Indy Works Faces Long Odds to Reform Government
If the Indianapolis Works program goes through as proposed by Mayor Bart Peterson, Tom Marendt will be out of a job. Marendt is in his third term as Warren Township trustee, as well as the president of the Marion County Township Trustee's Association and a vocal critic of the Indy Works plan. His is one of the 63 elected positionsthat will be done away with under the plan. The Warren Township Government Center is a sprawling complex, including thesmall claims court,assessor's office, fire-fighter training and conference rooms,the trustee's office itself, where emergency assistance claims are processed, and a large central conference room.
Marendt's day generally startsat 7 a.m., touching base with all the offices in the building, starting with the Fire Department. Sometimes he gets called in the middle of the night if there's a major fire. He said he drives around the township at least once a day to see what's going on and what's changed; attends neighborhood association meetings and, more recently, state-house meetings to discuss changes. In the midst of all that, he oversees the general running of the township and hears complaints and appeals.
One of the most important elements of the township trustee's job is emergency assistance, what used to be known as poor relief. And when that program can'thelp, they connect with other out-reach services such as churches.
"It's temporary assistance to a family or an individual where something has happened in their life that was not their creation, and they need some sort of assistance. It could be rent, it could be utilities, it could be food, it could be clothing... It's very difficult, very emotional. There are some very sad stories."
Marendt pointed to the small claims court as an example ofthe usefulness of township government, by relieving the caseload of Marion County courts and making the system convenient for the people.
"It's local, you don't have to go downtown, there's no problem with accessibility or parking," Marendt said. "We're right here where people work and live. It's a much more convenient place to address issues."
Marendt and the MCTTA said that they take issue with the accounting on the $35 million savings stated in the mayor's plan. According to Marendt, the numbers don't add up on issues such as the differing levels of ambulance and fire staffing, the price costs for a township ambulance run versus a Wishard run and the matter of the unfunded police and fire pensions.
He also doesn't see a need for the community centers proposed in Indy Works, not when they're replacing a system that's been inplace since the 1840s.
"When we've both been at neighborhood association meetings talking and he will refer to these neighborhood offices, I'll say, 'Mr. Mayor, we ARE the neigh-borhood offices. We're already there. That's what we do.' The question is now, do the services that are provided come under a trustee or the mayor of Indianapolis? That's really one of the issues and components of Indy Works that people should look at. We're already here. We're already established, and from our perspective it's just reinventing the wheel."
Marendt said the trustees have presented a number of alternate plans to save money and preserve police and firefighter pensions,including extending the township fire services into Indianapolis Fire Department territory at a lower cost, which they say will save $20 million, and/or a small downtown entertainment tax.
"It just seems it's an easy fix,because they have so much opportunity when people are downtown,"he said. "A very small tax that generates tons of money for public safety is a better idea than property taxes... But the city has no interest in discussing this with us.
"Marendt said he isn't against change but does not believe this is the way.
"If a plan is out there that would do away with my position, so be it," Marendt said. "All I ask is that it address those three key issues - accountability, accessibility and lower costs - and I don't think Indy Works addresses that at all. Doing away with township government is not the best way to do it. It should be the last way."
Mayor Peterson's realization
Mayor Bart Peterson knew Indianapolis' budget was eventually going to grow out of control. As early as his 2000 budget meetings, the specter of disaster loomed, and it became clear that by 2006 Indianapolis would no longer be fiscally solvent without massive service cuts, layoffs and tax hikes.
"This is one of those rare instances I can tell you the exact moment it started: Dec. 9, 2003,"Peterson said recently. "Things had been getting to the point in the city-county budget where it became obvious to me we were going to have to have a substantial tax increase just to be able to stay even. I was thinking about that and sort of feeling a little sorry for myself, and then I was driving home on Dec. 9. I remember the date because I thought to myself, 'This is the day I changed my mind on merging the Police Department and sheriff, so it might be historic.
'"The impetus came from an article Peterson read about Louisville's Unigov-style system, which included a police/sheriff merger. According to Peterson, the article noted that, "In Louisville, they were able to do in two months something Indianapolis hasn't been able to do in 33 years. And I always said it would never happen, and the reason is no mayor will ever give up IPD [Indianapolis Police Department] and no sheriff will ever give up the Sheriff's Department. But [Louisville] figured it out.
