April 27, 2020 Greg Estell- guest contributor
With 24.5 hours of notice, in an emergency meeting on April 24, the Fishers City Council approved establishment of a new Fishers Health Department with no budget definition, to be led by a person with no public health experience. This was done with little discussion or serious questioning (with the exception of Councilor Vare), effectively rubber stamping on an 8-1 vote (Vare opposing) Mayor Scott Fadness’ call for a “bold plan of action that will inspire confidence among our community, will provide the necessary public health infrastructure to ensure that when we do open up, that we have the opportunity to do so in a safe and effective manner that we’re not back in this situation two weeks, six weeks, ten weeks from now.”
Instead of confidence, sadly, a superficial review suggests a poorly thought-out program with objectives, staffing and a budget that simply don’t add up.
A primary element of the Mayor’s call to action involves a community-wide COVID-19 testing effort. It’s claimed the bulk of the $2 million “initial expenditure” approve by Council will be dedicated to this cause. A worthy objective, all would surely agree. But the funding resolution proposed by the Mayor and adopted by Council fails to dedicate one penny of funding toward this goal, and the Council has ceded its authority to further direct that funding. If this is such a critical effort, wouldn’t some initial budget specificity be proposed? How does this inspire confidence – or accountability? It doesn’t add up.
But let’s assume the $2 million is indeed dedicated to testing. What detail do we have that this will support full testing and contact tracing for 90,000+ Fishers residents? None was presented during the Council meeting, or made available to the public. If every cent is dedicated, that amounts to a little over $20 per resident – is this really achievable? How? Where are the cost break-downs? Would any of our employers give us $2,000,000 with no definitive plan on how it will be spent? It doesn’t add up.
“Now, now, don’t be so untrusting,” some might claim. After all, these funds are available from reserves, with no impact on other critical city efforts. Available, in fact, because of the wonderful economic development work Fishers has done, with the $2 million generated by the agreement to provide taxpayer subsidy for Meyer-Najem’s new headquarters. Why, it’s found money! But even this generates questions. Why would a windfall from the City’s economic development efforts not be dedicated to reducing the public debt associated with that project (or others)? If a gain was anticipated – or realized – why wouldn’t Council require it be disclosed so it can be managed transparently? What other windfalls exist? Is there equivalent risk of loss lurking, and have we reserved appropriately for it? It just doesn’t add up.
Other financial concerns:
Our only certainty in today’s uncertain time is that city tax revenues will decline due to the significant reduction of economic activity resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. Why add additional fixed cost at a time we know City budgets will soon be stressed? Particularly when the Mayor stresses there is “no deficiency” in public health services currently managed through the County?
Mayor Fadness assumes “something north of $500,000” is available from the transfer of County Health Department funding to the City Health Department. But he also says some responsibilities may remain with the County. He admits there’s been no formal discussion with the County, other than a letter sent April 23, the day Fishers announced its program. How can funding availability be determined with any degree of accuracy when there’s been no discussion or collaboration with the County?
What are the long-term budget assumptions that assure all City Health Department costs will be covered by the transfer of revenues currently distributed to the County? What salary commitments have been made to the new director, Dr. Indy Lane, and others? What other support will be required to fund restaurant and medical facility inspections? What specific City Health Department duties are anticipated, and how will appropriate staffing and training be assured?
Finally, if the new City Health Department budget will be completely covered by transfer of revenues from the County, why does the Mayor’s proposal and Council’s action at its emergency meeting authorize a new tax of up to $1 on each $1000 of assessed value of taxable property? The 2020 Fishers property tax rate is $7.115 per 1000. This action allows up to a 14% increase in that rate. For perspective, City property tax revenues have increased 18.6% since 2015. This would allow 75% of that five-year increase in one fell swoop. The Mayor strongly states “this is not a tax increase!” If no tax increase is necessary, why does the Mayor propose it – and Council approve – in the Budget and Appropriations section of amendments to the City of Fishers Code of Ordinances establishing the Health Department?
Let’s set aside budget concerns and the brash assumption local officials can control an international pandemic for a moment, though. Let’s give credit for an effort to address an extraordinary lack of COVID-19 testing availability. Surely, as one of our state’s wealthiest cities, we’re hiring one of the top public health experts in the state to lead this critical effort supporting the health of our citizens. A person with a broad background in epidemiology, environmental health, or disaster management. Right? One would think so, but that’s not the experience Dr. Indy Lane offers. Dr. Lane is no doubt a qualified OB-GYN, and she sports high rankings for her work at Community Health Network. But let’s be honest, her background suggests no experience dealing with the nuts and bolts of public health. While assuredly a wonderful, bright physician, there’s no evidence Dr. Lane possesses the expertise to meet the City’s immediate objective to “truly understand COVID-19’s effect on our community…” or develop strategies for testing and contact tracing. With no background in public health, her selection as the person to establish the City Health Department offers another decision that simply doesn’t add up.
Amazingly, our City Council asked not a single question of the Mayor or his team about the person selected to lead this effort. Seriously? We are in the midst of a pandemic, we need to take dramatic emergency action to establish a new long-term city function that could increase the city’s budget by 14%, and we’re not going to ask about who is leading the cause? How does that suggest any oversight or responsible consideration of this effort? Again, it doesn’t add up. There are a host of other concerns raised by this action, but most significant is a City Council – our representatives elected to serve and protect our interests – absolutely failing to engage in even modestly rigorous public oversight. We elect these folks – all terrific souls, I’m sure – to be curious and assure accountability. The public record suggests none of this occurred. Why? What benefit is achieved via emergency action that even a week of study and daylight might not achieve? It just doesn’t add up.
A native Hoosier, Greg Estell is a manufacturing sector entrepreneur with 30+ years of experience in developing and executing strategies to meet operations, sales, design, production and supply chain challenges. He’s lived in Fishers since 2006.