October 20, 2014
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The Consolidate Debate

A history lesson for the proposed, hotly contested merger of city and county governments
J. William Davidson

The current debate over the consolidation of city and county governments sounds oddly familiar to people who can recall Evansville in 1959 and J. William Davidson. Former city controller “Bill” Davidson was sworn into office as mayor of the city on Dec. 4, 1958, after Vance Hartke’s election to the U.S. Senate. Davidson was not only the first Catholic mayor but also the first to be sworn in on TV (at the WTVW studio). At 53, Davidson had been a leader in the Democrat party, rising from a poor student who swept the floors in the McCurdy Hotel to a prominent attorney and civic leader.

Trouble greeted the new mayor. Davidson faced striking city sanitation workers (garbage piling up was only palatable because of the cold weather), and the city’s bus service, then a private concern, went bankrupt and abruptly stopped the windy morning of March 13, leaving hundreds of riders standing at stops. The Downtown Retail Merchants Association and Davidson launched a committee to find a replacement service. An Indianapolis company agreed to a contract and operated through the 1960s until the city later created the METS service.

Additionally for Davidson, the Federal Aviation Administration required improvements to the airport the city could not afford. Davidson needed to enforce upgrades, or the FAA would force restrictions on Evansville’s flight capabilities. The problem? The city’s bonding capacity was maxed out due to the construction of the recently built Roberts Stadium, and Evansville’s small city limits left a diminutive tax base. In 1959, the city was bounded by St. Joseph Avenue on the west, Pigeon Creek on the north, Weinbach Avenue on the east, and the Ohio River on the south. Everything else was county. The city population had declined significantly since the 1950 census, and tax revenues, credits from the federal government, and state bonding limitations were strangling the budget. Plus, many tax-paying industries had left town.

City and county officials recently approved a consolidation referendum for November 2012, and though unpopular with some groups, pity poor Davidson. He proposed a brilliant but politically unpopular plan: areas to the west, east, and north that were developed (including the fast growing East Side subdivisions and First Avenue’s Country Club Manor) were all to be annexed by Dec. 31, doubling the geographic area within the city and increasing the city population by 17,500 in time for the 1960 census. It was political suicide for the man who literally saved the city’s airport.

The mayor gambled that people would see what the professionals saw: Evansville would suffer through the 1960s as a shrinking morass with no funds to improve anything or make repairs to infrastructure. Former county residents grew angry over new city taxes, and Davidson lost the Democratic primary to future mayor Frank McDonald Sr.

The now late Davidson receded into obscurity. A Jewish proverb says there are two deaths: The first is when your body dies, and the second is the last time anyone speaks your name.

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