"I thought of a hundred reasons it couldn't work. I decided, maybe if I started thinking about how it could work instead of reasons it couldn't work, maybe we could do it. I said, 'What if we took a look at really completing Unigov?' Let's look at police merger, fire merger, eliminating some of the overlapping layers of government. Could we do something that might benefit the city in a lot of different ways, not just financially? I asked a very small group of my staff if they thought I was crazy,and they all had a very positive reaction to it, almost as if they'd been thinking of it all along themselves.
"After Peterson's State of the City speech in February 2004, his staff and other agencies conducted a comprehensive eight-month review of government operations, staffing and logistics. On Aug. 2, 2004, they presented the full proposal of the most ambitious local government reform since the original Unigov: Indianapolis Works.
The hearing chambers of the Local Government Committee of the state House of Representatives were the site of nearly nine hours of contentious testimony and public statements by both sides of the Indy Works issue in February. Both sessions were held before a packed auditorium of supporters and opponents, and overseen by committee Chair Rep. Phil Hinkle, a Republican from Indianapolis.
Peterson painted a grim picture for the committee of what Indianapolis faces without the savings he says his plan offers.
"If we do not have Indy Works, we will see layoffs of police and firemen. We will see the hours cut back in our parks, we will see some of our parks close, we will see fewer miles of roads paved, "Peterson said. "There's no other way around it, no matter how you slice it. You will be paying more for the services we have. For the past 20 years we have used duct tape and bailing wire to hold this city together. I'm here to tell you that we have run out of duct tape. We need a structural change. And it will seem familiar because it is nothing short of completing Unigov.
"At a moment's notice Peterson can rattle off a list of cities where turf wars and urban/suburban conflict have led to economic chaos, tax hikes and layoffs:Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland.
"We have seen the path where the city and the suburb divorced each other, went to war with each other, rather than all for one and one for all," Peterson told the committee. "That leads to the urban death spiral that so many cities have seen. It is not solely because of poor elected officials. It is because of structural problems in those big cities. They are small core cities, land locked, who never had the vision to do what [Unigov founders] had the vision to do in Indianapolis, and they're paying the price today. We are not asking for a handout. We are just asking you to let us help ourselves."
Show me the money
The budgetary process and financial numbers were vetted by Bill Sheldrake, of Policy Analytics LLC, who gave the committee a strong recommendation in favor of Indy Works.
"In my 22 years of working withstate and local government in Indiana, I have not seen any more detailed and thorough accounting of expenditures and revenues than in the Indy Works proposal, "Sheldrake said. "The city has chosen to go in the correct economic direction. The plan avoids heroic predictions. The plan bases its analysis on known data of 2004 and 2005 budgets while leaving predictions of economic change alone. If the plan can be shown to be sound on current-year data, it can be expected to do so in future years.
"Rep. Hinkle asked Sheldrake if he believed the $35 million savings were reasonable expectations. "I think the direction they're going in provides for more savings in the future," Sheldrake said. "They've chosen not to predict larger savings in three to five years. These are conservative estimates of savings in my opinion."
The biggest expected savings are in the merger of township Fire Departments and Indianapolis Fire Department, which is estimated at $22.7 million. These savings come from 113 positions that will be cutt through attrition when the current holders of those positions retire.
"We know exactly when these 100-plus firefighters are going to retire, and it's going to be mostly the end of this year and next year," said A. Scott Chinn, counsel to the Mayor's Office and the project manager of Indianapolis Works. "There are absolutely no layoffs in fire."
The savings due to the merger of Police and Sheriff's Departments are estimated by the proposal at $9.7 million, though police representatives dispute this figure. Most of the savings are expected to come through administrative streamling and the merging of equipmentand resources. No layoffs of police or sheriff's deputies are proposed. It is noted, though, that the merger would eliminate an expected need to hire 250 more deputies at a cost of $20 million per year.
Public safety merger
The merging of Fire Departments has been sold relatively smoothly to firefighters, with 87 percent of the firefighters union voting to endorse Indy Works. Quite the opposite was true with the police/sheriff's merger, which received 97 percent opposition in a vote by the Fraternal Order of Police in January.
IPD Sgt. Vince Huber, president of the local FOP lodge, said that he was given very little notice about the announcement of Indianapolis Works and that the FOP was shut out of the planning process.
"I had several questions and they were unanswered," Huber said. "I was advised to read about it in the next day's Indianapolis Star. Since Aug. 2, I made repeated requests to the mayor for information
and was rebuffed."
Numerous communications hurdles took place over the course of several months, which both sides attribute to the other. Finally, Huber and Peterson met again Feb. 3 and made some headway. "We agreed to disagree," Huber said. "The mayor and I committed to work together on the complicated issues regarding the merger."
