City council hears both sides of EID argument
The proposed economic improvement district for Greencastle's downtown business sector caused quite a stir at Tuesday's special meeting of the Greencastle Common Council.
Around 30 concerned citizens and property owners gathered for Tuesday's Public hearing at which the first reading of the proposed ordinance took place and afterward the floor was open for public comment.
However, no decision on the move was made Tuesday, as the council tabled the vote until its next regular meeting.
Approval of the district would mean that property owners in the district, which would run east to west from City Hall to Market Street and north to south from Columbia Street to Walnut Street, would have the value of property assessed yearly, and from that assessment would pay into the EID.
Although the funds are collected through the property tax system, they are not a tax. In spite of this, many opposed to the district see them as such.
"Whether you call it a tax or an assessment, It's a compulsory payment," said Putnam County Senior Center director Jim Stevens.
The funds, once collected, would be used for improvements in the district, which could include tree care, annual flower planting, weed control, snow removal, a part-time maintenance employee and Christmas decorations.
Upon Mayor Sue Murray's first reading of the ordinance, Trudi Selvia, one of the originally petitioners for the move, spoke to the council and citizens. She gave a brief history of how a group of owners had decided to pursue the move.
Selvia pointed out that the petition well exceeded the minimum requirements by the state for the percentage of property owners and the percentage of assessed value represented by those supporting the move.
She also pointed out that the courthouse and owner-occupied residences within the district would be exempt.
After Selvia, though, a number of speakers took the floor and made their arguments against the move.
Jane Bitzer, who owns Catalina Beauty Salon argued that the timing of the district coming before the city is not good, considering the economic hardship the country is facing.
"I find it very hard to believe that at a time of economic disaster, a group of people want to implement a new tax on business owners," Bitzer said.
George "Jerry" Hecko, owner of a downtown auto repair business, made a similar argument.
"The timing of this is unbelievable," Hecko said. "You have no idea how bad our economy is going to be."
Another point raised by a number of people was the personal accountability of owners taking care of their own property.
"I think this should be voluntary," said Bob Bitzer. "Proud property owners take care of their properties. If they want to band together to do it, they should."
John Danberry, who owns a business on East Franklin, said the owners on his block already help each other out, but do not need a larger organization to help them.
"Where we are on East Franklin, we help each other, and I'm thankful for it," Danberry said.
Another point brought by a number of dissenters was the difficult burden the assessment would place on non-profit organizations. Stevens pointed out that the Senior Center is not taxed by the federal or state government, and yet would have to pay this assessment. He said the center struggles enough to raise funds, and an added burden would not help.
"This assessment is going to be a hardship on us," Stevens said. "Our assessment would be $560. I don't have to tell you how many bake sales that would be."
Randy Seipel, representing the Masonic Temple Association asked that if non-profits had to be included, then the council might at least allow them to pay the minimum possible assessment to reduce the hardship.
A couple of owners of rental homes in the area also voiced their concerns. In one case, the couple purchased the house but had to move for accessibility reasons, as one of them has multiple schlerosis. Currently, they rent the house, but to a family that was flooded out of their own home. At the low rate they charge, they make no money.
Another couple in a similar situation expressed the same displeasure in a letter to the council. The letter from Minique Hartley and Mark Mansfield said they purchased a house with the intent of selling it to the current renter. However, the increased burden on them would make this more difficult.
"Only the small businesses would benefit, so they should bear the load," read the letter.
However, the meeting also had its share of ardent supporters of the move. Dave Murray said he owns a business downtown, but much of what he does is outside of the district. In spite of this, he said he cares about the city and that something needs to be done for the future of the city and its central district.
"The businesses of the 21st century are going through this downtown. If it looks the way it looks now, they're going to walk away," Murray said. "They city ought to be doing this, but the city doesn't have the money."
Murray also went on to address concerns many had expressed over the district. They felt it was hurried through and perhaps a "done deal" before they ever even knew about it.
"I apologize if we didn't do this perfectly, but it's the only source of reliable income we have for a long time to come," he said.
People also questioned the way the district was drawn, but Murray assured them it was only to minimized the number of residences actually included in the district.
As others in support of the district came forward, they expressed the same concerns as those opposed, but had very differing viewpoints on how to take care of the problems facing Greencastle businesses. Several saw the troubling economic times as the perfect point at which to pursue this action.
"If we don't protect that downtown, then you're going to see the sale signs in the windows," said Jerry Barcus of Main Street Greencastle.
"Please remember that in lean economic times, it is important to pool the limited resources we have," Leslie Hanson said.
With so much to consider from both sides, Mayor Murray urged the council to table the measure. Additionally, council member Adam Cohen was not present at Tuesday's meeting, and the other members chose to wait for him to be involved in the decision.
The board also approved three resolutions regarding temporary loans from one city fund to another to keep all items in the black for the end of the year. $150,000 went from the rainy day funds to the Parks and Recreation fund. $600,000 transferred from EDIT funds and into the general fund. $37,719.77 moved from Riverboat Funds and into the Park Sinking Fund.
These loans merely cover costs which cannot be met due to the state's delayed distribution of property tax dollars to the city. Once funds become available after the final installment of tax dollars on Jan. 23, the loans will be repaid.
They also authorized encumbrances of $2,012.85 in the fire department general fund and $4,425.82 in the park non-reverting capital fund.
The Greencastle Common Council meets on the second Tuesday of each month at city hall.