Conversations with Mayor Luecke: Part One

He's been the mayor of South Bend since 1997 and faced a number of unpopular topics.

We start our Conversations with Mayor Luecke with the bone of contention that is property taxes.

It was a quite a contest, but Mayor Steve Luecke was re-elected to lead the city of South Bend in November with 62 percent of the vote.

As he walks around the city he is proud of the changes downtown, new restaurants and nightclubs.

He is not so proud or pleased of the property tax relief bill passed by Indiana lawmakers in March which failed to provide the opportunity for communities to replace the money lost to the cap.

“You know the slogan was as simple as one, two, three,” Luecke says. “But it's a six hundred page bill.”

A bill that capped property taxes at one percent in all Indiana counties except Lake and St. Joseph counties.

It was a change to the law that was made at the end of the session, a change neither Luecke, nor a bipartisan statewide group, saw coming.

Discussions had focused on providing relief where needed, but making sure there were sufficient revenues to support services like police and fire. He says three years of meetings fell on deaf ears. “Unfortunately that message has not been heard by the legislature, by the governor.”

The mayor says that bipartisan group wanted some fiscal flexibility at home.

“To allow local communities to make local decisions. To say, maybe the best mix for us is one part property tax, one part income tax, one part sales tax, or one part food and beverage tax or one part hotel motel tax.”

But since that didn't happen, the mayor says there are few options.

“I will be a proponent for an additional income tax to support the services, not just in South Bend, but Mishawaka, St. Joe County.”

And when the mention of raising taxes gets people upset, Luecke says, “we need to tell the story of what our taxes are paid for. In my experience as mayor nobody has called me up yet and said, ‘please stop doing this.’ It's always ‘we want more.’”

By Luecke’s calculations, “If we don't have an increase in local income taxes by 2010 South Bend will be losing 19 million dollars a year in revenue. That's a significant part of my budget.”

“We probably should have enacted a full one percent income tax many years ago,” he says, “that would have provided relief on the property tax side.”

And that will mean cuts in police and fire departments, fewer parks and parks personnel.

And the argument that the city isn't doing enough to cut costs?

“Government is an easy target,” Luecke says.

The mayor points to replacing antiquated street sweepers—three now doing the job that used to take nine.

New LED traffic signals will save 10.5 million over ten years.

A more effective way of capturing methane is saving the wastewater treatment plant 200,000 dollars a year.

And when money is tight, we asked, why spend it to tear down buildings around the Cove?

“We need to continue to dream,” says Luecke, “we need to continue to plan and to look, we need to have infrastructure in place to bring new development into the community.”

And while the property relief plan may not be what we wanted Luecke says it is an improvement.

“We do want to remind that there will still be a significant decrease in their property taxes, they won't go down to one percent but they may be at 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 percent.”

Wednesday night, Maureen continues her conversation with Mayor Luecke.

We'll find out about his childhood—how he got to South Bend, and whether he has aspirations for higher office.

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