Elected Officials and City Government and Greg Ballard and Elections and Government & Economic Development

Ballard's sketchy agenda fuels unease

November 12, 2007

The afternoon after Greg Ballard's shocking victory at the polls, the mood was sober at Marion County Republican headquarters. Jubilation had given way to reality.

Although mayor-elect Ballard described himself "as tired as a guy could get," he has no time for a break. Instead, he must figure out a way to govern the nation's 13th-largest city. And fast. He takes office in less than two months.

What the 52-year-old former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps will do is largely a mystery. Voters flocked to the political outsider largely because of property tax outrage. He promised to cut 10 percent of Indianapolis' nonpublic safety budget, or about $70 million a year, yet never developed full-blown positions on a litany of local issues. With all the unknowns, some business leaders--even some within the GOP--are uneasy, fearing he'll put cost-cutting ahead of economic development and other initiatives that boost Indianapolis' quality of life and make it a desirable place for professionals to live.

"We're all for, like everybody I guess, efficiency in government," said Karl Berron, CEO of the Indiana Association of Realtors. "But our members are also concerned about quality of life. That's what they sell every day on both the residential and commercial side." Some of Ballard's comments in his post-election interview with IBJ reinforce the perception that his administration will be far more tightfisted than that of Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat popular in the business community.

Regarding investing in the arts, Ballard said, "Frankly, if it comes down to another piece of art or another cop on the street, that's not a close call."

On tax breaks for economic development, he said, "We have I think some egregious actions on tax abatements here in the city. ... [For example, the] Conrad Hotel. I'm talking particularly about those condominiums on top, 10-year property tax abatements of individual residences."

Asked whether the city should subsidize construction of a new downtown convention hotel, he said: "I'm going to have to take a serious look at that. I know the convention business is absolutely huge here, and I'm understanding that the occupancy rates are a little bit lower than we'd like them to be here in the downtown area. So we don't want to create an oversupply."

Finding the $70 million in cuts is going to be tougher than Ballard thinks, predicted Kathy Davis, a former city controller under Peterson who later became lieutenant governor.

"I'm going to be watching to see what he does, and certainly encourage everybody to do the same," she said. "When Mayor Peterson came into office, we had a number of shortfalls, especially in police pensions and the jail operations. Those got more challenging as we went along. We made the operation really lean in most areas in order to provide funding for public safety."

IUPUI political science professor Bill Blomquist believes that if Ballard is going to meet his budget goal, he has no choice but to reduce spending on areas like cultural tourism, then begin pushing back maintenance and new projects indefinitely. With the new football stadium and new airport terminal already approaching completion, Ballard still will have plenty of opportunities to crow about the city's growth. But he won't have to do any heavy lifting.

At the same time, Blomquist dismisses the idea that Ballard will be a slash-and-burn mayor. Ballard, for instance, isn't talking about reversing the income-tax hike Peterson recently brokered. And as the mayor-elect learns more about how the city actually spends its money, he may gain a greater appreciation for the challenges Peterson faced.

"During a campaign, it's attractive to say you'll reduce government spending. But then you actually get the budget in your hands and find there are people, neighborhoods, companies and services attached to each of those dollars," he said.

"If anybody in Indianapolis is holding his or her breath looking for substantial reductions in city-county spending, they'll be holding their breath for a long time."

Ultimately, because Ballard is a political newcomer, the agenda he adopts may be shaped largely by the advisers who'll surround him.

Some of the Republicans who gave him little respect, and less money, now want a seat at the table.

"Greg Ballard is going to have more friends than a lottery winner," Blomquist said.

Added Mark Miles, CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership: "His challenge is to put together a team he has complete confidence in that will be able to keep up with an enormous amount of work in a little bit of time. There's an enormous amount to be done to get off to a good start."

In his IBJ interview, Ballard suggested he sees much to emulate in the city's last two Republican mayors, Bill Hudnut and Steve Goldsmith.

The mayor-elect met with Hudnut, mayor from 1976 to 1992, during the early days of his campaign.

"You can go to the neighborhood associations, which was pretty much my campaign strategy for months on end," Ballard said. "They still talk about how he continued to go to the neighborhood associations. He maintained his relationships with the community throughout his tenure, which lasted 16 years. I anticipate continuing that as much as possible."

Ballard said he also admired the management style of Goldsmith, mayor from 1992 to 1999.

"He was all about efficiency and productivity," Ballard said. "I've read a lot of his stuff. I read it when I just started campaigning and got a lot of good ideas. That stuff is somewhere in a room in my house, and that stuff is always available."

Business leaders are putting the best face on their disappointment. They say they're eager to work with the new mayor. And they say their support for Peterson was never meant to slight Ballard.

"Business leaders are data-driven decision-makers. They looked at all the institutional advantages Peterson had--there's a long track record--and figured Peterson was the safer bet," said Cam Carter, vice president of small business and economic development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce

"Give the guy credit. If you look at leaders, both of political and business stripe, I don't think you'll find many saying a military background is a bad training ground for leadership. I think you can expect a very serious-minded and sober management style."

Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Joe Loftus, a former deputy mayor under Goldsmith who's assisting Ballard with his transition, concedes Ballard is a blank slate to most business leaders.

But based on Ballard's unlikely quest to become mayor, they already know something. He doesn't back away from a challenge.

"Look at the character that was involved and the fact that he had enough confidence in himself to go from nobody being supportive all the way to the end here," Loftus said. "He has stuck with his issues. He has pledged to reach out and try to be a consensus person. Now we'll see how the guy grows in the position."

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