By Garth Snow | gsnow@kpcmedia.com

The mayors of Fort Wayne and New Haven announced Sept. 5 that their cities will assume responsibility for their own bridge upkeep and maintenance. The cities will not renew an interlocal agreement through which the Allen County Commissioners has awarded those contracts.

In an announcement at Citizens Square, Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald said their cities will take over responsibility for the 95 bridges in Fort Wayne and 20 in New Haven. Fort Wayne’s payment to the county agreement was expected to increase from $1.35 million in 2017 to $2.7 million in 2018. New Haven’s share was expected to increase from $70,000 to $470,000.

Allen County Commissioner Therese M. Brown said the county now has responsibility for 400 bridges. “So with about 115 going off of our watch, we would still have the remaining 285,” she said. “Having three rivers within Allen County, we clearly have a lot of experience when it comes to doing bridge work and we have had for decades, so we will continue to do what we do outside of those two jurisdictions. There should not be any impact on us budget-wise or staffing-wise.”

In their joint statement, the mayors said the new arrangement will give the cities “more flexibility and direction on when and how to invest in bridge repair and maintenance projects that will have the most benefit for taxpayers within their respective city limits.”

Henry said the county’s primary argument for the higher charges is significant increases in the cost of concrete and other materials over the last several years.

“Mayor McDonald and I in discussions have decided that we can realize efficiencies in economy of scale in addressing this on a standalone basis,” Henry said.

McDonald said bridges are vital to allow residents to reach their places of work, worship and entertainment in the adjoining cities. He said New Haven feels a special responsibility by virtue of being “the eastern gateway for Ohio into the economic hub of northeastern Indiana and the city of Fort Wayne.”

Taking control of the bridge budget just makes better sense for New Haven, he said. McDonald said he also wants to investigate new ways to build bridges “rather than the old traditional ways.”

“We are excited about working with our partners in the city of Fort Wayne. Our engineering departments will be working closely together as well,” he said.

“To my knowledge we would be the only two cities in the state to have this kind of arrangement,” Henry said. “We can hire our own engineers, the whole gamut of overview and ultimate approval of the contract.

“There’s nothing wrong with what the county has been doing. It’s just that Mayor McDonald and I feel the time is right for us to take a look at a different approach.”

McDonald said the agreement ultimately will involve sharing of engineering services. He said at least one local firm and others within the region and the state have that expertise.

He said the two cities are not looking at any joint projects at the moment. “But it is virtually impossible to get from downtown New Haven to downtown Fort Wayne without going over a bridge,” McDonald said. “They’re vital to the economy of our county but also to the entire region. Going from $70,000 a year to almost $470,000 a year, that’s a huge increase. And I think we can manage those dollars as efficiently or even more efficiently than has been done in the past. I’m not saying the county has done anything wrong. I just feel we can do better.

“Because our borders meet, it only makes sense for the city of Fort Wayne and the city of New Haven to collaborate on this subject.”

Henry said the county keeps records on conditions and priorities for all bridges. “We do have a spreadsheet of all 93 bridges in the city and we do have a queue of the bridges,” he said. “We will hire a person or firm to double-check to make sure that’s where the needs really are. And if he confirms it, then fine, we’ll address that particular bridge as soon as possible.

“But if we only need $500,000 for bridge repairs in 2018 there’s no need to give the county 2-and-a-half-million dollars. The other 2-million-dollars can sit in our cash reserve and we can utilize it in other ways.”

Commissioner Brown said the county had been agreeable to continuing the arrangement, which was established in about 2008. She said the commissioners were notified of the mayors’ decision the morning of the 1 p.m. announcement.

“The tax itself does not expire,” Brown said. “We had an agreement that was going to be sunsetting in October with all the municipalities and towns in Allen County that was done when the County Council had raised the surtax/wheeltax with the understanding that with the collaboration of those towns, the base amount would still go to the cities and towns but the increase would go toward the bridges that were within their jurisdiction. The tax itself is still sustained. The money that we would have been reserving for those bridges within their jurisdiction is now just going to be going to them. It’s dollars that would have been theirs; it’s just that they are now going to be in control.”