Birth of a Town
Greetings fellow Center Grovians! Or would you prefer Center Grovites? If you live in the Center Grove area as I do, how do you answer when asked where you live? I tell people I live in Greenwood, but technically, that’s not correct. I have a Greenwood mailing address, but a Whiteland phone number and I’m on Bargersville water. When I take yoga classes at the Greenwood Parks and Recreation building I have to pay the non-resident fee. The fire department has been called to my house, and it was the White River Township Fire Department that showed up. Police and street services are provided by Johnson County, but my kids went through Center Grove Schools. So, I’m a little confused. I feel a bit like a person without a real community of my own, and yet, I’ve lived here for more than 30 years and there is everything I need right here to live comfortably. The Center Grove area is a large thriving upscale community. But what exactly are we? Not a city and not a town. We are unincorporated. We are an island.
To put this in perspective, as of the 2010 census the city of Columbus has just over 44,000, the city of Franklin has fewer than 24,000, Beech Grove has only 14,000, and Greenwood has fewer than 50,000 residents. There are nearly 29,000 of us on this Center Grove “island” and that is not a small number. In addition, it is growing.
As an area in which to live, work and go to school, Center Grove is certainly desirable. Both Bargersville and Greenwood have annexed portions of it in recent years. The reorganization effort, which would have united with Greenwood and unincorporated White River Township, collapsed for various reasons.
That’s when a small group of Center Grove residents stepped up and decided to see what it would take to incorporate the Town of Center Grove. If incorporated the local residents would assume control of their own future. Citizens for Center Grove (C4CG) was formed with four board members and about 20 volunteers. The board consists of brothers Jody and Dann Veldkamp, Ryan Rhoten, and Cassie Burnett. Sitting down with Jody and Dann to discuss the group’s mission is like getting a lesson in civics. My eyes glazed over a few times as they cited state codes, surveys, hearings, and petitions that are required by law.
Sometimes the problem is that the law is not very clear. The Veldkamps have been working on this for three years and have learned, the hard way, the long and winding road towards town incorporation in Indiana. It’s not an easy or an inexpensive process. So, what would motivate someone to put that much time and effort into something that is not even a sure thing? It isn’t for some future reward they say. If it’s a power play, there’s no such thing as mayor of a town. Jody
summed it up by saying they’ve invested three years of their lives on this because “we’re interested in the community. After looking around the country at other unincorporated communities near urban areas and what ended up happening to them and seeing the problems they faced, we said we need to do something. After the reorganization effort failed our only option is to incorporate.” For those of you wondering why anything has to be done at all, Dann says as Center Grove continues to grow, change is inevitable. “The idea that we can do nothing is mistaken. The area will continue to grow; the question is who will manage that growth?”
Preparing for change
There are several reasons that we cannot stop change but only manage it. C4CG has found that isolated, unincorporated areas bring more cost and expense to the county. That means either service will decrease or county taxes will increase to maintain the level of service. In addition, as we’ve already seen, both Greenwood and Bargersville have annexed desirable commercial areas that add to their tax base. It’s sort of a cherry picking, if you will; take the commercial but leave the residential. That leaves the county to pick up the tab for residential services with less tax revenue to pay for it. As our neighbors continue to carve out the desirable commercial land, it leaves the rest of us on an island surrounded by municipalities. County government is not set up to govern densely populated, isolated, unincorporated areas. This has become such a problem around the country that several states have laws against it, and others are providing incentives to cities to eliminate their unincorporated islands.
Then there’s the inevitable boom when SR-37 becomes I-69. Who will control that growth? Because we are unincorporated someone in, for example, Franklin, Trafalgar, or someone living in a rural area has as much say as to what happens in the unincorporated community of Center Grove as people who actually live in the Center Grove area. We have no more or less say as to what and where development occurs in our community than anyone else in the county. C4CG Board member Cassie Burnett is a CPA and familiar with utility issues and tax numbers. She thinks the Center Grove community should be keeping an eye on the I-69 project. She sees incorporation’s biggest advantage is that it will bring about $2-million tax dollars, that we already pay, back to the area. “When I run the numbers, it just makes sense to take ownership and take responsibility for our area. Center Grove has its own unique flavor in Johnson County and it just makes sense to become our own town and accentuate our good qualities,” Cassie says.
Which brings us to what members of Citizens for Center Grove say are the major reasons in favor of incorporation: First, it will allow for local control of planning and development. Second, the town will control its own ordinances; meaning, we will have the most responsive level of government possible. The town council will have the ability to decide on ordinances with the input of fellow citizens. Third, it will recapture non-property taxes that are already being paid by members of the community. In fact, according to analysis conducted by C4CG, about one half of the town’s proposed budget will come from taxes that are already being paid, largely to the state, on items such as gas, cigarettes, riverboat gambling, vehicle registration, and alcohol. The state distributes those taxes to counties and other municipalities around the state. Incorporation would bring a significant amount of money directly to the Town of Center Grove.
