This the third article in a three part series on the future of unincorporated White River Township (WRT). In Part One we defined what constitutes an unincorporated island. In Part Two we examined how much of WRT could become an unincorporated island. In Part Three we look at what Unincorporated Islands mean to you and your taxes.
County and State governments all over the United States are realizing the challenges associated with providing continued services to unincorporated islands. In fact, governments from Washington, California and Georgia, just to name a few, have passed legislation in recent years to address this growing problem. What problem you may ask?
In many cases the unincorporated islands developed over many years not by design but more by accident, or to use the words of Keene Simonds an executive officer of the Orange County (CA) Local Agency Formation Commission, “(unincorporated) islands are just bad governance and bad planning”. Regardless of how they form, unincorporated islands are a problem for both county government and the affected residents. The issues include:
Confusion: While for some it is incomprehensible that people do not know where they live, it has been demonstrated that a large portion of most residents in unincorporated areas do not understand that they do not live in a city. Locally, many people we speak to believe they live in Greenwood, simply because that is what their address says.
Representation: For some the first time they realize something is amiss is when they try to vote for the mayor of Greenwood and are turned away. Because we live outside of any city limits, we have as much say in what happens in our area as people who live in the southern part of Johnson County. We have no local officials to turn to in times of need. County governments were not designed to service a “town” the size of the unincorporated community of Center Grove. Remember, county officials must do what is best for the county as a whole.
Cost: “I moved here to get away from the city”. That is understood. However, with each new housing development and the increased notoriety of our school system we have become a town, except we have no local government. The combination of suburban living and a great school system continues to draw people to this area.
As our population has increased however, so has the strain on services provided by the county such as road maintenance and sheriff services as more and more residents demand these services. Basic economics teaches us that as demand increases so does cost.
Complicating this basic economic axiom are selective annexations. Because selective annexation allows cities and towns to cherry-pick the desirable higher-value commercial and industrial areas, the county is left with predominantly residential areas that have comparatively lower property values, thus lower tax bases and higher service costs.
There are nearly 29,000 residents in the unincorporated community of Center Grove. It is the most populous unincorporated area in the state of Indiana. As many reading this know, the county has been faced with declining revenues. Pair a decreased budget with the rising costs of everything from gas to road construction materials it is clear that something will need to be done. Either our service levels will diminish or our county taxes will rise in order to cover the short fall.
While some want to adhere to the “that won’t happen here” mantra, we need to learn from the experiences of other states and counties who have either already faced this reality or who are doing so now. A prime example of this can be found in King County Washington where a study by the county’s budget advisory task force determined that the county can no longer afford to provide urban services to its unincorporated areas. Faced with this reality King County council chairman, Larry Phillips, remarked that “it seems inevitable” when asked about the gradual decline in county services to unincorporated islands.
At C4CG we also believe that this possibility is inevitable over the next few years. The question we need you to answer is will we face this issue head on, or will we allow it happen?