Mayor Touts Highlights, Ongoing Challenges For Warsaw
WARSAW – When it comes to State of the City speeches by mayors of any size town, they tend to be lengthy and detailed as the top elected official seeks to account for successes while focusing on future challenges.
For Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer, who delivered his ninth state of the city address as he enters his third term in office, his speech at Center Lake Pavilion on Thursday, March 12, covered all traditional bases and included a few significant updates in a 29-page speech that spanned about 35 minutes.
First, the good news: Thallemer highlighted the city’s tax rate, which fell by ten cents this year and has not risen in four years. He attributed that primarily annexation, which has led to a $151 million increase in assessed value, which is used to calculate tax rates.
He staked a claim that it’s one of the lowest in the state.
“All of this is the result of a very purposeful local economic development strategy utilizing regional and state resources,” Thallemer said.
He also touted the overall good condition of the city, which benefits strongly from orthopedics and three lakes that are part of the city.
“A skilled ready workforce supported by an attractive quality of life, and investment in infrastructure stimulates growth and development. And that is what continues to move our needle,” he said.
Thallemer predicted the city’s population – just under 15,000 – will likely represent a 12 percent rise when the 2020 census is complete.
He then underscored the importance of residents participating in the census and noted that residents will start receiving the forms in the mail within days. Census figures, he said, help determine funding formulas from the federal government as well as legislative districts.
While growth in the community is good, it is not without challenges, he said.
Thallemer lamented over Indiana’s existing tax caps policy and the circuit breaker impact that limits the amount of tax revenue cities and towns can collect.
A circuit breaker loss is the amount of tax revenues a city cannot collect when it exceeds – in the case of residential property taxes – one percent of the assessed value of a home.
In 2019, the city of Warsaw lost more than $1 million of revenue from circuit breaker losses. “That accounted for over seven percent of our total revenue and has doubled from five years ago,” Thallemer said.
To make city revenues stretch as much as possible, the city is undergoing a city-wide operational review to improve efficiencies. The city also worked with Baker Tilly on a comprehensive financial plan in 2019 and used other moves to ensure the city has a favorable credit rating.
Thallemer also acknowledged the work of Clerk-Treasurer Lynne Christiansen and her staff in their roles in having another clean audit from the State Board of Accounts.
“As summarized in the current comprehensive financial plan, the city currently enjoys a strong financial position,” Thallemer said.
Thallemer did say that the city is looking at two hikes in fees.
“We will need to evaluate our stormwater utility fee this year. While the rate is one of the lowest in the state, projections show that it is insufficient to meet the significant capital project requirements of the next four years,” Thallemer said.
Stormwater fees pay for projects intended to reduce flooding and erosion.
“In a lake community with high water tables and challenging soils, controlling flooding and erosion while protecting our lakes and streams creates an overwhelming list of capital project demands,” Thallemer said.
Thallemer also floated the idea that a fee might be needed for garbage, recycling and yard waste.
“As tax cap losses increase, we must look very closely at our costs to provide these services and consider if a modest monthly fee may be necessary to sustain these services,” Thallmer said.
Two of the biggest issues – the need for more affordable housing and US 30 – were key points in his address.
Thallemer said a housing study sought by the city, Kosciusko County and the Kosciusko County Community Foundation will be released sometime this spring.
“I think it’s safe to assume that the demand for workforce and affordable housing is significant,” he said.
As for growing traffic concerns on US 30, Thallemer said he will meet with Gov. Eric Holcomb next week to impress upon the need for the state’s commitment to an environmental impact study, which if approved, will carry much weight when the state chooses a future route for US 30 through Kosciusko County and northern Indiana.
US 30 has seen a rise in traffic across the state, but the issue seems especially acute in Warsaw. Along a stretch from Meijer Drive and Springhill Road, there has been a 31 percent increase of traffic in six years to almost 33,000 vehicles per day. The number of accidents rose 16 percent from 2018 to 2019, he said.
Police Chief Scott Whitaker has recommended establishing a third patrol district that would include US 30 in Warsaw, he said.
Thallemer said they will continue to look for ways to make the highway safer while waiting on the reconfiguration of US 30 and pointed to two projects by the state that helped improve traffic flow at two troubled intersections.
“I will continue to fight for more short-term, meaningful local safety improvements on US 30,” he said.
The city plans to post a video of the speech on its website within a day or so.