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Lilly up, Christamore House down: Walking and chewing gum in Indy

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Here's the kind of spin we're in...

Last week, Christamore House, a family and community center in the Haughville neighborhood, announced that it will cut its after-school program for lack of funding. Sixty kids, ages five to 18, will be affected, as Christamore is forced to shrink its staff from 19 to 12. Until now, the kids have received tutoring, counseling and a safe place to play for $10 a month.

Christamore's budget has been whipsawed. Demand for its services is through the roof, up 375 percent since 2008, according to a Star report. Christamore also helps families pay their rent and utility bills; so far this year they've spent $144,000 to assist with these necessities, where last year at this time the total came to $95,000.

But Christamore's fundraising is down. They say they need to raise $200,000 in the next 120 days if they're going to meet the needs created by the onset of winter weather.

Christamore's troubles are not isolated. They link with budget shortfalls that are currently afflicting the city's public library, bus and education systems. The institutions we have created to make life better for everybody, regardless of their ability to pay, are beginning to look like saplings after a long, hot summer.

To feel the spin, juxtapose this situation with Mayor Ballard's proposal to guarantee an $86 million loan to build what amounts to an urban campus, including a hotel, YMCA, apartments, restaurants and retail space, for Lilly employees adjacent to the pharmaceutical company's corporate headquarters.

As I have pointed out previously in this space, the city is willing to entertain the idea of a loan like this first because Lilly's involved and, second, because it carries the possibility of eventual repayment and the potential for added revenue in the form of property and other taxes.

Whether you are for the idea or not should be based on your assessment of the risk involved – whether or not you think the deal will work out the way its promoters say it will. If you think the benefits outweigh the risks (taxpayers holding the bag for a lot of vacant Downtown real estate, existing Downtown businesses losing what until now has been a lucrative Lilly clientele), then the city's making a loan like this could be worthwhile.

After all, a city has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. In this case, Indianapolis finding ways to invest in parts of itself that stimulate and sustain commerce is the chewing gum part.

But for a city to walk, it must also be able to provide all of its citizens a decent quality of life. And, here in Indianapolis, this is where the spin begins to feel more like motion sickness.

Christamore House was founded by a couple of Butler students in 1905. This was in the thick of the Progressive Era that Glenn Beck takes such pleasure in slagging.

Progressives were responding to the many ways unregulated capitalism failed to line up with what they thought of as the American Dream. Child labor, low wages, dangerous working conditions and the tendency of wealthy business owners and politicians to be in cahoots created an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, undermining the fundamental idea that all Americans are created equal.

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life," wrote Jane Addams, the leading female Progressive of her day and founder of Chicago's Hull House, regarded by many to be the prototype for centers like Christamore House in Indianapolis.

And just as Addams' work echoes down the decades -- finding expression in the many ways Christamore House holds on as the last best hope for many of Haughville's children and adults -- the era of robber barons, retail politicians and the reverence for wealth that moved Addams to action is back, as well.

Take, for example, the way utility company executives and regulators have been literally interchangeable here. Duke Energy's president, Michael Reed, is a former executive director of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, the body responsible for regulating energy companies. Somehow this conflict of interest passed muster with Gov. Daniels, who appoints the IURC's members. This, apparently, is what happens when you "run government like a business." It becomes a business.

Daniels has caused a stir lately, by firing the IURC's current head, David Lott Hardy. It came out that Hardy knew his general counsel was dealing with cases at the same time he was being courted by none other than Duke Energy. Daniels would now have us believe he is a reformer. Let's see what, if anything, he does about Thomas Easterly, the head of the state's Department of Environmental Management – also a former utility executive whose job is to protect our environment from...utilities.

Jane Addams wrote: "Private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city's disinherited." She would look at the $200,000 Christamore House needs to raise from private donors and shake her head. It's hard not to think she'd see a city spinning out of control.

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