Mayoral foe: Utilities sale money should fund ‘human capital’

Democratic mayoral candidate Melina Kennedy unveiled a proposal Friday to set aside $150 million in proceeds from the sale of the city’s water and sewer utilities to fund early education, crime prevention and job training.

Kennedy, in a speech to the downtown Kiwanis Club of Indianapolis, drew sharp distinctions between her agenda and that of incumbent Republican Mayor Greg Ballard, whom Kennedy is challenging in November’s election.

Ballard plans to use money unleashed from the sale of the utilities to not-for-profit Citizens Energy Group—roughly $425 million—for projects such as demolishing abandoned houses and rebuilding roads, sidewalks, bridges and other infrastructure.

The sale was finalized earlier this this month following approval from state utility regulators, and the city already has begun deploying about $150 million of the funds, which were appropriated by the City-County Council last year, toward infrastructure projects.

Kennedy said she would deploy about $250 million—or $100 million after what already has been spent is taken into account—for those kinds of public works initiatives. But she advocated the need to put some of the money toward “things that invest in people and the society they belong to.”

“Today, while city leadership toils to pave roads, it ignores that we are at a crossroads of an opportunity to cater to broader and more important priorities,” Kennedy said. “We cannot expect to become an extraordinary city—a quality-of-life capital—solely by paving roads.”

Megan Robertson, Ballard’s campaign manager, said the mayor’s investment in infrastructure has made Indianapolis a more attractive place for companies to locate, and she touted the city’s job-commitment record under Ballard’s tenure.

She also raised questions about Kennedy’s proposal to spend the funds on programs that Robertson said would require more than the cash infusion could cover.

“As usual, Melina Kennedy is ready to spend large amounts of money with not a lot of details,“ Robertson said. “Using a one-time funding source for ongoing programs is completely irresponsible. It will result in tax increases when the money dries up.”

Kennedy said in her speech, however, that she would not raise taxes to address her spending priorities.

Kennedy, an attorney and deputy mayor for economic development under former Mayor Bart Peterson, did not specify in her speech exactly how the $150 million would be spent. But she discussed goals as part of what she called her “2021 Vision”—a reference to Indianapolis’ bicentennial year.

Among them are pushing for all Indianapolis students to achieve reading proficiency by third grade; addressing crime, in part by restoring $5 million annually for crime-prevention grants; and funding job-training programs while making small businesses the focus of her job-creation strategy.

The $150 million would be put into an endowment, Kennedy said, and the city would work to grow it by raising additional funds through grants and philanthropic contributions. While Kennedy said she has reservations about Ballard's decision to sell the city utilities, “that decision has been made.”

“The money is on its way to city accounts,” Kennedy said, “and let’s resolve to make the best public use of it.”

Over the next several weeks, Kennedy said she plans to announce detailed proposals to address more specific initiatives for addressing education, crime and job creation.

Kennedy also said she would announce a plan to reorganize how the city provides services to neighborhoods and how it determines where money for infrastructure improvements will be spent.

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