Huber said that the FOP's opposition is based on three issues: public safety,
effectiveness and efficiency.
"Public safety for persons in the old city limits has just been decreased," Huber told the House Local Government Committee. "Officer safety has just been compromised. Subjecting citizens and officers to decreased safety is unacceptable. With or without a squiggly line, you have the same
amount of officers and citizens and criminals that require attention."
Marion County assessor
If Indianapolis Works goes through as currently proposed, Joan Romeril says she will be doing the work of 10 people.
Romeril is the Marion County assessor, and under Indy Works the nine separate
Township Assessor's Offices will be eliminated and brought under her control.
Her current rubric is to oversee assessment appeals; currently she and her staff of 11 are still working on the 11,000 appeals that resulted from the most recent reassessment. Indy Works would place her in charge of all assessments in Marion County.
"I would go from being one of the 10 most hated people in the county to THE most hated person in the county," she notes wryly.
Dark humor aside, she said she has serious concerns about the logistics and
details of such a massive overhaul. "No one has told me what the budget would be, what staffing levels would be, what my salary would be for taking on this kind of a project," she said. "I've only had one conversation with the mayor's staff since this all came out, and it was really only after I insisted that they meet with me to determine how they saw this plan working. When I brought up some of these issues, they had no answers for me ... I have no details on how this is to run. It's like sending someone to the moon and not telling them how to get there."
Romeril said that the numbers from the Mayor's Office compared assessment costs with comparable cities such as Minnesota, but that it's not a valid comparison because the methods and requirements differ.
"In the process the mayor had come up with a cost per parcel based on statistics, but they're not comparing apples to apples," she said. She also doesn't see any savings in unifying the process, since staffing and overhead costs would remain the same.
She's also concerned about a potential conflict of interest if her appeals tasks are combined with assessments.
"If we are in charge of those appeals and in charge of the assessment, it's a little difficult to have that differentiated, meaning that it's kind of hard for us to decide an appeal of an assessment that we've done."
Romeril said she does see one advantage in bringing it all under one roof. "Now, the one thing, the only plus I could see, is that it would be a uniform assessment," she said. "Everyone would do it the same way. Because you've only got one person telling them how to do it."
The other major lightning rod in the Indianapolis Works proposal has been the virtual elimination of township government.
Candy Marendt (spouse of Tom Marendt), spokesperson for the Marion County Township Trustees Association, made the argument to the Local Government Committee that Indianapolis Works did not present a better option.
She took particular aim at the plan's elimination of 63 elected positions in the nine townships. "Within the last week, in Iraq, they absolutely celebrated the fact that they were able to vote for elected officials of their choice," Marendt said in February. "The Indianapolis Star had a headline: 'This is democracy.' Yet this very proposal proudly proclaimed that they are going to do away with 63 elected officials. I find that almost shameful."
Chinn countered that this was a necessary effect of the streamlining process.
"If it's a bad thing for democracy to lose 63 positions net, by that logic it would be a great thing to add 200 more,"Chinn said. "Well, I don't think there's anyone in the country who thinks we need MORE elected officials."
Marendt and township officials expressed concern that this would be the beginning of a domino effect diminishing the role of townships across the state.
"I've been working very hard to dispel this notion," Peterson said. "I'm trying to tell people, 'This is not a proposal that is even applicable to any or all other cities in the state.' Indianapolis is unique in a couple of ways. We're the only county where every square inch of our county is incorporated. The traditional role of townships is different here in Indianapolis. This is just about Marion County. This does not affect other counties in Indiana."
Lawrence Township Assessor Paul Ricketts said that the plan both dilutes the voice of township residents and the advantage of government close to the people.
"It has been true throughout the years that taxation without representation is not a good concept," Ricketts said. "If you have someone on the south side who becomes county assessor, they might not know the specific environment of the north side that affects assessments. Yes, they can hire staff, but I think people would prefer having someone close by that they can talk to."
Chinn replied that the proposal allowed the chance to reassess and relocate community centers.
"Most of the offices that are currently out there are more or less in the center of the townships, whether or not it's closest to the people," Chinn said. "We're actually advocating government closer to the people."
Marendt also presented an alternate view of the financial situation, stating
that Indianapolis Works would result in a $34 million property tax increase, with
the bulk of the burden falling on the areas outside Indianapolis Fire Department, and an additional $11.4 million cost in credits.
