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Posted on Tue. Jan. 06, 2015 - 12:01 am EDT


Councilman is right: Piecemeal approach to Legacy could threaten larger, more worthwhile projects

Jehl suggests failure to plan could threaten riverfront development

A new pedestrian bridge spans the proposed promenade in a preliminary plan to develop riverbanks in downtown Fort Wayne. A final plan could be released this month and would require millions of dollars to implement -- much of which could come from the city's Legacy fund. (Rendering courtesy of SWA Group)
Russ Jehl
Lisa Olinger
Kevin Leininger
Click on image to view.
As early as this month, consultants will release their grand vision for the development of the riverbanks in downtown Fort Wayne. The city's Legacy fund paid for the $500,000 study and is expected to provide millions more for its implementation.
If there's enough left in the account by then, that is.
OK, that dire possibility is mostly rhetorical, since a politician as savvy as Mayor Tom Henry will surely keep enough in reserve to fund what is likely to be the signature project of this re-election year and, possibly, of his entire administration. Even so, City Councilman Russ Jehl has done the city and even Henry a service by questioning whether so many small proposals have been approved or submitted that larger "transformational" projects -- supposedly the Legacy program's priority -- may be downsized or jeopardized by a lack of funds.
"There's always the opportunity to spend money than there is actual dollars. The Legacy fund is in trouble, even if we don't realize it yet.yet. Most describe it as a wonderful inheritance . . . but I will not spend the inheritance without a plan. I want to pass on a lasting legacy, not regrets, to my children and yours," said Jehl, R-2nd, a fiscal conservative who plans to submit an editorial to local newspapers calling on Mayor Tom Henry's administration to more clearly define the mission and possible uses of the fund created through the sale of the former City Light electric utility.
With the release of the riverfront study, Jehl's timing is impeccable because one of his stated goals is to assure enough funding to do the job right -- a goal undermined every time Legacy dollars are diverted to projects that simply don't measure up or would be funded without or without the city's help.
Simply put, Jehl fears Legacy is in danger of being overextended. About $30 million in expenditures have been approved, he said, leaving a cash balance of $40 million and another $25 million in payments expected over the next decade. The city also wants to protect the original $30 million corpus, but millions of dollars have been set aside to guarantee payment of city-issued bonds if necessary.
"The promise that has most unified the city and created excitement is riverfront development, and if done right the project could cost more than the entire Legacy fund's balance," Jehl stated. "As I see it, the only way we can fulfill these promises through Legacy dollars is to turn them into down payments for leveraged projects (through bonding), turning this asset into a liability. We will have to spend the fund to borrow larger sums. This is sobering."
Jehl does not necessarily oppose using Legacy funds to repay bonds, but said that approach should be thoroughly debated and understood by the public and members of City Council -- six of whom must approve the use of Legacy dollars.
Of particular concern to Jehl is the piecemeal approach that has marked Legacy projects to date: $1.7 million to defray unexpected snow-removal costs last winter, $300,000 to attract air service to the East Coast, $200,000 to study high-speed rail. Those and other recipients were worthwhile projects, as are pending requests from the World Baseball Academy and a research facility planned at Parkview Hospital's Randallia Campus. But there's no way the proposed baseball facility is "transformative," and Parkview has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank and doesn't need Legacy's help.
Even the Fort Wayne Community Schools, with a taxpayer-funded budget of $281 million, says it may seek Legacy's help in creating a "student and family resource center" costing up to $2.5 million. As outgoing board member Lisa Olinger noted, the district in 2012 received voter approval for a $119 million tax increase to pay for building upgrades and may seek another increase in the future. "We're telling our constituents we need money to renovate our buildings," she said.
Should Legacy really be used to relieve the schools of some of that burden?
What's done is done, but it would be wise for city officials to put a moratorium on additional Legacy projects until riverfront needs are identified and a commitment made. Without that and an estimate of bonding needs, Jehl said, "I will continue to assume that the Legacy fund is under duress and will be very conservative in approving others proposals." Even the Legacy review committee created in October isn't enough, he said, because "we are receiving monthly requests for millions of dollars."
Jehl is just one of nine votes, but he's hardly the only fiscally conservative member of the GOP-dominated council. This being an election year, members of both parties, and the public, would be well-served by doing what Jehl suggests: Think big.

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 or call him at 461-8355.


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