After giving his annual State of the City speech Thursday at the Center Lake Pavilion, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer (L) speaks to attendees of the annual event. Thursday’s speech was Thallemer’s ninth State of the City. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
After giving his annual State of the City speech Thursday at the Center Lake Pavilion, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer (L) speaks to attendees of the annual event. Thursday’s speech was Thallemer’s ninth State of the City. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
In his ninth annual State of the City address, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer touched on a list of topics from the city’s tax rate to housing and U.S. 30.

Indiana Code 36-4 mandates that every year the mayor shall provide a statement of the finances and general conditions of the city, and Thallemer did that Thursday at the Center Lake Pavilion, hosted by the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce.

“Our nation continues to shift toward a more service-oriented, more automated economy, placing an even greater emphasis on the value of a skilled and educated workforce. Communication methods are literally changing daily before our eyes. Amazon has changed the way we buy things. We must understand the significant importance of local retail and find a balance with e-commerce,” Thallemer said. “2020 is here. We must sharpen our focus to defend what has gotten us to where we are and embrace change that will keep us relevant into the future.”

The city’s credit rating was last reaffirmed by Standard and Poor’s as an AA- in 2018. “That favorable rating lowers our interest rates on bonds, which benefits our taxpayers,” he said. “In 2019, working with Baker Tilly, we formalized a comprehensive financial plan. The comprehensive financial plan provides us with solid financial information to make data-driven solutions as we wrestle with the annual budgeting process.”

Thallemer said elected officials have held the city portion of the property tax rate level for the past three years. “We have been able to do that by keeping an eye on spending, leveraging our revenues and growing our tax base,” he said.

For 2020, the council passed a budget that lowered the property tax rate almost 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, he said. “Our city property tax rates are some of the lowest in the state.”

Thallemer said the main reason the tax rate dropped was  because the city had a significant increase in its assessed value. The larger the tax base, the smaller the rate needed to achieve the necessary tax levy.

“Increasing our assessed value $151 million in 2019 was the result of many projects coming to the tax roles. Forty percent of the increase was due to the annexation of the airport industrial park and several hundreds of acres for residential expansion,” he explained.

He said the growth of the city’s assessed value and an increasing local population are “strong indicators of a community that is vibrant and moving ahead. While growth is good for our community, it is not without challenges. Constitutional property tax caps continue to hamper Indiana cities’ and towns’ ability to sustain the property tax revenue growth necessary to fund essential services and accommodate additional growth.”

Limiting the city’s property tax revenue every year are circuit breaker losses. A circuit breaker loss is the amount of tax a city cannot collect because it exceeds – in the case of a residential property – the 1% cap of the assessed value of the home. In 2019, Thallemer said, the city of Warsaw lost over $1 million of revenue in circuit breaker losses. That accounted for over 7% of the city’s total revenue and has doubled from five years ago.

“Our sanitary and storm water infrastructure is old and failing. Annexation and expanding service areas from interlocal agreements increase the demand to provide services. In addition, revenue necessary to keep up with state mandates, technology improvements and inflation, the revenue from property taxes is not there,” he said.

“The findings of the comprehensive financial plan show that as a result, our cash reserves, while strong, are projected to be strained to meet our needs as we look over the next few years,” he said.

Kosciusko County, like many in the state, is experiencing a housing shortage, Thallemer said.

“A big concern of local employers is the lack of workforce housing. That has a negative impact when trying to attract qualified workforce talent. In addition, affordable subsidized housing is in limited supply for families and seniors in our community,” he said.

In 2019, the city engaged with Kosciusko County and the Kosciusko County Community Foundation, for a data-driven housing strategy. The specific results and recommendations are expected to be announced this spring.

Also in 2019, he said the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority awarded a significant matching grant to Zimmer Biomet intended to stimulate anchor industry workforce housing projects.

The Indiana General Assembly created the framework for residential TIF districts in 2019. “Designed to be used as an incentive to stimulate new home construction, the city wasted no time establishing two residential TIF districts. Working with the Warsaw Community School Corporation, the residential TIF districts were targeted in areas that currently have infrastructure and are ready for new single-family home construction,” Thallemer said.

In addition to workforce housing, the availability of affordable (or subsidized) housing is also being studied.

In another project, the city is collaborating with a developer to build a new 72-unit affordable senior housing on East Market Street. The project is slated to begin in 2020 and will feature senior housing with aging-in-place amenities.

The city’s concerns about safety on U.S. 30 continue to grow. Thallemer said Warsaw Police Chief Scott Whitaker just released traffic statistics for 2019 and the percentage of accidents on U.S. 30 within the city limits continued to increase.

Average Daily Traffic counts on U.S. 30 between Meijer Drive and Springhill Road have increased 31% in 6.5 years to almost 33,000 cars per day. In his year-end report, Whitaker is also recommending that the city create a third patrol district in the city that includes U.S. 30. Whitaker will be seeking additional sworn personnel to service that request for increased enforcement to improve safety.

The Fort Wayne Indiana Department of Transportation district completed two road-widening projects at U.S. 30 intersections in summer 2019. Extra lanes were added to Anchorage Road and Parker Street.

“The traffic backup at those intersections has improved and now clear more quickly. I have received many positive comments on these changes. While we are appreciative of these types of safety improvements, our unwavering long-term objective on U.S. 30 is to create a freeway solution to eliminate at-grade conflicts along U.S. 30,” Thallemer said.

Working to get the project recognized and funded is the goal of the U.S. 30 Coalition, which includes representatives from seven counties.

