With an abundance of enthusiasm mixed with a little caution, Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer delivered the annual State of the City address Tuesday at 2517 Banquet Center.
The enthusiasm came from the many positives citizens of Warsaw enjoy such as a stable, fairly flat tax rate in recent years, expanding the tax base through annexation and quality-of-life-based initiatives.
The caution stems from the need to continue to work hard and sustain success. Thallemer paraphrased one of his predecessors.
“I think former Mayor Jeff Plank paraphrased it somewhat like this: ‘If you are not moving your community forward, you are moving backward,’” Thallemer said. “I would modify that a bit to say, ‘If we are not moving our community foreward, then our progress is not sustainable.’ We all have work to do.”
In his 33-minute speech, Thallemer, in his eighth year as mayor and running for re-election, praised his fellow elected officials at the city and county level. “They have diligently worked overtime, on their own and in committees, to tackle the difficult issues that must be addressed,” he said.
Among those challenges Thallemer spoke of is the traffic on U.S. 30, the need for affordable housing and child care and the need to eliminate drug abuse, particularly opioid addiction.
He cited an example of solid financial footing the city enjoys, saying its Standard and Poor’s bond rating is AA-minus, as of October.
“The stability of this rating is based upon the acceptance of our financial practices and polices, budgetary performance, flexibility and liquidity,” he said. “A good rating favorably impacts bond interest rates, which can save our taxpayers (money) significantly over the life of the bond.”
He said the population has grown 8.7 percent over the last eight years. “Few rural communities enjoy that positive growth, which is a key indicator of a community’s vibrancy.
“We have expanded our tax base 10 percent, which is $87 million over the past four years. Last year alone accounted for growth of over $38 million, roughly 4 percent. That by itself impacted the tax rate by 4 cents.
“Growth doesn’t just happen. Years of planning, driven by community vision and collaborative leveraging of public and private dollars are the catalyst.”
Thallemer outlined six strategies to maintain the city’s progress. They included growth management, business retention and expansion, business attraction, neighborhood revitalization, improved communications and downtown growth strategies.
Thallemer acknowledged there have been complaints about tax and sewer rate increases, but the city was in a position where there were no other options.
“Our citizens also continue to benefit from sewage rates below the average for other Hoosier communities. Even after the 2019 rate adjustment for the necessary sewer expansion, our average residential rate of $41.15 is still right at the state average. We have neighbors who pay over $70 a month per dwelling unit.
“Again, this did not happen by accident. The city of Warsaw sought out state revolving loan opportunities to fund over $40 million worth of wastewater utility projects. And I will emphasize these are projects that we had no choice but to act on due to failing infrastructure while operating at or over capacity,” he said.
He added the city was able to save almost $8 million in interest by using State Revolving Fund loans instead of traditional bond financing.
Thallemer addressed child care, saying while regulation has driven many providers out of business and others to raise rates in order to comply, there is a need for good, quality, affordable child care to enhance the local workforce. He lauded the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and the Kosciusko County Community Foundation for starting the “Launchpad” program to help develop a long-term plan for making child care affordable and sustainable.
Thallemer said two U.S. 30 intersection expansion projects, at Anchorage Road (CR 200N) and at Parker Street, will make the highway safer immediately, but work remains on that front as well.
“In Kosciusko County, we are at a point now that safety of local travel on U.S. 30 is becoming a critical short-term concern. The U.S. 30 coalition has been persistent with INDOT and our legislators to identify funding now so that we can initiate this project sooner than later,” he said. Thallemer is the president of the U.S. 30 Coalition as well.
Other road projects mentioned were the second phase of East Market Street construction and a second wave of work on CR 300N, including a roundabout on that road’s intersection with Shelden Street.
The mayor added he was pleased to see the city-county drug task force begin again, sparked by new county sheriff Kyle Dukes. Thallemer said the number of heroin-related cases saw a 15-percent increase last year, and meth remains a problem because of changes in its manufacturing processes, despite the number of meth labs in the county dropping in the last year.
He wrapped up his speech with a reflection of his own experience at “A Night To Shine,” an event where members of the community came together to give a prom-like experience for special needs people.
“But what struck me most about the evening was the selfless giving; the love on display that night,” he said. “Literally hundreds of volunteers converging at a house of worship to make sure a very special group of citizens from our community were given a night to remember.
“In my eighth year as mayor, moments like this, moments that define our community, are reflective of what’s really important and what we do as a community. Positive, collaborative energy, working together, making everyone’s lives better.
“That, my fellow citizens, exemplifies the state of our city. Opportunity, happiness and our Warsaw quality of life.”