KEVIN LEININGER: Road to the city’s latest annexation is a difficult one — and that helped seal the deal

Deb Parish, president of the La Cabreah Neighborhood Association, supports the area's annexation because it will improve emergency services. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
The city's attempt to annex 23 square miles in 2016 had no shortage of critics, including Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel, at podium, and state Reps. David Ober, Bon Morris and Martin Carbaugh. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Pam Holocher
Kevin Leininger

On May 10, 2016, City Council by a 7-2 party line vote crushed Mayor Tom Henry’s widely opposed plan to annex 23 square miles and 22,000 people on the city’s north side. Almost exactly two years later, the city announced that owners of 174 homes and 105 acres in that same area would be coming into Fort Wayne not by force but by choice.

I wanted to explore the apparent change of heart with leaders from the La Cabreah neighborhood and ended up being 10 minutes late for our interview because of construction that will keep Dupont Road between Lima and Coldwater roads closed for four months — a detour that begins to explain why so many property owners agreed to a tax increase that for many will amount to hundreds of dollars per year.

“A lot of residents are concerned about emergency services. The response time for fire and ambulance from Huntertown is 14 minutes compared to five from the city and it was 12 minutes and five minutes even before construction,” said Deb Parish, president of the La Cabreah Neighborhood Association. “Many of them were upset and asked, ‘What can we do?’ ”

The answer was relatively simple but unusual. La Cabreah and the adjacent La Crista neighborhood approached the city about a voluntary annexation, which required support from more than 51 percent of the property owners in the affected area. Ninety-one homeowners eventually signed the petition, which is expected to win approval from the same City Council that thwarted Henry’s attempt two years ago.

Those response times are especially problematic because part of the La Cabreah are has been within the city limits and part has been unincorporated, meaning neighbors have received dramatically different emergency services. That was made all too clear two years ago when volunteers from Huntertown couldn’t respond quickly enough to prevent severe fire damage to house. No one was injured, but Parish said residents began to understand how mere minutes could mean the difference between life and death.

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Some residents’ insurance rates rose as a result of that fire, Parish said — increases La Cabreah Board Secretary Curt Sylvester expects to reverse as a result of annexation. “We weren’t ‘anti’ anything, we just wanted (city) fire and EMS. This might not have happened if not for the road project,” he said.

Nor is this the first time a desire for improved emergency services has motivated someone to embrace higher costs. In April 2016, Parkview Regional Medical Center on Dupont Road agreed to pay the city $5,000 per year plus $2,000 per run for fire service. “This doesn’t indicate a lack of confidence in the Huntertown Fire Department,” a hospital spokesman said at the time. “But in the case of a catastrophic event, we can call Fort Wayne immediately.”

“People are beginning to understand the value of city services,” city spokeswoman Mary Tyndall said. Director of Planning and Policy Pam Holocher said those services will also include snow removal, police protection, road improvements, trash and recycling pick up and other things. A so-called “fiscal plan” must be completed to assess the city’s added costs and income, but those costs will be relatively minor because of the annexed area’s relatively small size and because the city already provides services to adjacent areas and will not have to erect a new fire station or other expensive infrastructure.

That last point should not be minimized because, where getting annexation approved is concerned, bigger is not always better. Although many would-be city residents expressed concern about higher taxes in 2016, what really killed the city’s proposal was its dramatic impact on other taxing units, especially the Northwest Allen County Schools. Because of state law, the city would have generated additional income at other governments’ expense, including $5 million lost by the county and $2.5 million by NACS — which is why Superintendent Chris Himsel was an outspoken critic.

He’s been silent this time around, perhaps because his district’s loss will be a much more manageable $124,000.

The lessen for the city seems clear: If you hope to annex, keep the size manageable and stress the value and necessity of the services residents will gain over the new taxes they will pay. “I think we may see other areas (request annexation), said Holocher, who will soon schedule an informational meeting with affected residents. Parish said residents of other nearby neighborhoods have contacted her for information about how to do just that.

Maybe the city should schedule a few more big road projects, just to seal the deal.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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