“As mentioned, a freeway is the long-term permanent solution proposed by the U.S. 30 Coalition,” Thallemer said.

The first public meeting was held last fall to look at local options of a reconfigured U.S. 30 in the community. The local stakeholder group met in October and gave more detailed input on the strength and weaknesses of each option. That information will be presented at a second public meeting in April to look for additional input on the options being presented.

Last year saw a large number of public works projects that progressed through various stages of development, many of which will continue into this year and beyond, Thallemer said.

The Ride-Walk Master-Plan projects are prioritized by the ride walk committee and initiated as funds are available.

Phase 2 of the Market Street reconstruction from Bronson to Hickory streets was completed in 2019 and opened in the fall. The entire East Market Street Neighborhood Corridor Project is complete.

In 2020, the city will continue to engineer two 80:20 federally funded road projects that were awarded in 2018. The reconstruction of Anchorage Road will include road widening with curbs and sidewalks and will extend from Ind. 15 to Biomet Drive. The second project will construct 2.5 miles of new sidewalk in an approximate 15-square-block area west of the new Lincoln School. Both projects are slated to go to construction in 2022.

Significant progress occurred in 2019 on the CR 300N reconstruction project, highlighted by a new roundabout at Shelden Street. “Safely getting to and from Madison School is a high priority and will be facilitated with a 10-foot shared-use ride-walk side path to be constructed this spring.

Safety improvements in 2019 at Harrison Elementary School included new flashing school zone signs with speed indicators on Husky Trail. The North Pointe Drive reconstruction was also completed last year with new sidewalks, tying into the Husky Trail sidewalks and connecting pedestrian travel to Mariner Drive and up to the YMCA and Parkview Hospital.

In 2019, the city spent $1.49 million to improve and preserve over 46 miles of city streets and 600 feet of sidewalk. Fifteen streets received new asphalt surfaces, 132,000 feet of restriping was completed, 94 streets were crack sealed, 37 streets were microsealed, and 20 streets received asphalt rejuvenation.

A collaborative Norfolk/Southern and INDOT railroad/traffic safety project is underway, Thallemer said. From the Pope Street to Lyon Street railroad track crossings and parallel intersections along the same stretch of Detroit Street, the project is designed to improve safety and traffic flow. Railroad safety warning devices are being replaced. Hickory Street will be reconfigured and limited to one-way traffic to improve train/traffic safety.

New traffic lights and pedestrian crossings will concurrently be installed along Ind. 15 from Prairie Street to East Fort Wayne. These improvements are designed to improve traffic flow coinciding with train traffic. The project is slated to be completed in the late fall. This project has been a long time coming, with funds first approved in 2013.

Despite current funding limitations, the city’s stormwater utility continues to address flooding, erosion and protecting waterways from pollution. Successful projects to date include drainage improvements on the South Side and Central Park, and Pike Lake shoreline stabilization. The $30 million Warsaw Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion is now half way finished. An anticipated completion date of October “will be none too soon,” Thallemer said. The plant operated at an average of 95% capacity in 2019.

With the majority of almost 85,000 feet of small and large diameter wastewater pipe being either relined or replaced, the city’s $10 million sewer rehabilitation project was, for the most part, completed late last year. It improved just over 16 miles of wastewater collection system.

Construction of the first new townhomes on North Buffalo Street are nearing completion. Mathews LLC is now marketing the first units for sale. Construction is expected to continue in 2020 on additional townhomes and mews, Thallemer said.

The North Buffalo Street park plaza along Center Lake will begin construction this spring. Plans are in the final stages to construct a new mixed use building on the site of the old water works facility.

The 2018 Central Park master plan is a “publicly vetted plan” that presents options to address new opportunities of both space and programming in the park, Thallemer said. For example, the city acquired and has demolished the old gas station at the east entrance of Central Park on Canal street. Through the public process, an idea hatched that would create a new space for the Warsaw Biblical Gardens and the Maish Community Gardens to collaborate on a greenhouse concept.

Another example is the Center Lake Pavilion. With some remodeling and a facelift, this local landmark will be enhanced.

In late 2019, the FAA notified the city that it had been awarded $6.4 million of supplemental funds to lower the high voltage powerlines to the east of the east west runway. The project has been considered for over 20 years. Final engineering is being coordinated and construction is set to begin in 2021. The Phase 2 extension of the east west runway to almost 6,500 feet.

Other impactful parks projects include new pickle-ball courts at Kelly Park a completely rebuilt outdoor amphitheater at Lucerne Park, and continued shoreline stabilization work at Pike Lake.

“As we have discussed this afternoon, the growth and progress of our city continues and is a source of pride for everyone. We are a community of doers, of collaborators. We are blessed with a heritage of advanced manufacturing, a talented, skilled workforce, and an industry that has spawned innovation and entrepreneurship. We have quality schools, a safe community, and a focus on quality of life. We have resources that we value and don’t take for granted. But as our young adult professionals, our YAPS have questioned us, What are our core values and goals? What is next?” he said.

“My friends, our core values and goals will be measured by how we value each other. How we treat those who may not look like us or think like us. What we will do to help those suffering from drug addiction recover to return to our community? How will we meet the affordable housing needs of our workforce and seniors? What can we do to promote mental health and assist those so desperately in need?

“Everyone of us has a role to affect change. I am often asked by young people how they can get involved in our community. My answer is to find your passion and volunteer, join a board, when problems arise, offer solutions instead of criticism. Watch out for your neighbor. Meeting the core values and goals of our community involves each and everyone of us. We pledge to do our part and keep Warsaw moving forward.”

The State Of The City speech is available for one week at www.wioe.com.