State Sen. Brent Waltz hopes new legislation on local government mergers will mend fences in his home of Johnson County while saving other Indiana communities a series of headaches.
"We're beginning to see the issues of Johnson County repeating themselves in other parts of the state," Waltz said. In Hendricks County, a committee formed last year to study the merger of Brownsburg and Lincoln and Brown townships.
Waltz, a Republican from Center Grove, found himself in an uncomfortable spot as debate over the proposal to merge Greenwood and White River Township heated up last year. His uncle is Greenwood Mayor Charles Henderson, who wanted the merger. However, Waltz's friend and former campaign chairman is Scott Swartz, whose family owns—and would like to develop—farmland near Stones Crossing Road in unincorporated White River Township. Swartz's parents last year sued Greenwood over lack of notification about an annexation that affected their land.
Greenwood's proposed merger sparked debate on several points, the foremost being the impact on property taxes. A study committee concluded that taxes would increase for residents of the unincorporated area, but an opposing analysis said the hike would be bigger than the pro-merger group predicted.
Waltz's bill requires local merger committees to submit their fiscal-impact analysis to the state Department of Local Government Finance, which would review and publish comments on its website. The local governments would have to pay for the state's expenses.
Waltz also addressed other issues that came up in the Greenwood merger debate, which goes back to 2008. One snafu that arose in the final leg of the process virtually killed the proposal.
The White River Township Board and Greenwood Common Council each approved a merger plan last summer with the intent of having it certified in time for the November general election. The merger would have required approval from a majority of voters in both the city and unincorporated area, so it had to go on a general-election ballot.
Greenwood City Attorney Shawna Koons said that, although the township board signed off on the plan in June, proper paperwork didn't make its way to Greenwood until after noon on Aug. 1, which meant that it missed a deadline for certification of 90 days prior to the election.
Greenwood argued that the Johnson County Election Board could still apply the local-government-reorganization statute, which provides for a 60-day deadline, but the board applied the 90-day rule. That means the question was left off the ballot in November and would not be eligible again until the next general election in November 2012.
Waltz said he wanted to resolve the conflicting state statutes, so he set the deadline at 90 days, which is the same as for other ballot questions. His bill also allows local governments to hold special elections on merger questions. (Local governments would have to shoulder the expense.)
Unfortunately for Greenwood's merger plan, another issue arose in January, after the election of a new slate of trustees in White River Township. One of the new board's first acts was to adopt a resolution repealing White River's support of the merger.
Greenwood thinks the township board's first action approving the merger plan should stand, but that's one issue Waltz's bill doesn't address, Koons said. "We might still be up in the air about what's going to happen with us."
Waltz's bill also weighs in on where votes should be counted. Under Greenwood's plan, people who live in the part of White River Township that's already in the city limits would have their votes counted in Greenwood. Waltz's bill calls for all votes by a township's residents to count for the township.
Waltz, who would have voted against a merger, said he isn't trying to influence the outcome of an election. A merger eliminates township government, so he thinks it's only fair that all of a township's residents have their votes counted with the township. In any case, he thinks the merger question would have failed in both White River Township and Greenwood. "Anecdotally, there seemed to be more people in opposition to the merger."
Waltz believes Greenwood's merger effort was particularly contentious because it coincided with annexation battles with Bargersville, a tiny town south of unincorporated Center Grove. "These two issues poisoned the well on each other," he said.
The Indiana Supreme Court will soon settle at least one of Greenwood's feuds. Oral arguments are scheduled for Thursday in a case over the annexation of land around Stones Crossing Road and State Road 135.
The fight started when Bargersville moved to annex the land, which is within three miles of Greenwood's city limits, without seeking special permission from the residents or landowners. Bargersville argued that wasn't necessary, since homeowners had signed waivers as part of their sewer-service agreements years earlier.