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Eight Forty-Eight

Gary Hoping for Stimulus Money

In pushing his more that $8-billion economic recovery program, President Barack Obama says there isn't a moment to spare. The mayor of Gary, Indiana, says his city doesn't have time to spare in getting some of that much-needed stimulus money. He says he needs that, and state help, if Gary is to recover its balance.

At age 13, Rozzelle Hammond started work at the Esquire Men's Store on Broadway in Gary.

Esquire opened its doors during Broadway's heyday, before people starting moving south from the city and doing their shopping at sprawling malls.

In those days, Broadway was the Main Street for all of Northwest Indiana.

HAMMOND: Gary was the only place where people could come and shop. It was packed, stores everywhere, all up and down Broadway.

Sixty years after Hammond began working at Esquire, he's still there, so are the top clothing brands and shoes and so is Broadway, but nothing like the way it used to be.

HAMMOND: All the top stores, we're the last of those kind of stores that's left, you know. But as, you know, time when along they began to decay. But thank God, we're still here.

Gary's Mayor Rudy Clay is one of Hammond's customers. But even though many vacant and boarded up storefronts line Broadway these days, Hammond doesn't blame Clay.

HAMMOND: The mayor is between a rock and a hard place. That's where he's at now. It's rough.

To Hammond's way of thinking, Clay is caught between and an overall economy that continues to spiral down and Gary's declining tax revenue.

A new issue is now a property tax cap initiated by Indiana's Governor Mitch Daniel.

That new Indiana law limits property taxes paid by businesses to 3 percent of assessed valuation. Homeowners pay a maximum of 1 percent of a house's value.

Clay is hoping to convince state officials to allow Gary businesses to pay more, as much as 5.5 percent for the next three to four years, to help offset the lost revenue.

Gary officials say the city is set to lose up to $54 million in property taxes in the next two years under the new law.

Clay says severe cuts in city services are next and he's looking outside the state to President Obama's proposed stimulus package for help.

CLAY: We need stimulus money in almost every one of our programs. We have priorities, of course. We'd like to have some money for public safety.

Just a couple blocks south on Broadway is Billco Barber shop. That's where you'll find owner William Coker busy giving haircuts.

Coker's been in business 15 years and has watched Gary change. He says the city could get by with less.

COKER: I think it's a matter of budgeting your money and knowing how to spend your money. But, you tell me one person who likes to pay taxes?

In recent weeks, the 72-year-old Clay, a veteran Northwest Indiana politician in his first stint as a mayor, is feeling more and more of that kind of heat from residents.

They question the city's payout of nearly $30,000 on a new Hummer H3 for the mayor. They want more accountability and better financial judgment from city officials and the mayor.

But Coker is typical of a quiet support, as well.

COKER: I don't have an issue with Mayor Clay at all. Everybody is going to have issues with some things. But that's why you have to pray for your leadership. They don't know everything. This is his first time being a mayor. He's learning through trial and error.

Back at the mayor's office on Broadway, Rudy Clay says what he really needs is federal government help in the form of stimulus money and state help in the form of waivers on tax caps.

Then he could jump-start Gary's assets which he says include the city's proximity to Chicago, its airport and its well used expressways and commuter train and begin to return Gary to the way people like Rozzelle Hammond remember it.

CLAY. I was raised in Gary. I know what it was, what it can be, I know what it is now. We are poised to become a great city. All we're saying is give us a chance here. And, I think we'll get that chance and then we'll sour like an eagle here in Gary, Indiana.

Meanwhile, the state officials are examining the city of Gary's finances including how the city spends and conserves money as they decide whether to grant Gary a waiver on the tax cap rules.

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