Ballard's preschool plan may have new life in city budget

Mayor Greg Ballard’s plan to provide preschool to 1,300 low-income Indianapolis children next year may not be dead after all.

The Indianapolis City-County Council tonight voted to approve a $1 billion 2015 budget, and included in it was a last-minute amendment that could put $1.7 million toward the mayor’s plan to cut crime and expand access to preschool.

Since proposing the $50 million program, the Republican mayor has encountered several roadblocks from the Democrat-led council. The tension showed when parents protested after a council committee tabled Ballard’s preferred way to fund the program: getting rid of the local homestead tax credit.

Ballard says removing the local homestead tax credit would cost about half of the county’s homeowners an average of $22 per year. Democrats urged him not to cut more than $3 million that goes Indianapolis Public Schools and other school districts annually.

The budget, which included an amendment to transfer $2 million of what it usually spends on the local homestead tax credit, passed the Council by a wide margin. Council Vice President John Barth, who is developing his own preschool plan, said city officials realized it only costs $10 million, not $12 million to fund the homestead tax credit.

That means $1.7 million could go to funding a preschool plan, Barth said, but it’s up to the full 29-member council to decide to spend the money that way. The money is currently not committed to a specific cause.

“It’s just sitting there waiting to be spent,” Barth said. “I’m among those who are hopeful that it could be spent on preschool, but I’m 1 of 29, so we’ve got to build a coalition to achieve that.”

Ballard’s plan called for the city to spend $25 million over five years to fund half the plan, with the rest coming from philanthropy. But Democrat Angela Mansfield said the city has more pressing matters that the money should go toward.

“Animal care and control is in a dire situation,” Mansfield said. “I’m rather concerned that some individuals are jumping to the conclusion that … we should be spending funds on things that we’re not required to do, instead of taking care of things that we are required to do. We’ve (also) got a huge problem with dying tees (in city right-of-way).”

Deputy Mayor for Education Jason Kloth said he was cautiously optimistic about tonight’s action. Kloth said the mayor’s office has continued to talk with council leadership and that negotiations over the mayor’s plan are ongoing.

“We’re appreciative of the ongoing dialogue and are hopeful these funds will be used to support preschool for our most vulnerable children,” Kloth said. “This could represent a positive step toward addressing the considerable need for expanded access to preschool across Marion County.”

The business community, led Eli Lilly & Co., has rallied around the mayor’s proposal. Lilly’s foundation promised $2 million of its own money and pledged to help raise $10 million from other companies. Kloth said he wants that money to be put to use for the city’s kids.

“I think there’s an expectation that the public sector will rise to the challenge to ensure that no philanthropic funds that could be used to serve children are left on the table,” Kloth said.

Rob Smith, president of the Lilly Foundation, said Eli Lilly & Co. has raised about $4 million so far and expects to make more announcements soon. The other donors include PNC Bank and IU Health.

“We’re raising this money with the hope that the City Council agrees on something that’s substantial,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to let these talks unfold. We remain confident that something meaningful will get passed. This is the first step.”