoners, he said.

Peters said he at first suggested the county would waive any attempt to collect a “booking fee” from the city if it would agree to cover county costs for animal control and weights and measures inspections. That was rejected but Peters said an annual city jail fee of $156,315 per year, minus some of the county’s animal care and weights and measures costs, would leave the city with an annual balance of about $66,500.

“A booking fee seems appropriate. People are different from animals but the principle is the same,” Peters said. “The city just said, ‘You have to house our prisoners, and if you don’t like it you can build your own (animal shelter).”

But although it may sound logical that the city should have to pay for its prisoners if the county must pay for its animals, the law says otherwise, City Attorney Carol Helton insists.

“These are two very different issues. The Commissioners have a statutory duty to provide a detention facility. Also, it is incorrect to state that city residents are not paying for detaining prisoners since the county levies the same property tax rates on both city and county residents and the public safety allocation of the county’s local income tax is based upon the same tax rate for city and county residents. The city has no obligation to provide animal control services to county residents,” Helton said in a statement. A city-ordered review of Peters’ proposal by the Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller reached a similar conclusion, adding that it could find no statute giving the county authority to impose a “booking fee” on the city.

Peters, however, noted that state law also requires the government unit responsible for the arrest to “retain them in custody until the cause of the arrest has been investigated.”

County officials have been talking about booking fees since at least 2006, when the Commissioners said they would seek a state law giving them that authority — something that might lend credibility to the city’s argument. But, with the cost of the jail, courts police and other forms of criminal justice accounting for about 70 percent of the county’s annual $103 million general fund budget, and with the city accounting for most of that expense, it’s natural the county would question why it should bear so much cost on the human side while the city did not want to do so on the four-legged side.

Still, given the county’s healthy budget status (with cash balances well in excess of $100 million), this is not a battle that needs to be fought right now, even though Peters suggested a fee might deter non-essential arrests. Over the last decade or so there have been many examples of city-county cooperation, on everything from co-locating in Citizens Square to numerous joint economic development efforts. The two governments have gone their separate ways at times, too, such as on bridge maintenance, but the fact that county government is dominated by Republicans and Henry is Democrat should not make it impossible to cooperate — and reciprocate whenever possible.

After all, as Helton noted, city residents are county residents, too.

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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