(AP) — As Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson sat in her office on a late December day, a ping from a faulty ceiling pipe kept time in the background as the mayor talked about issues that shaped her first year in office.
Even without the cue from the pipe, she says the challenges facing one of the poorest cities in Indiana are never far from her mind.
Mismatched wooden trays sit on her desk, despite her secretary’s insistence they get a matching set.
“They still work,” Freeman-Wilson, the Harvard-educated daughter of a Gary steelworker, told the Post-Tribune (http://bit.ly/Uh0qid).
A year ago, Freeman-Wilson’s elevation to City Hall left residents bubbling with optimism despite a fading budget and tax base that left some wondering if bankruptcy was inevitable. Hope is a scarce commodity in this city where 13 percent of its 80,000 residents are unemployed.
Now a year later, Freeman-Wilson’s stock is still high in Northwest Indiana. Her relationship with the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority is strong, even though the city still owes millions to the RDA.
Freeman-Wilson, 52, is also popular among other mayors and town leaders on the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission where she represents the city. Past Gary mayors typically sent delegates to NIRPC. Freeman-Wilson attends the meetings herself, forging new alliances taking a leadership role in regional planning.
Yet, the mayor’s omnipresence throughout the region and in the media hasn’t stilled the whispers among her fellow Democrats in Gary where rumor mills roar louder than the city’s steel mill.
While the mayor says she’s frugal, some wonder why she has surrounded herself with a gold standard of staffers who command gold-standard salaries. The critics got louder after the city dismissed 15 emergency medical technicians last month. To save money, the city also eliminated the job of public safety director held by Richard Ligon and the deputy mayor position held by Delvert Cole who now heads the Gary Housing Authority, which isn’t funded by the city’s budget. Both were cabinet positions.
“While we do not take job loss lightly, we accept the challenges that come with responsible government,” Freeman-Wilson said.
The mayor says she hears the critics, but vows her team can stir growth and make the city solvent again. “I can show you we’re different,” she says.
She said it’s discouraging to see people judge her administration by what has happened in the past. “You have to have a thick skin in this business.”
City Councilman Roy Pratt says it’s too early to judge Freeman-Wilson. “You wouldn’t expect she’d turn the city upside down in one year,” Pratt said.
“Some things she’s done are good, some are mistakes. The EMS was a mistake. These are people who are very important, they are first responders, they stabilize patients, and they are responsible for life and death.”
Perhaps her harshest critic, Miller resident Jim Nowacki, isn’t impressed with Freeman-Wilson’s job performance and says she’s installed “whole crews” of people working on her image.
“The most glaring, of course, is the reliance she’s placed on high-priced talent, She’s filled her administration with six-digit-figure salaries,” says Nowacki, who attends most meetings in the city. “Rather than getting down to the gritty business of running the city, she continued the strategy that we can plan our way out of the problems. We’ve spent almost a year and we’re still talking about planning.”
Nowacki and others wonder about the mayor’s allegiance to New Jersey-based consultant John “Bo” Kemp who worked for Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker. Kemp received contracts allowing him to earn up to $145,000 this year, although Freeman-Wilson has said she doesn’t expect him receive the top amount.
Even though the Gary Sanitary District has a full-time director who earns $120,000 a year, Kemp is assigned to pull together an operations plans for the GSD and Stormwater District. And he’s analyzing the future of the cash-draining Genesis Convention Center and uses for the U.S. Steel Yard, built as a minor league baseball stadium.
Freeman-Wilson said she didn’t meet Kemp until after she won the primary in 2011. “I wanted someone who had experience in what I knew we were going to have to do. Bo has been worth every penny.”
Freeman-Wilson says the city has been open with reporting its contracts that aren’t advertised for bids. “We tend to work with people we know will get the job done. Are there people who’ve gotten contracts who I’ve known and are friends? Absolutely.”
Freeman-Wilson believes the way out of Gary’s despair is one part demolition and one part economic development. She established a new city office — the Department of Commerce — and brought in Gary native J. Forest Hayes from Washington to run it.
There’s an aggressive demolition program, cobbled together with federal cash, jail inmates and rusty city equipment. It’s knocked down more than 125 structures in 2012. The mayor concedes there are thousands more to go.
The biggest development, so far, is a $20 million truck stop on Grant Street.
The mayor established an education roundtable that meets regularly with officials from Indiana University Northwest, the Gary Community School Corp., charter schools, Ivy Tech and the Northwest Indiana Urban League. The group, though it has gained little publicity, discusses issues that confront urban schools.
Keeping students in school could reduce the city’s relentless violence and unemployment picture. Last year, homicides rose 22 percent over 2011 with 43 deaths — by far the most of any Northwest Indiana city.
“It’s not a reflection on our law enforcement. I know our police officers are working hard every day,” Freeman-Wilson said.
The mayor has sought help from the governor for Indiana State Police officers and Indiana National Guardsmen to patrol Gary streets.
Chuck Hughes, once a mayoral candidate himself and now executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, says reducing crime is paramount to entice new business.
“Collectively, we share the same disappointments. I see where the mayor has reached out to the state and federal government. We all worry about crime. I know the mayor has to make some difficult decisions in terms of the budget, those things are disappointing,” Hughes said.
The mayor will deliver her State of the City speech on Feb. 26 and no doubt offer up a good helping of optimism. She says when she took office, the budget deficit was $10 million, while now it’s $8 million.
“By the end of next year, I’d like the deficit to be zero,” she said.
Making budget cuts in a city where more than half of the payroll is eaten up for public safety is difficult. “You can’t come in and slash. We’ve got almost 53 square miles to cover.”
The mayor’s ambitious legislative agenda that includes plans for a land-based casino and the groundwork for establishing a trauma/teaching hospital seems tenuous at best with the General Assembly in unsympathetic GOP control.
“When you consider what she had to work with it … I still have confidence in her ability to be a good mayor and bring better days to Gary,” said state Rep. Charlie Brown, a Gary Democrat.
Because Freeman-Wilson served as Indiana attorney general, Brown thinks it will lend more credence to her legislative agenda.
Freeman-Wilson is banking on Gary/Chicago International Airport to trigger some of Gary’s rebirth. The airport is in the midst of a $166 million runway expansion the city hopes will lead to increased passenger and freight service that depend on larger aircraft.
In March, Freeman-Wilson announced an agreement had been reached with the Canadian National Railway Co. and the airport giving the airport land for its runway extension.
In February, Allegiant Air began once-a-week nonstop service to an Orlando, Fla., area airport. Still, on days Allegiant isn’t flying, the airport locks its front gates and sits dormant.
As part of the mayor’s economic thrust, she’d like to establish a transportation corridor near the airport with an intermodal freight port near Buffington Harbor.
So far, there’s no tangible movement, other than a federal civil lawsuit against a Freeman-Wilson backer whose private company is being sued for failing to pay the company doing a study of the intermodal project.
One resolution the mayor has made for 2013 is to temper her hectic schedule.
She quickly glances at her iPhone screen and says time management would be her one “do-over” after one year in office.
“As I sit here right now, I’m exhausted. The schedule is just nonstop. Every hour is filled.”