Mayor Pete: City on right path

Buttigieg Gives Annual Address

By Erin Blasko, The South Bend Tribune

March 10, 2015

SOUTH BEND — In a wide-ranging speech focused on crime, the economy, community and economic development and race relations, Mayor Pete Buttigieg insisted Tuesday that, despite ongoing challenges, the city is “headed in the right direction.”

“In this fourth year of my administration, I feel confident that our city has moved rapidly forward,” the mayor said. “We may have a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction.”

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at Washington High School, the mayor delivered that message as part of his fourth State of the City address — and first as a war veteran and candidate for re-election.

The South Bend native, who recently returned from Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, faces Common Council member Henry Davis Jr., a Washington High School alum, in the Democratic primary.

“In every major policy area — neighborhoods and quality of life, crime and safety, jobs and economic development — our city is better off than it was even one year ago, thanks to a way of doing business that is working for South Bend,” Buttigieg said.

On the economy, the mayor noted that unemployment in the city has dipped from 11.6 percent to 7.4 percent since he took office, in part due to the efforts of the Department of Community Investment.

Those efforts, consisting of investments in equipment and infrastructure, have contributed to the creation of more than 400 jobs and more than $180 million in private investment, the mayor said, with as many as 1,000 more jobs on the horizon.

“The majority of those jobs are on the west side of our city, where economic need has been especially pressing,” he added.

Downtown, 22 new businesses opened last year alone, the mayor said, and storefront occupancy has surpassed 80 percent for the first time since the city started keeping track in 2011, contributing to a comeback that continues to gain momentum.

In terms of community development, Buttigieg noted that 789 houses have been repaired or demolished in the city over the past 742 days as part of an effort to address 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses in 1,000 days.

At the same time, the city has worked with the Common Council to expand the curb and sidewalk program and launch “Light Up South Bend,” which aims to address gaps in residential street lighting.

And Mentor South Bend, a partnership between Big Brothers Big Sisters and the South Bend Education Foundation, has recruited more than 200 new mentors since May 2013, providing new hope for hundreds of school kids.

Crime

“Of course no neighborhood issue is more pressing than ensuring that the reality and the perception of safety are where they ought to be in every part of our city,” Buttigieg said.

“Here, too, we have a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction,” he added. “And our way of doing things is getting real results for South Bend.”

For example, both violent and property crime are at their lowest rate in more than 20 years, Buttigieg said, “even as improved policing technology means that more of those crimes committed are reported than before.”

At the same time, the number of people injured or killed in criminal shootings is down 39 percent “compared to comparable periods in the previous year,” the mayor said, thanks in part to the Group Violence Initiative.

“Serious concerns remain” — including a murder rate that nearly doubled last year compared with the previous year — “but our Police Department and our community at large are increasingly equipped to deal with these challenges,” the mayor said.

The mayor also talked about race in the context of recent police-involved shootings across the U.S. and, here at home, the police tapes controversy and outrage over a T-shirt that seemed to mock the final words of a man who died while resisting police.

“We have made strides that are significant and important,” he said. “On the other hand, our workforce as a whole does not yet fully represent the city it serves.”

Notably, blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in public safety, including police and fire.

In response, the city has developed incentives for new police recruits and committed to work with professionals skilled in helping cities become more diverse and inclusive, the mayor said.

At the same time, “there is more to inclusion than just the faces of city workers,” he said. “This is not about T-shirts and it is not about tapes. It’s about trust. And we won’t get anywhere as a community until we learn how to build trust, the hard way.”

What that might look like is unclear, but, broadly, it means “honest, frank discussions that allow city leaders, law enforcement and community members to face the mistakes of the past and establish shared ground for the future,” the mayor said.

“There is no contradiction between respecting the risks that police officers take … and recognizing the need to overcome the biases implicit in a justice system that treats people from different backgrounds differently, even when they are accused of the same offenses,” he said.

“We need to take both those things seriously,” he added, “for the simple and profound reason that all lives matter.”

The mayor also conceded that work needs to be done to address the city’s high poverty rate, problems within South Bend Housing Authority and the burdensome cost of a federally mandated sewer program that threatens to bury ratepayers under more than $600 million of debt.

Reaction

Looking ahead, the mayor spoke of new investments in streets and parks, including the conclusion of the Smart Streets program, and of plans to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday in May.

“The results we have seen in the last year and the last few years leave no doubt that the sun emerging on our city seal is still a rising sun for South Bend,” he said. “And the year ahead promises to be another one of good results.”

Speaking afterward, the mayor said the city’s role in any future conversation on race is yet to be determined, but “I wanted to start by putting the idea in the bloodstream.”

“We’re going to need to find some new ways to do this, because, clearly, what we’ve done so far hasn’t been enough to solve the problem,” he said.

He also strongly defended the notion that downtown is on a comeback, despite issues with the Chase Tower and delays in the redevelopment of the LaSalle Hotel and the vacant lot at Hill and Colfax streets.

“If you look at the overall picture, there’s no denying it,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve got our challenges, for sure, but the best way that we can address the toughest parts of downtown is to surround them with a very healthy rest of downtown, and that’s what’s happening right now.”

Reacting to the speech Tuesday, Henry Davis Jr. described it as “more style than substance,” accusing the mayor of manipulating the crime and unemployment numbers to mask problems in both areas.

“When people feel unsafe in an environment that they call home, there is a problem. When folks cannot attain adequate employment in the area that they call home, we have a problem. When housing is inadequate and is usually met with a wrecking ball, we have a problem,” Davis said.

He added, “I think the mayor is severely disconnected from the community. I think his time spent downtown has allowed him to be disconnected and moved away from the folks that are in the neighborhoods.”

“My statement (on crime) was not something I pulled out of the air,” the mayor countered. “It was something I got from the database of crime statistics. If (Davis) has another account, he’s welcome to share it. But the bottom line is we know what’s happened.”