News-Sentinel Editorial: Bridge tax an example of city, county inefficiency

It’s disappointing that the city of Fort Wayne and Allen County can’t cooperate better on maintaining the county’s bridges. It’s an example of the kind of bureaucratic inefficiency that should really frustrate taxpayers, particularly those living in Fort Wayne.

Allen County is looking at options to fund what it says is approximately $31 million in needed bridge maintenance over the next seven years. The county has proposed renewing an interlocal agreement with communities in the county in which the communities share a portion of their wheel tax revenue with the county to fund bridge maintenance. The county would administer the program.

Such an agreement was in place until expiring in 2017.

But the city of Fort Wayne ( as well as New Haven) has decided it would be better off handling bridge maintenance on its own. Fort Wayne Public Works Director Shan Gunawardena told the City Council last week that city officials believe that maintaining the city’s bridges independent of the county is more efficient for the city and will allow the city to address bridges according to its priorities, not the county’s.

County officials identified only 61 of Fort Wayne’s 96 bridges as needing rehabilitation, leaving 35 of the city’s bridges unaccounted for, Gunawardena told the council. And Gunawardena also criticized the county for not having an adequate preventive maintenance plan for the bridges.

Without all of the communities participating in the interlocal agreement, the county estimates it will be $1.8 million short of what will be needed to address all of the bridges and is weighing increasing taxes to fund the shortfall.

One idea the county pitched is to repurpose the Juvenile Justice Center bond, which will be paid off this year, and a bond for the Allen County Jail that will be paid off in 2020, to use for bridge improvements. That would allow the county to raise the bridge tax rate to 0.0224, and still keep residents’ tax burden the same.

Another option is to increase the rate to 0.0333, the maximum allowed by state statute. Such a tax rate would cost residents about $9 per $100,000 in value per year.

The cost isn’t terribly burdensome, although you couldn’t tell that by the crowd that showed up at a county commissioners meeting last week to oppose the proposed rate hike.

What is particularly frustrating for residents of Fort Wayne, is that they now are on the hook for both the county and the city bridge taxes. More than 70 percent of the county’s residents live in Fort Wayne.

City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2, made that clear at a meeting last week.

“Unless I misunderstood the administration, what I’m hearing is (the administration) is comfortable with double taxation for the bridges,” Jehl said. “We’ll let the county go ahead and do the bridge tax, the city taxpayers will pay for it. Then we’ll come through and continue to collect additional tax revenue from the same taxpayers for the bridges.”

Jehl is right. It’s hard to believe that maintaining separate bridge departments is the most efficient way forward. Surely, the county and city can do better by the taxpayers they share.