Friday, October 15, 2010

TOP STORY > >City tries to allay fears

By rick kron
Leader staff writer

More than 250 people packed Jacksonville’s Community Center Thursday night for a town hall meeting called by Mayor Gary Fletcher to give residents an overview of the city’s finances, projects and growth.

“Toward the end of the meeting we made it clear, we either have to increase the tax base or increase our taxes and fees,” Fletcher said.

He said the last hike in sanitation fees was in 1991 as part of a five-year plan, “And maybe we should have done something way back, but this year we have a $352,000 shortfall in that department. We have some hard decisions to make in the near future,” the mayor explained.

Even though a number of topics were covered, it always seemed to come back to the proposed annexing of 3.84 square miles north of the city.

“I just can’t wrap my head around the perception that this annexation will be Jacksonville’s salvation. 

How can it be the city’s salvation?” said Ski Gruver, a resident of the area proposed for annexation. “I’m just not able to find an upside for us. Why does the city want to rape virgin land and leave its center a ghetto?”

Those clearly against the annexation were sprinkled throughout the crowd and were easy to spot with their yellow shirts.

The mayor  responded that it’s his belief that the annexation will be good for everyone  and it will give Jacksonville land and cash, both of which it can use.

The annexation will bring in some prime highway frontage property for future retail businsses, and the businesses already located in the area will bring about $1.9 million annually in sales tax into the city coffers.

Fletcher said that money can be used to help with some of the necessary capital improvements and be used to help purchase land the city wants to use to attract the state fair to the area.

Fletcher said original estimates placed the land, at the southeastern edge of Jackson-ville, at a value of $1.5 million.

“But with the appraisals in, it’s actually closer to $3 million. But it’s still too good of a deal for us to pass up.”

Economic consultant Rickey Hayes, from the Tulsa area, was one of the speakers at the meeting, along with Finance Director Paul Mushrush, City Engineer Jay Whisker and City Administrator Jim Durham.

Hayes said a city can do only two things: grow or die. “And if a city isn’t growing, then it’s dying,” he said.

He compared Jacksonville to Tulsa. “In Tulsa, the mayor and city council are always in disagreement, always fighting and it’s on television, on the news and in the newspaper. That city’s growth has been stagnant because of that for five years now,” Hayes said, “because of the discord.”

“But in Jacksonville, the council, and all city departments are pulling in the same direction. This city is growing. In fact I believe,” Hayes said, “that you are sitting on a gold mine. Businesses, restaurants and retail should be crawling all over themselves to get here.

“Just the impact on tax collection from the local restaurants tells you that the city could support a Target or a Best Buy,” the consultant said, “So why aren’t they?”

“Because when some guy in Minnesota is looking at Jacksonville on Google Earth, he isn’t seeing any open highway frontage. It appears that every inch of available space is taken,” Hayes said, adding that was why the city wanted to annex the northern lands.

But one property owner in that area said she was wiling to sell.

Rizelle Aaron told the crowd that the city would take land through eminent domain if they didn’t sell.

The mayor said that wasn’t true. “We are not going to force anyone to sell their land and we aren’t taking any of it by eminent domain.”

The mayor also dispelled some other rumors floating around about the election—“We are not going to close the liquor stores, and even if we wanted to we couldn’t. Jacksonville is not a dry city, only Gray 

Township is (which encompasses a large section of Jacksonville) and we are not raising taxes.

“However, for the county area, when it becomes part of the city, will start to collect the city tax which will increase what is being paid for goods and services in that area.”

Partne Daugherty asked why the city wasn’t concentrating efforts on small businesses and developing more missed-use areas to allow people to work and live in the same building.

The city engineer said the city does allow mixed use in certain areas of the city and to start the process a property owner would just have to ask. “We don’t want to rezone a whole area because not everyone wants to convert houses to businesses, but we’ll look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

The city council will take up the annexation issue at its 7 p.m. meeting Thursday at city hall.