Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Verdict out on Gary mayor's first-term accomplishments - Gary Post Tribune

GARY -- When the mayor of Gary abruptly resigned in 2006, Rudy Clay had the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. He campaigned and won the right to succeed Scott King.
His prize was stewardship of a city starved for economic development, derided for decades as the country's "murder capital." Northwest Indiana's largest city was also spiraling into a deep financial crisis.
His administration's cost-cutting measures earn little praise from constituents, who more often accuse it of corruption and ineffectiveness.
Clay wants four more years of this.
He confirmed Thursday he'll run for a second full term. He has never hinted he'd do otherwise, despite recent rumors. But at least five competitors are lined up against him, including attorney Karen Freeman-Wilson and
City Council member Ragen Hatcher.Candidates have until Feb. 18 to file with the county. For now, here's a look at the Clay administration so far.
When Clay announced his bid for re-election Thursday, he boasted of more than four years of experience as the city's chief executive. One of his team's biggest selling points is the way it managed this unprecedented budget crisis, and it's the most familiar with Gary's fragile finances.
But in the eyes of some voters, the way the crisis has been handled could be his biggest fault.
Gary had money trouble when Clay became mayor. The property tax caps passed by the Indiana General Assembly, and written into the state constitution by Hoosiers statewide, exacerbated the problem. City Hall officials also complain that tax breaks for major industry mean U.S. Steel isn't paying its fair share into Gary's tax base. And Clay pointed a finger Thursday at spending by former Mayor King.
The General Assembly created the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board to help cities such as Gary, which are severely hindered by the tax caps. So far, Gary is the only city that petitioned the board, which creates budget relief by raising tax caps for local property owners. Clay and his staff will be before the DUAB again today, and the mayor says his city is better off for it.
While attempting to reduce costs, Clay's administration cut utility and phone bills, shut down credit cards, put restrictions on city-owned gas pumps, laid off staff, consolidated departments and enforced furlough days and pay cuts for higher-level employees.
It also outsourced trash collection to Allied Waste in one of the most controversial moves of Clay's term so far. More than 50 garbage collectors lost their jobs in the deal. The Miller Citizens Corp. sued because Allied's contract wasn't subjected to public bidding. A judge agreed with that and other motions by the MCC. Trash collection stopped for 10 days in 2009 while the legal battle dragged on.
Clay has refused to cave on concessions residents commonly complain about. He continues to accept $54,075 as special administrator of the Gary Sanitary District in addition to the $81,175 he makes as mayor. Once, when asked at a town hall meeting about his GSD salary, he simply said, "God is good."
He takes heat for riding in a city-owned Hummer H3, which he calls economical when compared to his predecessor's Ford Expedition. He also gave city and GSD contracts to his son for videography. The latter earned a rebuke from Gov. Mitch Daniels, and they were eventually terminated.
None of those, as a concession, would fix Gary's budget problem, which continues to be dire. This is the last year the DUAB can raise local tax caps, as it did in 2009 and 2010. If the caps are fully implemented in 2012, studies have shown, Gary will only have enough cash to pay the salaries of its police and firefighters. The winner of this mayoral campaign could take Gary to bankruptcy court.
The best way for Gary to survive the tax caps is to expand its tax base. For years, Clay has proudly sought a grand-slam economic development project that could save his city. So far, he has struck out.
Clay campaigned in 2007 on a promise to rehabilitate the former Sheraton Hotel into a senior-citizen high rise powered by corn and heated with geothermal heat. He introduced the New Gary Development Group, led by Chicago architect Phil Kupritz, which promised it would do the job. Clay even called it a "done deal."
New Gary managed to clean 98 percent of the asbestos out of the building using a federal brownfield loan, but today the Sheraton remains empty and crumbling. It's back in the possession of the city, which could be on the hook for $728,000 of the loan used by New Gary to clean it out.
Gary's redevelopment commission also offered several acres of property south of Interstate 80/94 to a development group that promised to build a new teaching hospital by Indiana University Northwest in 2007. The developers were exposed as lobbyists for the Miami Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, who wanted to build a tribal casino on the site. Clay never signed the paperwork for the land transfer.
Today that same area has been promised to the Jackson Family Foundation, which says it will build a $300 million center honoring the family of late pop star Michael Jackson, a Gary native. The singer's estate is not endorsing the idea.
Some promises have been broken, and the verdict is out on others, but quiet progress has been made on some fronts. Most notable is the ongoing renovation of the Dalton Arms building in the 100 block of East 5th Avenue. The state recruited a Mishawaka-based developer last summer to finish work on the building. Lance Swank of The Sterling Group said units should be ready there this spring.
The City Council also offered a personal property tax exemption last year to a Chicago-based investor who promises to build a data center at 13th Avenue and Broadway.
Joined last month by then-U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, Clay said his city is using millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down more than 100 abandoned homes around the city, creating new opportunities for investment.
That appearance with Bayh, though covered by Chicago media, didn't get nearly the same attention as Gary's layoff last week of more than 30 firefighters. The decision to do so was announced months ago. Clay defended it at the time by pointing to a suggestion by a state-imposed fiscal monitor to lay off 57 firefighters instead.
Still, it underscored a perception that Clay isn't concerned with public safety. He has tried in the past to counter that image by riding along with police officers and rallying them at roll calls. The city sought a grant last year to build a new fire station, but it never came through. Many of Gary's current fire stations have been crumbling since before Clay became mayor.
His staff did, however, secure a grant to purchase nearly 100 new energy efficient squad cars for the police department.
But that department has also been overseen by nine police chiefs in less than five years, including interims. They continue to be confounded by Gary's homicide rate, which hovers around one a week.
Residents called for former Chief Thomas Houston's resignation in 2007 after officers left the bodies of two teens behind at the scene of a fatal accident on Chase Street. Clay stood by his chief at the time.
What ended Houston's tenure as chief was his indictment, along with two other officers, of violating the civil rights of suspects. Houston was convicted in 2008 after he admitted kicking a suspect. The other defendants were acquitted. Houston died late last year.
His was the first federal indictment to touch Clay's City Hall, but it wasn't the last. Community Development Director Jacquelyn Drago-Hunter is charged with fraud in an indictment unsealed in October. Drago-Hunter is responsible for handling millions of dollars in federal stimulus dollars, and Clay refuses to suspend her. Her indictment doesn't involve her duties as community development director, though.
It's not clear if the investigation that snagged Drago-Hunter is over, though. And there are others. Federal agents have delivered subpoenas to Gary City Hall seeking information about former attempts to renovate the Dalton Arms apartment building. The records they're seeking predate the current effort to fix the building.
The feds have also taken a long, close look at the Gary Sanitary District, recently indicting former operator United Water and two of its employees. GSD officials say they weren't targeted in the probe.
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