Business shoved aside: Readers say city should focus on crime, education in 2007

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The brutal murders of seven family members, including three children shot dead in their east-side Indianapolis home, cast a dark cloud over the city last summer.

Yet the June slayings only served as a harbinger of a wave of violence that later claimed 15 lives in a 10-day span. The crime spree rattled city leaders so severely that Mayor Bart Peterson declared an emergency normally reserved for a natural disaster.

2006 no doubt ranked among the most deadly years in Marion County. Through mid-December, 140 homicides had been recorded-the most since 1998’s total of 162. For the first six months of the year, violent crime was up 8 percent over the same period in 2005, according to FBI data. It’s no wonder, then, that nearly 1,550 IBJ Daily subscribers participating in an unscientific online survey voted crime as the most critical issue facing the city. Rounding out the top five were: high school dropout rate public transportation economic development public health Two years ago, when IBJ first polled subscribers, the creation of a regional transportation system topped the list. While the merits of mass transit likely will be debated for several years, the topic that finished second in the first poll is being addressed: the need for a new stadium and more convention center space.

Crime also might disappear as an issue on future surveys if measures already implemented by city officials and police prove effective.

The Indianapolis Police Department already is noticing results, Chief Michael Spears said. Rates for crimes other than homicides and business burglaries dropped during the fourth-quarter.

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll see a year-end crime rate for the city that will be significantly lower than what we thought it might be at the beginning of the year,” he said. “We’re in a position where we want to try anything for this problem.” Crime

For starters, IPD commanders now receive FBI crime statistics sooner than they had and are required to prepare a presentation on the offenses occurring in their districts and how they are responding.

The Street Level Enforcement Detail, known as the SLED team, is a new group of 10 officers who provide aggressive enforcement in crime-ridden areas. They work closely with neighborhood organizations to help prevent crime before it occurs.

Also, a $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security was used to purchase 22 cameras that will be placed permanently in public places. The cameras will send images to a central computer at police headquarters, and officers will be able to access any camera’s view on their in-car computers.

“In the first quarter of this year we saw some increases in crime that were entirely unacceptable, and it certainly got our attention,” Spears said. “Is all of this working? I hope so.”

At the administrative level, Peterson called for an extra $54 million in public safety and criminal justice spending in 2007, $19 million of which funded fire protection. Most of the money came from the County Option Income Tax and borrowing from the city’s Sewer Fund.

From that, $2.2 million already has been spent to create a night court to process cases faster and relieve strain on the jail. Overcrowding is a major concern, because a court-ordered cap forces Sheriff Frank Anderson to release potentially dangerous inmates early if the jail population exceeds capacity. A concept he has floated involves outsourcing jail management to a private firm that could manage inmates more efficiently, supporters say.

Moreover, Prosecutor Carl Brizzi has added six deputy prosecutors to the homicide unit, bringing the total to 12. COIT money funded the new positions, as well as additional jail beds.

More lawyers prosecuting homicide cases will make it easier for Brizzi to enforce his new “no-continuance” policy, in which cases will be heard sooner rather than later. The number of major felony courts increases from six to seven this month.

But Brizzi told IBJ the initiatives meant to reverse the trend in crime won’t provide immediate results.

“I think they will have an incremental effect,” he said. “These problems didn’t occur overnight, and they won’t be corrected overnight.”

David Cook, Brizzi’s counterpart at the Marion County Public Defender Agency and a 30-year veteran of the criminal justice system, concurred.

“I don’t know that there’s any one thing you can do,” Cook said. “When you’re talking about homicide rates, there are so many bizarre reasons why people commit murder. They don’t respond to deterrents.”

Cook’s dilemma is that he has no space available for the 36 new staff members he has hired. Most of his agency is housed in the City-County Building, but the public defender’s office needs more space. It might lease space in the Gold Building at Delaware and Ohio streets if the city makes the necessary funding available, Cook said.

Dropout rate

That readers ranked crime and dropout rates as the two most pressing issues facing the city isn’t a coincidence if you ask Chief Spears or Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White. For White, the two go hand in hand.

