Area leaders balk at Indy Mayor Joe Hogsett’s regional infrastructure plan

Mayor Joe Hogsett’s plan to shore up funding for Marion County roads by pooling income tax revenue from a nine-county area has struck a nerve with public officials in other counties, who say the proposal isn't in line with a larger vision they've been forming together.

Several area mayors say they’ve been meeting to discuss regional cooperation—talks that Hogsett has been a part of—but had not signed off on any plan like the one the Indianapolis Democrat proposed.

The plan “doesn’t reflect the conversations many mayors and town leaders have been having about ways to collaborate and invest in transformative projects,” Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers said Thursday morning.

And Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness, a strong proponent of regionalism, said the group’s discussions have focused on long-term solutions that go “beyond fixing potholes.”

Hogsett’s plan would pool some future income tax revenue to pay for infrastructure throughout the region, but it would create winners and losers among counties, something many officials say is a problem.

Brownsburg Town Council President Brian Jessen equated Hogsett’s proposal to “standing on a street corner with a cup asking for contributions.”

And Westfield Mayor Andy Cook said he’s seeking “a future-focused system in which we all participate in the decision-making versus an Indianapolis-only solution.”

Still, some observers—including officials at Indy Chamber—say the proposal is an encouraging sign that local mayors are thinking regionally .

“This was such a taboo topic. It was a third rail type issue,” said Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber. “These mayors talk very frequently. A decade ago they didn’t.”

Under Hogsett’s plan, all nine central Indiana counties—Marion, Hamilton, Madison, Boone, Hendricks, Hancock, Morgan, Johnson and Shelby counties—would send a portion of their future income tax revenue growth to a fund that would be used to issue bonds for infrastructure.

The bond’s proceeds would then be redistributed to counties based on the usage of their roads, not based on how much they pay in.

“I see where the mayor is coming from and I can respect he’s trying to come up with solutions, but when towns like Brownsburg are behind the eight ball, you can’t tell me I have to keep giving up my money to pay for road repairs on the east side of Indianapolis,” Jessen said. “My priority is Brownsburg, not Indianapolis.”

Hendricks County would be among those that would contribute a higher proportion of tax revenue than they would receive in bond proceeds. Hamilton, Boone and Johnson counties would also be essentially donor counties.

Marion, Hancock, Madison, Morgan and Shelby counties would contribute less proportionally than they receive in return in bonding proceeds—a result of the distribution being based on road usage. 

Hogsett’s administration said the strategy is a way to meet the city’s growing infrastructure needs—which amount to $160 million per year—without raising taxes. Officials in Marion County have long been frustrated that none of the income tax revenue paid by the 187,753 people who commute into the city comes to Indianapolis. Rather, commuters’ income tax dollars go to the county they live in. (An estimated 52,415 people who live in Marion County commute elsewhere for work, according to Stats Indiana.)

Hogsett unveiled the plan in his State of the City address on Wednesday night and called for public meetings throughout the region to discuss it. Hogsett’s staff said he had already met Fadness, who recently called on his Hamilton County city to take the lead on regionalism.

But in a statement, Fadness said he’s “perplexed” by Hogsett’s proposal and said it’s not consistent with work that’s underway by the Central Indiana Conference of Elected Officials, or CICEO, a voluntary group of mayors and town council presidents from communities with populations of more than 10,000 people.

Fadness told IBJ that the CICEO has for 18 months been having fairly intense discussions and doing research on what makes sense for the region going forward.

 “We would like to see a broader, more encompassing solution that doesn’t just try to solve one community’s specific issues but rather move our collective region forward,” he said.

Cook said the Central Indiana Conference of Elected Officials developed a concept that would use a source of new funding for projects of regional significance, which could include a new sales tax, food and beverage tax or income tax.

The plan was introduced at the Legislature in the last session but did not pass. Lawmakers assigned the issue to a study committee to be considered before the 2020 session.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard told IBJ that he wants to study Hogsett’s proposal.

“I agree that we need to work cooperatively, but this is a very complicated proposal that needs to be studied to ensure that it is not a Band-Aid but is in the best interests of residents of both Indianapolis and Carmel,” Brainard said in a statement.

Hogsett’s plan would require buy-in from the region and the state Legislature—a tricky prospect given that several counties would lose out on some of their future income tax growth. But Hogsett doesn’t seem to be off to a strong start.

Jessen, in Brownsburg, said he only learned of the proposal on Wednesday. “Mayor Hogsett should have reached out to some of us before proposing something like this,” he said.

And Jessen dismissed the idea that commuters should have to pay for Marion County roads. He said although he works in Indianapolis and drives in for entertainment, he contributes to the economy in other ways.

“I buy gas here; I buy lunch five days a week,” Jessen said. “Now he’s asking for more just to help pay for things.”

Mike McQuillen, the Indianapolis City-County Council’s minority leader, said he was “not hearing a lot of positive things from the folks who have to sign off on that deal,” but he said that was to be expected. 

“Historically, I just haven’t seen a lot of buy-in from our neighboring counties or excitement about contributing to Marion County infrastructure.” 

He said he was looking forward to hearing more details about Hogsett’s plan, and said that overall he is “a big proponent of seeing Indianapolis get a fairer share of taxes.”

Huber said that he’s confident Hogsett’s proposal will lead to productive discussion. “Any differences could get reconciled into one solution,” he said.

Hogsett’s election opponent, Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt, criticized the Democratic mayor for waiting until the third year of his term to offer a regional infrastructure plan. Merritt did not comment on the merits of the proposal but said he’s “already met with all of the mayors in central Indiana on this important topic.”

Merritt has not released a regional infrastructure plan as part of his campaign.

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