Mayor Ballard calls for new preschool program; local homestead credit elimination

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The city's crime cycle must stop, said Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, and he's pitching his game plan to fight the violence.

The mayor admitted there is no magic, overnight solution, but he is offering some answers.

Ballard's plan includes hiring 280 new police officers by 2018, raising the public safety income tax by .15 percent and eliminating the local homestead tax credit. As a result, the mayor says the average resident would pay an extra $7.16 a month in taxes.

Ballard also wants to nearly double preschool scholarships and change the city's curfew ordinance.

$25M Preschool Plan

The mayor said he wants to address the root causes of crime and called for doing "right by our children," especially those living in poverty. 

"We have failed many children in our society for at least 40 years," said Mayor Ballard. "The institutions that support the family have not kept up with changes in family structure and the culture. And the crime that cities across America are experiencing today is a direct result of it."

The mayor proposed a plan that would cost $25 million over five years to create affordable preschool options for thousands of families in need. Initially, it would serve 1,300 students a year, with $1 million a year set aside to replicate high quality preschool options across the city.

Making it Happen

The $25 million would come from a variety of sources, including the United Way and philanthropic foundations, but also by eliminating the local homestead tax credit. The mayor pointed out that this is different from the state's exemption, which would not be affected.

"This is not the $45,000 exemption the state provides for your home. This is the local credit that averages $22 a year, or $1.84 per month," he said.

Ballard outlined three areas of focus: prevention, protection and punishment.

"We are going to do more to prepare people for success in life, but if they cross the line into violence," the mayor said, then the justice system needs to remove them from society and "use that time to prepare them for success when they come back."

The mayor said the city needs to change its approach to fighting crime.

"It's not just about number of people arrested. We must have fewer criminals in the first place," he said. "We must simply get at the issues that lead these children down the wrong path."

More Education

The first step, the mayor said, is affordable, high-quality early education.

"The data is very clear on all of this," Ballard said, pointing to statistics that show kids with access to good early education do better in school in the long-term, are more likely to move on to higher education, and - if they come from low-income backgrounds - are less likely to go on welfare as adults or be arrested.

"Our children won't be out in the streets shooting each other. We believe that," said Connie Sherman, executive director of St. Mary's Child Center. Sherman has 40 years of experience in early childhood education.

"They learn how to get their needs met in a way that will keep them out of trouble, so they don't have to go out and shoot someone to get what they need," she added.

MacKenzie Baksh is a working mom, who's working on a college degree. Suri, her energetic toddler, she says will need to be in preschool. Can she afford it?

"Not by myself, no," Baksh answered. "It kind of hurts me as a mom that I can't really take care of her the way I should."

But it is very expensive - $4,000 a year for half-day classes, $7,000 for full days. More than nine out of ten children receive scholarships paid for by grants, foundations and fundraisers. One hundred children are on waiting lists because there isn't enough money.

More Police Officers

The mayor also wants to increase the Indianapolis Metro Police Department by 280 new officers over the next four years - not including the 80 who are joining the department this year. That would raise staffing levels at IMPD to the highest in the agency's history.

Following an earlier recommendation from a staffing commission which the mayor was a part of, Ballard is asking for 280 more police officers on the streets over the next four years. That would require an increase in the public safety tax rate, costing the average household with an income of a little over $42,000 a year about $5 more a month.The mayor's proposal of 280 more officers, significantly less than the numbers put forth by the Fraternal Order of Police, which has asked for 500 more police officers over the next five years to account for officers lost through attrition.

"If the council specifically passes this recommendation to hire more officers, we will hire more officers. Those officers will be in addition to this year's 80 new recruits and in the next four years, we will have the largest number of IMPD officers in department history," said Mayor Ballard.

"These numbers barely get us there, which means that we are going to be maintaining status quo, which we cannot do to effectively provide our citizens with a comfort level of safety," said Bill Owensby, FOP president.

Stricter Curfew

The mayor also talked about moving up the weekend curfew to 11:00 pm for 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, saying there was "no good reason" why teens should be out past that time. Ballard argued that it would provide a chance for law enforcement to intervene with at-risk children before they get into more serious trouble.

He discussed plans to expand the work of the Peace Learning Center to parks across the city, with the goal of teaching mediation skills.

Heroin was another topic the mayor touched on, saying it was not just a big city problem. Ballard said heroin is one of the biggest threats to public safety, and that it "shouldn't surprise anyone" that a lot of crime in Indianapolis is tied to heroin. Over the past year, there has been a 60-percent increase in the use of anti-overdose medication.

The mayor also reiterated his push for a mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes, as well as a program to get inmates ready for life on the outside. Ballard will ask the legislature for a 20-year mandatory minimum.

Criminals scare victims, the mayor said. "It's high time our law put some fear into them."

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, a Democrat, questioned the timing of the announcement with an election coming up. He said that when he raised the issue of more officers in the past, he was criticized and discounted by the mayor, "but now, apparently, he has found religion and agrees with everyone that we need more police officers and we need to take affirmative steps to address public safety issues here in Marion County."

The proposal goes to the city county council next month. The hope is to have more children in preschool next fall.

Click here for more on the mayor's plan.

WTHR's Emily Longnecker contributed to this story.