Helmke took risks as mayor

The Helmke era
The Helmke era
As the 1990s dawn, Paul Helmke claims victory in the 1991 mayoral campaign, the second of three he won. He's flanked by daughters Laura, left, and Kathryn, right, and his father, Walter, behind Kathryn.

Three terms in office changed city, mayor.

By Jonathan Maze of The News-Sentinel

The office Paul Helmke will soon vacate is decorated with political memorabilia – campaign buttons and posters, framed newspapers, and magazine covers. Some reflect his family's history in politics.

But in 12 years as mayor of Fort Wayne, Helmke hasn't been much of a politician. He inadvertently offered proof one day last month.

The mayor provided a glossy flier, a leftover from his failed 1998 Senate bid. The Evan Bayh campaign mailer had a bit of twisted truth, saying that Helmke raised taxes 11 times and added two new ones.

Raising taxes is, of course, a political no-no. But if Helmke proved one thing in three terms, it's his willingness to take risks.

"I've never seen politics be a criteria for making decisions," said John Stafford, the acting chief of staff who has been with the administration for most of Helmke's tenure. "He certainly knew what he was doing."

The mayor often stood alone on some of his most controversial policies, such as tax reform and annexation. He could be determined, maneuvering to win and occasionally angering fellow Republicans.

Over time, Helmke evolved into a leader who spreads responsibility for difficult issues through community-oriented government. Now he's criticized for not making enough decisions himself.

Tough politics: Taxes

One of Helmke's first moves, nearly 12 years ago, was to ask a City Council ruled 7-2 by Democrats to approve a county option income tax. It was denied.

A drop in state and federal funding, a recession, and floods in 1982 and 1985 left the budget in bad shape when the mayor took office.

After the vote, the city and Allen County formed the Select Committee on City/County Finances. The independent group recommended that the governments diversify. They should add income taxes and user fees to reduce their reliance on property taxes.

The next year, after a difficult political fight, the council approved COIT 5-4. "That was a tough vote," said Helmke. "It was not an easy sell."

Since then, the mayor has raised COIT and added the county economic development income tax.

Now, 1 percent of county residents' paychecks go to these taxes. Monthly user fees pay for services such as garbage pickup.

As a result, property taxes have been stagnant, and county residents receive an 8 percent homestead property tax credit. The city's budget is funded from several sources, and it's in better shape. Its property tax levies are $16 million below state limits. But residents' total tax burden is still higher than before Helmke took office.

It's no surprise, then, that council members have frequently tried to abolish the taxes. They survived in part because of an early agreement to designate funds for each of the six council districts – and one at-large fund – for neighborhood capital improvements.

The funds, now at $450,000 per year per district, pay for things such as streets and sidewalks requested by neighborhoods. These district funds are immensely popular; any talk of abolishing them brings immediate criticism.

"That's the funny thing," the mayor said. "Nobody in this election is talking about getting rid of (the taxes) now."

Showing resolve: Annexation

On annexation, it's not the council that has given Helmke the most trouble. Yet it's the issue where the mayor shows the most resolve.

Helmke and others say the annexations were needed to make up for past administrations' failure to annex; if so, he's made up aggressively.

If the city wins the Aboite Township court case, Helmke would have added nearly 40 percent to the city's population and 44.5 square miles. Consider this: From 1980 to 1990 the city grew by fewer than 1,000 people. Since 1990 it has grown by nearly 30,000.

Helmke has been at his most forceful in annexing adjacent suburbs, winning almost every legal and political challenge. This was most evident in 1996, when Aboite residents tried to incorporate "West Hamilton" to avoid being annexed.

In response, Helmke introduced two annexation ordinances: If the area became a town, the city would annex 11 square miles immediately.

If it didn't, the city would delay annexing 13 square miles until 2006. Their hand forced, county commissioners denied the town's incorporation. The second annexation ordinance passed.

"That's the most hardball thing I've done," Helmke said. "If they would have formed the town, it would have been a major mistake."

The mayor admitted that the annexation issue increased tension between himself and county commissioners. Tension persists, and some wonder whether it hampers economic development.

Thwarted climb to higher office

Helmke largely stood alone on taxes and annexation. Both came back to haunt him, as evidenced by the Bayh mailer and criticism in Aboite about annexation during the Senate primary.

