Discussion, Details are Essential on Annexation

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The following op-ed appeared in the Journal Gazette on May 6th.

Last month I wrote an op-ed in which I expressed my inclination to abstain from the annexation vote. At the time I felt that abstaining was the right move because of, primarily, my family connection to Northwest Allen County Schools – an entity at risk of losing about $2.5 million of annual revenue with the proposed annexation. Specifically, I felt that a conflict of interest existed because I was predisposed to bias in favor of the schools.

The state statute regarding conflict of interest deals with instances in which a public servant has a pecuniary interest as a result of a governmental contract – a Class D felony. While surely one might hope that certain ethical guidelines exist for conflicts short of criminal conduct, such rules have not yet been promulgated (perhaps a subject to address at a later date). Therefore, each of us on council is left to his own conscience to be his guide.

In the days and weeks that followed my op-ed, I was encouraged by both the strongest proponents (including the mayor himself) as well as vociferous opponents of the proposed annexation (and everyone in between) to participate in the discussion and vote. I listened. I learned that bias doesn’t preclude one from voting; it helps shape the discussion. Our life experiences shape our inherent biases and promote diversity of thought and discussion. And each of us can’t just check our life experiences at the door when we take office. So, I was wrong. It’s pretty safe to say that I do not have all the answers, and I will be wrong again.

Last week the administration presented the fiscal plan for the proposed annexation. It did not go well, as nearly every council member expressed genuine skepticism. The discussion exposed what appeared to be a flawed and ill-conceived approach to engaging future citizens of the city. Just because the city administration did not have to engage the citizens, service providers and entities affected by the annexation, does not mean that they should not have been engaged.

My colleague, Councilman John Crawford, is correct that property tax caps changed the complexion of the annexation conversation. What was once a discussion of growth vs. individual property rights now requires a communitywide discussion of benefits vs. the negative effects to other parts of the community, such as libraries, schools and public safety. Will the administration be able to articulate with specificity how its proposed annexation will accomplish its bullet points of benefits presented in support of its plan for annexation (economic development, jobs, quality of life, long-term health, population growth and tax base distribution)? Only then can we even begin to have a conversation about whether those benefits offset the negative effects to the community.

The mayor’s staff suggested City Council could still approve the fiscal plan in hopes of renegotiating a different and final proposal with the mayor in the next three months. Can new boundaries and a fiscal plan be created that reflect a more collaborative approach than that which was initially provided? The first fiscal plan took four months to prepare without engaging the aforementioned people and entities. I remain skeptical that any such plan could be prepared and presented in less time. The ball is in the mayor’s court to attend the council meeting on Tuesday and prove that he truly wants to have that conversation with the community. Otherwise, his proposal will be DOA.


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