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2/13/2006 11:02:00 AM
Both sides say Evansville-Vanderburgh County merger is possible

Evansville Courier & Press

By THOMAS B. LANGHORNE Courier & Press staff writer 464-7432 or
February 13, 2006

Can it be done? The answer, say both sides, is yes.

The question is whether voters in Vanderburgh County's outlying areas would support city-county local government consolidation, as required by two bills pending in the Legislature.

"You put together a good enough marketing program, and I'm sure you could sway enough people," said Richard Clements, president of the anti-consolidation organization We the People of Vanderburgh County. "It all depends on how the argument is framed."

Clements' organization calls for a countywide referendum in November on whether to proceed with consolidation talks. Both city residents and noncity residents in Vanderburgh County would have to vote yes for the plan to move ahead.

"(HB 1344) is the work product of a small special interest group (the pro-consolidation City-County Unification Study Committee) and not the product of the people," Clements said. "It is a fraudulent effort based on the work of a study committee that failed to release a report of its findings."

We the People favors HB 1362, which would make consolidation possible only if triggered by a petition drive or passage of resolutions by the legislative bodies of both governmental units. That bill also would require separate approval by those who live in the city and the county residents who live outside the city's limits.

"That bill provides the general public with the ability to generate a real study committee if they become dissatisfied with their local government structure," Clements explained. "It would require more of a demonstration of public support."

Clements said members of We the People will testify Wednesday before the Senate Governmental Affairs and Interstate Cooperation Committee when that body considers the two consolidation bills.

For advocates of consolidation, the issues are simpler. The City-County Unification Study Committee began by proposing a single referendum on consolidation in 2006, only to have local legislators reject that idea and the committee's other proposals to advance ideas of their own. "If we get the right bill, (consolidation) can pass in the county," insisted City Councilman Joe Kiefer, who kicked off the drive for consolidation by pushing for formation of the study committee three years ago.

To pass muster with noncity residents, Kiefer said, any proposal for consolidation probably would have to provide assurances that their local property tax rate wouldn't go up as a result.

"If they had those assurances, I feel they could be comfortable with it," he said.

"Hey, I'm optimistic because we've got two bills on consolidation now. In 30 years we haven't had any. That's progress."

In January, Kiefer provided what he called an explanation for legislators' reluctance to champion the City-County Unification Study Committee's original idea of a single referendum.

"They didn't want to (support consolidation) in the first place," he said. "Well, it's not that they didn't want to do it, but it's a headache for them. You're asking them to do something that's controversial, and that makes legislators squeamish."

If legislators had required both noncity residents and city residents to agree in 1993, when they voted on riverboat gambling, Evansville would not have Casino Aztar.

Although consolidation and riverboat gambling are very different issues, they both have one thing in common - controversy. Like consolidation, the opposition to riverboat gambling was heavier outside the city's limits. Those outside the city voted against gambling by a 52-48 percent margin. But the measure passed because city voters lifted the overall margin of victory to 52 percent.

Consolidation advocates last month picked up the public support of Roberta Heiman, the president of the League of Women Voters of Southwest Indiana. She suggested to members that the organization endorse a merger without embracing any legislation.

"We have overlapping, fragmented, inefficient and often confusing layers of government authority and responsibility," Heiman told a Lunch with the League gathering. "... Continuing our multiple layers of local government, I think, is a luxury for the political parties that taxpayers can no longer afford.

"It's nice for the Republicans and Democrats to be able to have all of these offices to hold. But in Indiana, we're electing more government than any other state."

League members ultimately decided not to endorse consolidation because they thought they could have more influence by being neutral. opposes House Bill 1344, which

Related Stories:
• Changes sought by Senate on governmental merger bill
• Merger bill passes House
• Evansville-Vanderburgh County merger bill advances for now
• Vote procedure causes split on merger measure
• Local government merger bill amended by Senate committee, future uncertain

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