If you think it is tough cutting through the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, try grasping the referendum on the ballot in Vanderburgh County this year.
Voters will decide on Election Day whether to consolidate Evansville and Vanderburgh County governments, or keep them separate. It is easy for Vanderburgh County voters to hear opinions from both sides. It is much more difficult to decide who is right, especially when the issues focus on a proposed form of government that most residents have never experienced. Plus, the issue is not divided down party lines.
Those in the consolidation camp include Republican Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, Democrat County Sheriff Eric Williams and Republican County Commissioner Joe Kiefer. The status quo camp includes Democrat County Treasurer and 2011 mayoral nominee Rick Davis and Democrat County Commissioner Steve Melcher. Republican County Council members James Raben and Angela Koehler Lindsey have not officially declared, although both say they are leaning toward “no” to consolidation.
Defeating the referendum means retaining a separate city council, county council, and county commission. Choosing consolidation means the nine-person city council and seven-person county council will disappear, as would the three county commissioners. They would be replaced by a 15-member common council. Also eliminated would be the city clerk’s office.
Passage means the mayor would be elected by all voters in Vanderburgh County, not just the city. If the referendum goes through, the election for mayor and common council would take place in November 2014, with the new consolidated government beginning work the following January.
Each side has justified its own point of view with volumes of material. On the organized group’s website (www.CORE2012.net), Citizens Opposed to Reorganization in Evansville give its “7 Deadly Sins of Reorganization.”
• Higher taxes for everyone
• Less representation
• No economic benefit
• More costly government
• Higher sewer rates
• Concentration of political power
• Fewer elected officials, more appointed officials
In favor of the consolidation, the Citizens for Unification listed 10 reasons why “Yes! Is Best” on its website, www.yesforunification.com.
• Save money, control taxes
• Better representation
• Promote job growth
• Single vision
• Fair taxation
• Power to the people
• Preserve rural and urban lifestyle
• Fair sewer rates
• Avoid annexation
• A better future for our children
It seems that both sides are looking at many of the same issues and predicting completely different outcomes.
“Usually, when you take a complicated issue that overwhelms somebody, you whittle it down to a very simple notion,” says Robert Dion, Ph.D, associate professor of political science at the University of Evansville. “It’s called ‘framing the issue.’ Both sides right now are trying really hard to come up with a punchy, catchy, simple slogan because their aim is to grab the loosely connected voter and bring him or her around to their side.”
Proponents of unification insist that separate city and county governments cost taxpayers too much and fail to promote job growth. They also say that Evansville and Vanderburgh County already have government functions that have successfully merged, most notably the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. and the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library.
Sheriff Williams calls the referendum “a critical next step for Vanderburgh County and Evansville to remain competitive. By merging our governments, we are establishing a long-term framework to control spending, keep our taxes low, and provide better representation. A more accountable government that is closer to the people will offer anybody who wants to create a job here the confidence they need to take a risk on our region.”
Opponents say their research shows that in many communities, consolidation of city and county governments has not led to greater economic development, more jobs, or lower taxes, and that in some cases, the result has been the opposite. “Under our current government, city residents vote for four out of seven county council members and four out of nine city council representatives,” Davis says. “Under the new plan, city residents will vote for only four out of 15 common council members. Our vote will be watered down.”
Here is a closer look at specific areas affected by unification:
Referendum proponents say they can save nearly $1 million of tax money immediately since one council position, all three county commissioners, and the city clerk will be eliminated. They also point to lower costs for legal services and the elimination of off-year elections. Ongoing, they expect to save 3 to 7 percent of the cost of government with the merging of services. Opponents say that most departments are already merged, that unification will cause property taxes to rise for city and non-city residents, and that all elections could be moved to the same year, thus avoiding off-year elections.
Mayor and Common Council
Proponents say unification will increase both rural and inner-city representation in local government, so that every citizen will now have four people representing them on the 15-member Common Council; one from their neighborhood district and three members elected countywide. Opponents say the plan gives too much power to the mayor, and that the mayor will choose the needs of city residents over county residents since approximately 75 percent of Vanderburgh County residents live within the city limits.
Proponents wanted one law enforcement agency, but opposition to that idea kept it out of the referendum. As a result, the Evansville Police Department and Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office will remain separate and continue to do their own work, even if the referendum passes. If it does pass, the issue of a single law enforcement agency could be brought up no sooner than 2024.
As with police protection, a “yes” vote on the referendum will not change anything. Fire departments outside the city are primarily volunteer fire departments that are functions of township government, not county government. The referendum merges city and county governments, not city and townships.
Water, Sewer, and Trash
Non-city residents currently pay about one-third more for sewer services than those living within city limits. Under a unified government, everyone would pay the same rate within three years. As a result, opponents say water and sewer bills will rise for city residents who currently pay, through their sewer and water bill, for Allied Waste to pick up trash. Non-city residents choose their own disposal services. Proponents say that non-city residents could choose the city’s trash service, and potentially save money.
The town government of Darmstadt, the only incorporated town in Vanderburgh County besides Evansville, would remain intact and keep its same responsibilities. However, both sides agree that anything under the merger that affects non-city residents would most likely affect Darmstadt citizens, since they will continue to pay county taxes.
“In a democracy, we place high demand on the voter to know a lot, and to care,” says Dion. “How do they gather information in this case? By reading carefully, reading critically, and by understanding where the message they hear is coming from. Who paid for it? Who sponsored it? They should take everything with a grain of salt.”