These weren't the only reasons Helmke lost to Bayh, but they contributed to the mayor's trouble getting votes in his own city.

"By definition, a mayor has a difficult time running for other office," Stafford said. "A mayor, just by the nature of the job, has to make a lot of very difficult and visible decisions."

But the result, city officials say, is a city that runs better than it did 12 years ago. Increased taxes allowed Helmke to increase spending. Fort Wayne now spends more than twice what it did on roads and the police department.

In 1988 the police budget was $10.9 million. This year it's $29.4 million, twice what it would be if it simply kept pace with inflation. Meanwhile, the city has spent nearly $100 million on transportation improvements.

"I'm still paying the price, politically," Helmke said. "But if we hadn't done it, we wouldn't have the extra police officers, and wouldn't have the infrastructure improvements."

One Republican-leaning resident, Doug Howard, rewarded the mayor's leadership with a vote for Senate.

"He knows what it takes to run this state," Howard said. "He's done a good job with what he's had to work with. He's been good with the nuts-and-bolts kind of things, the non-glamorous stuff that any other person would just try to sidestep."

Involving neighborhoods

Chuck Peters became president of the Bohde Grove Neighborhood Association in January. Since then, Peters has come to know city staff members through the Northeast Area Partnership. They have been open to his requests.

Earlier this year, when Bohde Grove experienced an unusual increase in crime, Peters said police listened to the neighborhood's concerns and responded. Crime is now all but gone, as usual.

"I've learned a lot about the city, and the city has learned a lot about the neighborhood," Peters said. "I've seen a tremendous turnaround in city employees. They seem to say, `I'm here to serve you.' "

Peters appreciates Helmke for this very reason. He isn't alone.

Many neighborhood association presidents praise the mayor for community-oriented government.

The reason, as Peters said, is that the system has changed the way city employees respond to the public, and it gives citizens more power in making decisions.

The policy evolved from community-oriented policing, also implemented under Helmke. The city is divided into four area partnerships, which meet monthly to discuss neighborhood issues. Likewise, neighborhood presidents meet monthly, and the city's Community Services Council meets regularly to discuss citywide issues.

All these neighborhood groups get the attention of city officials, who are likely to bring issues to them before any other group.

"The day the city can go to the Chamber (of Commerce) or Taxpayer Research with an issue is over," Stafford said. "It has changed dramatically the balance of power in the city."

Even people who wouldn't call themselves big fans of Helmke give him credit on this.

"That'll be one part of his administration he'll definitely be remembered for," said Bill Decker, a local historian who considers Helmke "average" compared to his predecessors. "The city is a lot more active on neighborhood-oriented issues."

Neighborhood leaders as a group have considerable pull, and politicians fear opposing them. In 1995, after the council voted down take-home police cars, neighborhoods pushed them during that year's elections. The following January, with three new members, the council approved them. Barb Schoppman, the city's director of neighborhoods, said the system now ensures its own existence.

"I truly believe that is the case," she said. "Now that the citizens do have a voice in government, they're not going to give it up."

A changed mayor

As a result of community-oriented government, Helmke has come to rely more on the process to discuss difficult problems. When combined sewers backed up into people's basements, Helmke formed the Sewer Task Force.

Ultimately, that group recommended a $90 million capacity improvement program and, astonishingly, led residents to push for a 40 percent increase in sewer rates.

Other task forces tackled some of the city's most controversial subjects – landlord-tenant regulation, the Adams Center hazardous-waste landfill, Franke Park parking lot and police-community relations.

"It was a change of style for Paul," Stafford said. "He's gone from somebody who would pretty much stand alone when he'd do some fairly bold things in tax policy. It has turned into an administration focused more on collaborative consensus building."

The reliance on task forces has led to some criticism. Democratic mayoral candidate Graham Richard, for instance, said Helmke has gone too far in his use of task forces and that often these issues require a decision from the top. Helmke said it's one thing to make a decision, but going to neighborhoods gives ideas a much better chance of being implemented.

Another example is the Franke Park parking lot. The Parks Department began building the lot last year but was stopped by local residents who, more than anything, were upset that they weren't consulted.

"The easiest thing to do in government is to stop something," Helmke said. "What's hard is getting a plan implemented. That's what I think I've been good at."

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