“There is a direct connection between crime and dropping out,” White said. “When you look at the people going to jail, you look at their background and they’ve dropped out of school.”

The matter is even more crucial given the introduction this year of a new method to tally graduation rates. That formula estimates just 35 percent of IPS students-instead of the previously reported 90 percent-complete high school in four years. The drop in percentage statewide, from 90 percent to 74 percent, was not nearly as steep.

In hopes of improving the figure, IPS has convened a community panel to help the state’s largest school system implement a dropout prevention plan in the spring. White said the objective is twofold: to deter students from leaving school early and to reclaim some of those who already have left.

The 50-person panel has met once and is set to meet again in January. The goal is to have a report outlining recommendations and initiatives ready in April, in order to prepare for the next school year. Putting the plan in play most likely will require participation from schools, parents and community members alike, White said.

The panel’s creation comes even as research suggests Indiana dropouts cost taxpayers millions each year. Each of the estimated 21,000 dropouts statewide costs the state $3,000 annually in the form of lost tax revenue, higher Medicaid costs and incarceration, according to the “High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Indiana.” The study by the locally based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation was released in late October.

For their part, IPD officers are cracking down on curfew violators and conducting more truancy sweeps to ensure students are attending class, Spears said.

Public transportation

The Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, charged with coordinating and ultimately administering a regional transit system, was formed at the end of 2004. That’s about the time IBJ first asked readers to rank the city’s most urgent needs.

Today, the authority is close to having its first executive director. In fact, a leader should be on the job this month, said Mike Dearing, Metropolitan Planning Organization manager.

MPO officials also have been firming up ridership projections for a transit system, which could consist of light rail, an automated peoplemover-type vehicle or a dedicated bus-way. Those details could be revealed in April or May, Dearing said. Each project could cost up to $1.5 billion.

“Now we’re getting to the point where we have enough information to provide the local and federal decision makers as to say, ‘Yeah, central Indiana is ready for this, or not ready for this,'” Dearing said.

In the meantime, the IndyGo bus service received a $3.6 million federal grant last February to fund most of the anticipated cost of starting a route to Lawrence Township in Marion County, and to the Hamilton County cities of Carmel, Fishers and Westfield.

IndyGo and local officials have been trying to nail down routes and locate matching money for the federal grant. A public meeting shedding light on the routes could be held later this month. One challenge is how to get riders to Indianapolis quickly enough to make the bus service attractive.

Economic development strategy

In this case, economic development strategy means the potential consolidation of four of central Indiana’s biggest business development organizations: the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Indy Partnership.

IBJ reported in October that the organizations were quietly evaluating whether to merge some or all of their operations to boost effectiveness and eliminate duplication. The talks began in April. Each of the four has three delegates on a 12-member research committee, which is expected to make a recommendation soon.

Whether the merger would generate substantial cost savings is unclear, however. An analysis by local accounting firm Katz Sapper & Miller LLP, which evaluated several merger scenarios, shows consolidation could yield up to $475,000 in annual savings, or lead to a small increase in costs.

Nonetheless, Roland Dorson, director of the Indianapolis chamber, supports the concept.

“I think consolidation makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “It’s about making sure that we wring all the randomness out of our strategies.”

Public health

Smoking and affordable insurance will be among the issues taking center stage during the 2007 legislative session. As part of his health plan, Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a cigarette-tax increase to subsidize heath care for the uninsured.

A hike of 25 cents a pack could fund low-cost health insurance for 100,000 uninsured Hoosiers, said Dr. Judith Monroe, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Health.

The program would provide $300,000 of annual coverage up to $1 million in lifetime coverage. One of the benefits, Monroe said, is that participants pay nothing out-of-pocket for the first $500 of preventive care, enabling them to receive physical exams and cancer screenings-or enroll in smoking-cessation classes.

“As long as we keep the price of cigarettes low enough for people to afford them,” Monroe said, “we’re enabling them.”

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