Budget Hearings: An “Absurd” Proposal

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Ok, what was that movie with Demi Moore and Robert Redford? Oh wait, that was “An Indecent Proposal”. Ok, so I was off by one word – but if you think about it, that still would have worked as an alternate title for the movie as well. Trust me, the City Council version was way better, although some buttered popcorn and stadium seating would have made the experience better. I digress.

In my continuing review of the budget hearings over the month of October, here’s another installment in that epic novel. I think this is working out nicely – this two week hiatus without budget meetings while we get the elections and Veteran’s Day out of the way. First a bit of history to refresh our memory.

In the October 14th 2008 Fort Wayne City Council Budget Hearing, Councilman Tim Pape made a suggestion that the City turn over it’s 9-1-1 Communications Center to the County. He stated, “I’m wondering if we can just do what the County did with the bridges, and say we can’t afford it any more…” I’ll let you read the post for yourself – but here’s the audio clip:

[audio:https://aroundfortwayne.com/audio/2008_10_14_Pape_911.mp3]

Download this audio clip

Be warned that at the 2:23 mark in the recording, it will almost seem that Councilman Pape responds immediately to Councilwoman Liz Brown’s comments. Some time and discussion had elapsed so the extraneous was edited out of my recording.

Let’s go forward from the Tuesday to the next Tuesday, the 21st, during what was supposed to be the final budget hearing. Councilman Pape proposed cutting the entire Communications Department budget ($6,827,364). This would have forced the County to take over and consolidate 9-1-1 operations for the entire county. Consolidation discussions have taken place for years between the City and County.

[audio:https://aroundfortwayne.com/audio/2008_10_28_City_Council_Budget_Communications.mp3]

Download this audio clip

During his introduction of the proposed budget cut, Pape stated that the idea that the Sheriff should take over the 9-1-1 call volume, which Pape stated is about 5 times the amount the County currently handles, was absurd. The very complexity of the systems and calls and numbers involved would suggest that the City would better be equipped to take over the entire Communications Department – not the County.

He further went on to say that he arrived at the “absurdity” of proposing the cut because of two factors. The first being:

It’s not providing as high level of safety for citizens as it could. Right now in this community we are risking loss of life, greater injury, because we have two communication departments instead of one. And yet, for years and years and years, nothing is done about it. And all this is, is I’m getting into the logic of the absurd and accepting it. So I’ve got an absurd proposal here, because allowing that situation to occur, pretending, like when you take the oath of office, pretending that you’re serious about it, any of us – any of the leadership of the community – and still allowing it to occur, it is so easily fixed. There have been more than just Ms. Taviano’s plan, which is very smart and the most detailed, Steve York had a plan for combining the departments – consistently rejected.

The second factor:

There’s significant cost savings – somewhere between a half million and three quarters of a million dollars. Again, isn’t it absurd that we’re sitting here haggling over whether we’re going to cut the Mayor’s PR budget and the $15,000 allocation to $8,000 or $10… – isn’t it absurd when we have the ability – we’ve had the ability for years to combine these departments and save maybe three quarters of a million dollars – and provide better public safety?

The other thing that has led me to this, is that there is a new level of absurdity in leadership. And that is, the County Government saying it’s going to pass on to municipalities the responsibility for bridges. After…from the time the State was founded in 1816 until now the counties have covered the bridges. And instead, leadership several years ago had a dedicated fund to pay for those bridges so made…why? Why do we have a dedicated fund? Because if you don’t take care of the bridges, you endanger the citizenry. They didn’t cut that revenue source, they got rid of the revenue stream that was dedicated to bridges and they spent it elsewhere, and they let the bridges go.

Now I’ve got a document that shows we have millions of dollars of bridge work, the phrase that the County used was, “needed”, that have gone undone in ’07 and ’08. So only thing that I have in my hand that I can know, is that we have some unsafe bridges because of this. And the answer by County leadership has been to pass that responsibility to the municipalities, in spite of the fact that they have the ability to raise revenue to bridge the difference, pun intended, of the shortfall of the revenue and pay for at least some of those inspections.

Then the leadership absurdity extends and they say, well we won’t raise this new revenue, unless you who have no responsibility for us, ask us to raise it. Now many of leadership of the County are good honest, diligent, earnest, purposeful, and have done an amazing job in their leadership positions – not all, but many. But they’re in this theatre of the absurd themselves. And so, they’ve somehow convinced themselves that this is something that passes for leadership, that passes for meeting their oath of office – I don’t.