So, if about half the town budget comes from existing taxes the next natural question is where does the other half come from? If you guessed property taxes, you are right. Center Grove residents do not currently pay any town property taxes and that will change if it is incorporated. However, the Citizens for Center Grove say current projections indicate the tax rate will be less than half of the town rate paid by our neighbors, Greenwood and Bargersville. Part of the reason for that is because as a new town, there are no legacy costs for things such as bonds, pensions, and infrastructure for water or sewer. What you will get for the small increase in property taxes will be accountability. As an incorporated town, Center Grove will control when, what, and how things get fixed. If your neighborhood streets could use a new layer of asphalt, you have a much better shot at getting that done on a local town level, proponents say, than at the current county level. Citizens for Center Grove Board member Ryan Rhoten says “if at some point we have to pay higher taxes why wouldn’t we be willing to in order to have more control and more say?” If we are annexed into another community our taxes will increase but citizen’s influence will be diluted by the current residents of the annexing city.
If you are wondering about the services that Center Grove residents currently receive such as police, fire and street construction and maintenance, there will be minimal change. Part of the legwork that the Citizens for Center Grove has done includes canvassing all service providers to make sure that they will continue to provide those services. The difference is that they will be under contract and paid by the town, with the town deciding the required level of service. Utility services won’t change and schools are completely unaffected.
Citizens for Center Grove did not undertake this massive project alone. The group learned that graduate students in Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) choose a Capstone project to work on every semester. The students can gain real-life experience on a municipal level in this project. There were seven students in Professor Orville Powell’s class during this most recent semester. Center Grove’s project was the first to be submitted to them and according to Professor Powell, they were so excited, they didn’t want to look at any other submissions.
The next official step in becoming a town is to present a petition to the Johnson County Commissioners. That is targeted for this July. The SPEA students addressed all the items that need to be included in the petition and presented them to the Citizens for Center Grove Board at a recent meeting. It was a huge, multilevel undertaking that involved researching history, studying borders, looking at growth and demographics, analyzing tax rates and budgets and adhering to all Indiana code requirements. The students put in hundreds of hours on the project and their services were worth around $60,000. “Their contribution has been invaluable and helped us move much more quickly,” says Dann. Their report becomes the framework of the petition to the County Commissioners who then will vote on whether they want the town to incorporate.
The County Commissioners aren’t the only ones who can kill the proposal. If the Greenwood Common Council votes against it, all of this effort would be jettisoned. Greenwood gets to say yea or nay because of a state law that allows cities to rule on incorporation within three miles of their border. (This does not apply to towns, such as Bargersville.) Indianapolis has to approve as well, but there’s no reason to believe Center Grove incorporation would make any difference to Indy. It could affect Greenwood though, but so far, there doesn’t seem to be a movement opposed to it. Greenwood 4th District Councilman and Council Vice President Ron Bates says he voted against the original merger of the Center Grove/White River Township area with Greenwood because he feels that the residents of Center Grove should be given a chance for self-determination. He thinks that those people that it will affect the most should decide and he adds, “I still believe you have the right to chart your own destiny.” Ron doesn’t think there will be much opposition to incorporation from Greenwood City Council members and he says Greenwood appears to have given up on the idea of annexing the area and instead is focusing east and south.
That doesn’t mean everyone thinks Center Grove incorporation is a good idea. Take the new mayor of Greenwood, Mark Myers, for instance. He questions how everything is going to be paid for and thinks that there could be problems in the future with paying for repairs to infrastructure. The mayor says a study was done of White River Township infrastructure such as streets, sanitation and storm water and it was not in good shape. He thinks there are millions of dollars worth of repairs on the horizon and he wonders how the new town of Center Grove would pay for it. Mayor Myers suggested residents might have to pay fees in addition to higher property taxes. He adds, “How long can the town survive contracting out all its services? At some point, it may have to start its own police department and utilities.” As for Greenwood’s interest in merging or annexing the area, the mayor says he has no interest in it at this time because, “there’s so much division out there and with so much misinformation, it has caused so many hard feelings that I don’t want to take it on.” Nevertheless, he adds, “the people of White River need to have their voices heard. Starting a new layer of government though is not the answer.”
Mayor Myers also indicated that most of the comments he hears are negative about the possibility of incorporation while Citizens for Center Grove Board member Ryan Rhoten says he hears all the time from people that it should have been done a long time ago. Rhoten says, “It should be done now. The community is tight-knit and most people don’t know that we’re not a town already. If we wait another five years down the road, opportunities will pass and the community feeling may be gone, so something needs to be done.”
If you want to learn more, there will be a public meeting on June 12 at 7 PM at the Center Grove High School Administration Building. Come with questions. If you’d like to support the effort, come with your checkbook and credit cards too. Citizens for Center Grove has been financing this effort through donations. Prior to the public hearing that will be scheduled by the County Commissioners, the group must send out a certified letter to all homeowners in Center Grove. That alone will cost more than $45,000. For more information go to www.CitizensforCenterGrove.org or check out the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/C4CenterGrove.
Emphasizing the gravity and importance of this effort, Dann Veldkamp says, “This is the largest issue facing the area. It is very significant. Pass or fail, it will determine the future of Center Grove.”
Ann Craig-Cinnamon is a 30-year Radio & TV Broadcast veteran. You may recall her as the host of popular radio morning shows in Indianapolis for many years. She and her husband, John are also business owners. Her lifelong love of world travel led them to start a travel franchise, CruiseOne, in Center Grove. Ann is a writer, travel speaker and author of an upcoming book about her time spent living in Iran.