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Eliminate Government? Not Mine, Thanks

A vote to merge the city of Evansville, Ind., with Vanderburgh County has met opposition from some voters and even businesses.
Alan Greenblatt
A vote to merge the city of Evansville, Ind., with Vanderburgh County has met opposition from some voters and even businesses.

If you asked most people whether there's too much government in their lives, they'd probably say yes. But when given the chance to eliminate a layer of government, voters often refuse.

That's why a vote to merge the city of Evansville, Ind., with Vanderburgh County may go down to defeat Tuesday. Many residents are concerned that their access to services would be limited under a unified government, while taxes would increase.

None of that is true, says Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. A consolidated government would save $780,000 the first year, he says, with much greater savings available down the road — potentially bringing tax rates down, not raising them.

"The concept is you pay for the services you receive, period," Winnecke says. But, he concedes, "It's just human nature to be nervous or scared about change."

City-county mergers are always a tough sell. The last major one took place a decade ago, when Louisville, Ky., joined forces with Jefferson County.

Since then, merger talks have failed or stalled out in numerous places, including Buffalo, N.Y.; Topeka, Kan.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Pittsburgh. A merger between Macon, Ga., and Bibb County was approved by voters in July — after the city had set the record for most failed merger votes nationwide, dating back to World War I.

Governors who have tried to prod local governments to combine have mostly come to grief. Indiana Republican Mitch Daniels sought to make local government consolidation a priority but achieved limited success.

One of his goals was eventually to eliminate the state's 1,008 townships. He has managed to bring the number down to 1,006.

That's why all eyes are waiting to see what happens in Evansville and Vanderburgh County, which sit in the southwestern part of the state, directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky.

As in other places, consolidation boosters say a merger would save money and make economic development easier, with one government negotiating with businesses, rather than the welter of city and county officials who now take on that role.

But the potential savings from a merger have been overstated, says Bruce Ungethiem, co-chairman of Citizens Opposed to Reorganization in Evansville. "A lot of the things that made sense to put together in city and county government have already been done," including schools, he says.

For average citizens, the question seems to come down to keeping control over their own lives. Some residents of the city worry about having their concerns ignored within what would be a larger government entity, while those in the county say Evansville doesn't understand their needs.

"German Township has its own water system," says resident Carol Wilmes. "Are they going to take over our water system?"

Evansville recently hosted its annual fall festival. Several blocks of Franklin Street were closed off to accommodate food trucks run by local churches competing to see who could provide the most cholesterol to local citizens.

There was a long line for pork brain sandwiches, a local favorite, but less of a wait at booths selling chocolate-covered corn dogs and pig in the mud (peanut butter and bacon with powdered sugar and maple syrup).

The event attracts thousands of people — and, in an election year, lots of candidates for state and local offices looking to shake hands and win votes. Many people wore big white buttons calling for a "no" vote on the merger, expressing concern that combining governments would result in their taxes going up.

The political culture of the city may just be too unfamiliar for county residents used to a different way of life.

Copyright 2012 NPR

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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