We have tried on this City Council, for years, to break down the wall in Communications. They Mayor’s tried, the Chief of Police has tried – and many on the County Council have tried. We’ve had joint sessions – and we have no tools left other than money. We have no tools left – nobody’s willing to be embarrassed by the fact this goes on, no one has got enough commitment to public safety to say enough is enough and let’s put aside self-interest, let’s put aside ego – let’s make this a priority and get it done. And so, I came up with the really poor idea otherwise to eliminate this City’s Communications Department and force – and he would be forced – the Sheriff and County to provide communications. And I don’t think they’ll do it overall as well, in fact I’m sure they won’t, but I think they’ll eventually get there and I know that in the end – and this is the absurdity – we’ll have less expenses and we’ll have better communications.

So that is my reasoning behind this and it’s the only thing left to Council, so if this fails, then I’ve failed and I won’t say another word about 9-1-1 Communications, because there’s nothing else for Council to do. This is the only authority and power we have. Maybe if we do this, the Mayor will veto the budget, and maybe it will force between now and January 1st, maybe it will force the leadership that can do something about it, to really come together and answer this critical, critical public safety problem.

Councilman Glynn Hines stated that when the idea of tearing the glass wall between City and Communications Department out and merging the two departments was first proposed, he thought it should have been the one of the easiest things to do. With up-front savings, improvement in public safety, he felt, “This should be! It should happen. Lo and Behold, ten years later, it still hasn’t happened.”

He went on to express appreciation to Tina Taviano, Fort Wayne Communications Director, for the job she has been doing. He backed up Pape’s comments and added that the County Council had the audacity to suggest the City cut 4% [Sic. 3%] from it’s Budget. (link to audio of 10/21/2008 Pape file). He suggested cutting the Communications Department from the City Budget would satisfy that request. He finished by saying that if the cut didn’t pass this evening, it would definitely be on the table for 2010 Budget discussions.

Councilman Tom Smith called the proposal a,

…shot across the bow to all people who are interested in Communications, that the City Council is saying this won’t stand by next year. That we will make this cut and something needs to be arrived at, to resolve this problem. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…because if we were to cut this department out right now, we’ve got what, two months to set up a new communications department, to work out all the personnel problems? So, I understand, Tim, what you’re doing and I appreciate that, and I think we’re delivering a fair message.

Tim responded that the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building, had been built in five months and when needed, you can do great things. He felt if you put enough genius and sweat into it, this could be done in two months.

Councilman Mitch Harper stated:

I’m going to support Mr. Pape’s amendment. It’s time to focus the attention of the executives of both the County and City. This is dynamic, disarming, it’s dramatic leadership – because we can only do something as a Council that the executives bring to us, an agreement that they’ve worked out. […] They’re not gonna bring this before the fiscal bodies of the County or the City to get done, unless something dramatic is done.

[…] Absurd? Maybe not. This is a very serious issue and sometimes you have to do the dramatic, you have to force their hand and I think it’s time to say enough is enough. […] But it certainly would concentrate their thinking and I think get the executives for both the City and the County together to actually deal with this, so I’m for it. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to do something dramatic. And, I’m going to support Mr. Pape’s motion.

Councilman Didier supported the idea and proposal. He concurred that it’s time to do something rather than mess around with it further.

By this time, you could have heard a pin drop in the Council Chambers. It was one of those moments which this Council is becoming famous for, when you could literally cut the air with a knife, the tension was that palpable. I hate to write in clichés, but it was absolutely true at this point.

Then Councilman Bender, also a Deputy Chief for the Fort Wayne Police Department, stated in a very quiet, measured voice:

Our communications system is the backbone of public safety in this entire system and County. To even contemplate getting rid of that department is sentencing people to death out there. It sounds a little absurd, but that’s the honest to God truth. They are quality people, they’ve got quality equipment, they’re very professional and I think they’re relatively close to an agreement…

[At this point, Bender looked toward Ms. Taviano for confirmation, to which she responded, “Yes, Sir.”]

So, I don’t think this discussion is going much further than it has right now. It is a very sensitive part of public safety.

And with that, Bender quietly, yet forcefully reminded the Council that their actions tonight would not only affect budget numbers, but lives and property in the community.

Smith then asked for a motion to cut the entire Communications Department from the budget. Councilman Hines acquiesced and it was promptly seconded by Pape and Harper. Smith then called on Ms. Taviano for further discussion, which again:

Well, first of all, I don’t disagree with some of your comments, and to be correct in the initial statement, that budget also includes the radio shop and Police Department Records Division, so that’s not just Communications when you’re looking at that total dollar amount. The part I will also agree with and say, is we’re very much concerned about public safety and I’ll be the first one to say it, it’s time to put the political aspects of this aside and use professional business principles to make this happen the way that it should happen.

