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Editor

Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.

Scorched earth.

It's a concept used by retreating and defeated armies throughout history to destroy anything of use for an opposing victorious Army as it marches into the territory.

Intentional or not, a scorching of earth is at play in Gary right now, and the city residents who just overwhelming voted for change in the mayor's office should be livid.

In this case, the scorched earth being left behind by Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and a majority of city council members is the Gary public safety building at 555 Polk St. — and the already tattered city finances as a whole.

As the Region knows by now, Freeman-Wilson was resoundingly defeated in the May primary election by challenger Jerome Prince.

Mustering a meager 37% of the vote, Freeman-Wilson clearly has lost the mandate of Gary residents. The city will have a new mayor as a result in 2020.

But it hasn't stopped Freeman-Wilson from ramrodding at least one more bad, short-sighted financial plan down city residents' throats — and setting the table for a scorched-earth policy toward Gary resources for decades to come.

With the mayor as its champion, the Gary Common Council approved an ordinance, in a 6-3 vote, to sell and then lease back the city's public safety building. They're trying to generate a one-time cash windfall of $40 million, supposedly to keep the city afloat.

In the end, to get that windfall, city residents could be on the hook to pay more than double that amount in principle and interest over the next 20 years.

Critics have rightly decried the plan as a shell game of bad government.

The public safety building is to be purchased by a nonprofit entity, set up by the city, with the building then being leased back to city government.

The plan requires Gary to take on debt, with an annual interest rate not to exceed 8%, to finance the deal.

At 8% interest, the city would have to pay $334,500 per month in rent over the next 20 years to lease a building that it previously owned, rent free.

With those bond payments stretched over 20 years, the city would end up paying about $80.3 million — more than twice the expected cash "windfall" of selling the building.

Whatever short-term budget fix the mayor and six supporting council members are pitching here is more than erased by the exorbitant cost of repaying the bonds.

If this scorched-earth plan seems like half-baked governance at best, it gets even worse when other factors are considered.

You see, no one from the city has really answered how much the building is even worth on the open market. The $40 million value cited by Freeman-Wilson was determined on the basis of replacement cost of the building, not fair market value.

Replacement cost is not the benchmark that any legitimate real estate authority would use.

Unfortunately, in the worst-case scenario already enumerated, residents of an already financially struggling city will struggle even more over multiple decades to pay for this decision.

And the scorched-earth legacy of Freeman-Wilson and her council supporters on this plan — councilmen Ron Brewer, Michael Protho, Michael Brown and Herb Smith and councilwomen Mary Brown and Linda Barnes-Caldwell — will be complete.

Local News Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 933-3327 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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