Chinn responded that the methodology of their numbers was flawed, and
pointed again to Bill Sheldrake and Policy Analytic's reputation and backing of the mayor's proposal. "We had a very public vetting of the numbers with an esteemed individual on both sides of the political spectrum," Chinn said.
A treacherous political precipice
Indy Works, like Unigov, must survive this contentious political landscape, garnering passage by both the Indiana House and Senate, winning the governor's signature and the approval of the City-County Council. Further complicating matters is that this landscape is dominated by Republicans - and the mayor is a Democrat.
"Anytime you want to change something, that's difficult," Peterson said. "And there is great resistance to change. You're going to have that problem no matter what. Same thing with Unigov. There was massive opposition to that. People think it was easy because Republicans controlled everything. But it was not easy. It was highly controversial."
But backers of the proposal believe that it can receive support on both sides of the aisle.
"I think it's got a lot of appeal to a Republican-controlled Legislature, because it's about smaller, smarter government, and it's about lower taxes," Peterson said. "There's a lot of logic to it. And we're not going to them asking for anything. We're saying, we don't need any help from you, we just want you to help us help ourselves. Amend the existing Unigov law, which won't cost you a penny."
And indeed, Gov. Mitch Daniels hasspoken up numerous times in favor of
Indy Works. "We want to encourage local government to manage their own taxing and spending decisions," Daniels said. "I applaud what [Peterson is] trying to put forward. I've been trying to encourage localities, and school districts for that matter, to come forward with creative and innovative ways to save and spend tax dollars more responsibly."
Daniels said that he wasn't sure if Indy Works itself was a viable idea, but that it
fit his philosophy of empowering local government autonomy and is an experiment worth undertaking. Thus, he has been encouraging Republican lawmakers to support Indy Works in the Legislature.
"I don't know if the plan holds water. But I believe it's up to the localities to
make their own mistakes, or not make them," Daniels said. "In theory, decisions close to home are easier for a free citizenry to control. Their voice can be heard in a local forum. If you don't like what a mayor is doing, he can be held responsible and removed from his job. The place that breaks down is precisely where accountability is not clear. I was talking recently with some businessmen in Lake County, and they said one of the differences between there and Marion County is you don't know who to talk to. The Mayor's Office points to the County Assessor's Office who points to the Auditor's Office who points you back to the mayor. There's 20 or 30 different entities responsible for certain things, and as a result no one is accountable. Indianapolis has consolidated government, which allows for more accountability ... I think Unigov as it is stands as a pretty good model [of local autonomy]."
Nonetheless, at this moment, the Indianapolis Works plan teeters on a political precipice. Twice now it has narrowly escaped being wiped out in the turmoil of legislative gamesmanship. First, at the urging of Rep. Phil Hinkle, it was gutted and replaced with the formation of a study group to research the numbers and issues further.
"After eight and a half hours of testimony in front of this committee, these questions were still not answered," Hinkle said at the time. "It was apparent to me that there was little discussion or input from the various entities affected ... This problem did not develop overnight. It is unfortunate that the administration feels the legislation should take the responsibility and apply the cure overnight."
The next week the bill was washed away completely when House Democrats walked out and brought all business to a halt. But then Republican leadership added Indy Works to its list of 40 fasttrack issues they aimed to preserve.
By April 29 the legislative session will be complete, assuming there is no special
session (which is certainly not a given). And just about the only thing everyone agrees on is that this political football will be in the air right up until the final hours.
For his part, Peterson said that the budget problems require immediate action.
"I will keep up the fight right down to the last minute of the legislative session, to make sure people know what Indianapolis Works is all about, and to understand the issues," he said. "We need it passed this session in order to add it to our budget for next year. If this isn't passed, on May 1 we begin severe budget austerity measures."
Hinkle agreed that the process remains wide open.
"Anything can happen between now and April ," Hinkle said. "Absolutely nothing is final until you hear that gavel fall down."
Like the mayor, Chinn believes that the only options remaining are Indianapolis Works or the nightmare scenario of police and fire layoffs, tax hikes and service cuts.
"That's how critical this is," Chinn said. "It's an up or down vote on the financial
health and success of Indianapolis over the next many years."
Indy Works received its most recent lease on life late last week when the
House Local Government Committee voted to add the majority of the plan as an
amendment to senate Bill 638.
Peterson wonders, "How do you tell people what the truth is and have it not
sound like a threat? But it's a reality. All you need is five minutes with our books and you'll see that's the way it is."