Back to the future

For anyone who’s counting, this is the sixth week of the Ballard Administration. That, as Mayor Ballard was eager to remind members of the House Ways and Means Committee last week, is not a lot of time.

But it seems there are some things about being mayor of Indianapolis that are timeless. Like, for example, asking members of the state Legislature for financial aid and being told to forget about it. The political brain must be wired in a way that’s different from the rest of us. It’s apparently set up to believe that history doesn’t count. That’s certainly the impression our new mayor conveyed last week — his fifth week in office, as he kept saying.

It was a Yogi Berra moment: déjà vu all over again. There was Ballard, doing his best Bart Peterson impression, asking state legislators to support the consolidation of local units of government and to pick up the cost of those nasty police and fire pensions. “I’d feel much relieved if this could be done,” he said.

Right. Bart Peterson would also have felt much relieved if the Legislature had done this. In fact, he probably would have been re-elected. But the good representatives of the state of Indiana told the mayor of Indianapolis to get lost. So Peterson, unlike every mayor going back to St. Richard of Lugar, decided to finally get police and fire pensions off the city’s back by increasing local income taxes.

Ouch.

Enter Mayor Ballard, stage right.

Of course, dealing with police and fire pensions was just part of why Peterson raised the income tax. The other part had to do with bolstering the city’s public safety budget. The homicide rate had spiked for two years in a row, the police force was spread thin and the city hadn’t been hiring and training new cops at a decent rate.

Ballard pointed this out. Indeed, the fight against crime was his big issue before taxes came along and made the election a contest between Peterson and anybody who said that taxes were terrible.

Upon taking office all those weeks ago, Ballard stepped up to the plate and said he thought the mayor should be accountable for public safety. He proceeded to engineer a minor coup of sorts by wresting control of the police away from Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson.

This was a sensible, if touchy, move. Anderson is not only a Democrat, he enjoys a state of political grace around here that’s as uncanny as it is difficult to justify. As violent crime accelerated in Marion County, fingers were pointed at everyone except Anderson, who mostly kept his head down and appeared at prayer meetings.

On the same Monday that Ballard testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the City-County Council voted 21-8 to give him his wish and put him in charge of the war on crime. We’ll soon see whether this turns out to be anything more than a bureaucratic shuffle. The number of homicides in 2008 is already double what they were during the same period in 2007. Peterson’s tax increase will give Ballard a budget to work with — money, for instance, to pay a new crop of cops who will be hitting the streets over the next two years — but what else does he have in mind? Will he dare, for example, to call for greater regulations on gun sales?

Ballard told the legislators that the city’s budget contained “fluff.” This was a surprisingly limp-wristed description for a former Marine. Even less encouraging was Ballard’s inability to actually say where this fluff could be found. He asked legislators for patience — that bit about being in office only five weeks again — but this doesn’t wash.

Ballard was running for mayor in May. He’s had almost a year to familiarize himself with the city’s structure and finances. My guess is he’s finding that things have been run pretty close to the bone around here — that any cuts will be felt and seen by citizens almost immediately.

Math is Ballard’s real problem. Having gotten himself elected as the friend of every hot head with an anti-tax For Sale sign in his front yard, he’s finding out what running a city the size of Indianapolis actually costs. This puts him in the awkward position of having to go to an anti-urban Statehouse to say that he supports property tax cuts that will hack tens of millions of dollars from his city’s budget — but that he’d feel “much relieved” if the state would agree to pick up the check for costs he’d rather not tell his constituents about.

Ballard’s been mayor for five, make that six, weeks now. He’s learning fast.

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