I will tell you tonight, to inform you that there has been some conclusion made to a proposal that is going to be presented in a meeting tomorrow with [Allen County] Commissioners and the Mayor. So when Councilman Bender says, ‘is it close?’ I would say that there’s been some consensus, I hope that there is enough driving force that tomorrow we do reach consensus and agreement that saves public dollars, maintains the level of efficiencies and staffing required to provide the best public safety service to all of Allen County, residents of the City and jurisdictions as well. I’m confident that the information we’ve put together will do that. I’d say if it doesn’t happen in a year, then have at it.

Councilman Pape pointed out that there had been statements about cooperation before. “This doesn’t convince me of anything.” He went on to suggest tabling the proposed cut and budget to allow the possibility of cutting the department to give leverage to the consolidation talks.

Councilwoman Karen Goldner stated:

This is very frustrating for all of us at the table because we are in a situation where within five minutes we won’t have a Communications Department for the City – where we’ll have serious health and safety concerns, and certainly at some point loss of life.

Whereas a deferral of bridge maintenance, as the County chose to do, doesn’t have that immediate impact [like this would], although certainly over time it does. I would be willing to support a motion that says that we would fund Communications in 2009, but I think send a very clear signal to the Administration and to the County and specifically the Sheriff, I guess, that we don’t intend to do it in 2010. Because there’s no way that this can be transferred in two months, I mean that is simply not possible. I’m not open to this motion, but would be to one that would push it off a year.

Discussion and ended and a roll call vote was taken. The difference between a regular ‘aye’ and ‘naye’ vote and roll call vote is that it delineates how Council members vote in the meeting’s official minutes. It also allows for an explanation of their vote.

Councilman Bender: No

Councilwoman Liz Brown: No

Councilman Didier: No – He did agree with Councilman Pape, but also sided with Councilwoman Goldner.

Councilwoman Goldner: No – “This is a game of chicken I can’t play, no.”

Councilman Harper: Aye – “To oppose a motion, is not to have faith that the executives confronted with something bold and dramatic from this Council, that they would not do the right thing. I think a ‘No’ vote, is in short measure, is to lack confidence in the City’s executive and County’s executive to do the right thing…But I think, confronted with a clear and present danger, actually, in which a bold and dramatic move, our executives would find the strength to get it done. And I vote, ‘Aye’.”

Councilman Hines: Aye – “In agreement with Councilman Pape, other than the absurdity piece, I think it’s a stroke of genius, to put on the table, a proposal that requires that we tear down that glass wall. I think we have well trained individuals on both sides of the wall, we have redundancies, we have and understanding that if in fact, a major catastrophe occurs, and it had to take place, it would. […] But in looking at the votes, this may not pass tonight, but they need to know damn well come 2010, that this will be back on the table as a forthright proposal, if in fact we don’t make any progress. Hopefully Tina, it occurs, but if not – let it be assured that this will be back on the table in 2010.”

Councilman Pape: Aye – “There are two leadership principles here involving two public safety issues. The two public safety issues of course, the bridges and the second are the promptness and accuracy of emergency communications. Don’t be confused that you’re not playing chicken by voting no, Councilwoman Goldner and everyone else. Because the communications out of the 9-1-1 emergency center are slower and not as good as they could be – that’s really not contested because of the system we have now. And so, you’re playing chicken that it’s not you or your family that is gonna have the slower dispatch that’s going to result in the difference between life and death or serious injury. The leadership that has the most responsibility, has the most ability to make the change has failed and continues to fail on a daily basis to take care of that problem, because I can’t imagine why.

The other leadership principle is the ability of one government to have a very serious public safety issue – bridges, do nothing about for years and then pass it on to another government and say good luck. The only way things are going to change is by, thanks to Councilman Harper for saying it better, some dramatic boldness. They got a way out by us turning this down tonight.

Councilman John Shoaff: No – “I’m very close to Councilwoman Goldner on this. I think a signal has been sent. I think Tina will go into negotiations looking for an answer with considerable leverage and I will tell you that if this were to come up this [next] year, and it will if it’s not resolved, I will be very much voting for those who say, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ For now, I’m going to say that time is extremely short, I think it puts the system in jeopardy, probably to ask for change this quickly, I will vote no.”

Councilman Smith: No – “I think we’ve delivered a very clear message here tonight that if not now, in a very short time we will cut this department out and I have every confidence that Tina and both Administrations will work this out. The most persuasive argument that I heard on this was the shortest and most eloquent and that came from Marty. I heard you loud and clear about public safety.”

Final tally: 3 in favor 6 against – the motion failed This was the end of the Communications Department Budget discussion, but not the issue.

Look for another post about what happened the next day and what I think the average citizen finds “absurd” about this situation.

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