CHURUBUSCO — Community members gathered for what became a lively, and in some cases contentious, Town Hall meeting with the Churubusco Town Council and Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.
The meeting was led by Chamber President Kevin Rothgeb, who addressed several topics with the council — annexation, utility services for expansion and housing development. Overall, those present discussed how to grow the town, in light of Smith-Green Community School’s referendum, which will be on the primary election ballot in May.
“A lot of progress has been made over the past five years, but there’s more work to be done,” said Rothgeb. “We’re either going to get the funds for the schools or now. The only solution to this problem (in the long term) is growth. How can we move forward?”
“It’s not the word a lot of people like, but it’s how we grow communities,” Rothgeb said of annexation.
In Churubusco’s Stellar Communities grant application and the town’s Comprehensive Plan, one of the biggest challenges noted is expansion and annexation.
Along U.S. 33, John Kreiger Drive and McCoy Drive are the town limits. An annexation on the north side of Churubusco could incorporate businesses, and add $2.24 million in assessed value ($1 million in commercial property). On the south side of Churubusco, anything south of the Magic Wand is not part of the town’s corporate limits.
Rothgeb questioned the council: “What are we doing to get there, and how do we get there?”
Council President Frank Kessler responded, explaining the difficulty in annexing areas that don’t have 100 percent support from property owners.
He explained there are two feasible ways to annex: super voluntary and voluntary. In super voluntary annexation, all landowners within the territory agree and request to be annexed.
“Even that takes some time,” Kessler said.
In voluntary annexation, a majority of the landowners in that territory are open to being annexed.
“That takes longer and there are more hearings — more red tape involved in getting that done,” Kessler said. “To annex an area where a majority of the landowners object, it is practically impossible at that point.”
In recent years, the down had a feasibility study on annexing the area south of town. The cost would be $4.1 million to provide town services to areas annexed, which is required by state law.
“Financially we couldn’t afford to do that,” Kessler said. “It’s not just providing utilities, the town has to provide all services — street lights, maintenance, storm water handling — all the things that go along with being in town.”
Councilman Mark Pepple agreed that annexation is important, but wants to have “good money management.”
“When we’re talking about our resources, there is limited money. The last think you all want is for taxes to be increased,” Pepple said.
Councilman Bruce Johnson concurred.
“We don’t have that type of money,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes the most logical places to annex to see more immediate results in terms of the school referendum would be in areas to the north and west of town, where there is potential for housing construction. Ultimately, town leaders want to see population growth, especially for young families who may bring their children to the school district. If the referendum does pass, town leaders want to see growth by the end of it’s term — eight years.
“I’m talking about undeveloped areas to the north and west,” Johnson said. “Eight years, when we’re talking about adding residences and houses, is not a lot of time. Annexation could take years. We could be talking three to four years down the road before we have any noticeable change.”
Community member Miles Wilson questioned other ideas, such as potentially annexing 100 acres of land, which could support 50 homes.
Council members said there is a developer speaking with a current landowner about such an idea, but the two are in negotiations.
“We have a plan to move forward if and when that occurs,” Kessler said.
Staying within the budget
“Why is that $4.1 million (south annex) too expensive?” asked Pat McGuire, leader of the political action committee in support of the school referendum. “To me, that’s almost chicken feed when looking at the big picture.”
“We’re dealing with the same thing the school is,” Pepple responded. “One thing we’ve been tasked with is to keep taxes low, that’s what we’re trying to do and still get projects done.
“It’s not right to say we can do all these projects tomorrow and $4 million is chump change.”
“We are almost at crisis mode,” McGuire responded. “We can’t say something costs too much. Let’s address the issue.”
“We are, that’s why we’re here,” Pepple said. “I’m not going to put the town in crisis mode, I’m coming to you telling you we don’t have the money.”
Pepple argued that the school is important to the town, just as the town is important to the school, and that it wouldn’t be “fiscally sound” to take on a project like that.
The town would need to take out a bond, adding on to the two bonds it already has — one will be up in 2023 and the other in 2027.
“The problem with getting another bond, it would affect our bond rating. It would also affect our water and sewer rates — we would have to have more reserves on hand,” Kessler said.
“I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, we have always found ways to still seek funding,” Pepple said. “Madalyn (Bartl, clerk-treasurer), has been aggressive with grant processes and finds ways to bring funds to our community.”
However, with most grants comes a community contribution — sometimes it is 20 percent and sometimes projects are funded 50/50 — half by grants and half by the town.
“If we get a $1 million grant, we could have to put up $250,000 for the project,” Johnson said. “Sometimes the grants come at a cost.”
“We have to live within our budget,” Kessler said.
‘We’ll just die’
Rothgeb, who works for PNC Bank, said he fears the future of businesses if the schools continue to lose funding and experiences enrollment decline.
“If something happens with the school, we’re going to lose businesses,” Rothgeb said. “I’ve seen my company consolidate branches in small communities just like this. If we lose citizens, we’re losing students.”
Rothgeb said he frequently encounters young individuals moving away from Churubusco.
“It’s difficult to send a wire transfer to watch another couple buy a home in another community,” Rothgeb said. “If we lose these people and lose their kids and the school — property values will go down, businesses will close. We’re all teetering.”
Rothgeb said the community is “on the clock,” and others agreed.
“Without the schools we’re in huge trouble — we’ll die — we’ll just die,” said community member Roger Hettinger.
The median value of homes in Churubusco is $99,000. Only 10.3 percent of homes are worth more than $150,000. Comparatively, in Huntertown, 38.7 percent of homes are valued at $150,000 or above. The national average is 49 percent, and Whitley County overall is at 38 percent.
Rothgeb asked the council what it is doing to bring in higher-priced homes in the $150,000-$175,000 range.
The new homes in Thresher’s Ridge are in that price range, but most are being purchased by older residents, not young families that would bring new students to the school.
The average age of residents at Thresher’s is 65 years old.
Quality of life amenities, such as the Youth Foundation’s new playground equipment that will be installed this year, are attractive to young families, but there’s a major roadblock.
Several residents spoke up that they have friends who want to move their families to Churubusco, but there are no housing options.
“Have you worked with Ideal or others to provide incentives to build houses in the area?” Rothgeb asked the council.
“Yes,” Kessler responded.
One of the biggest issues preventing new development is the lack of land. Several property owners near the town limits aren’t interested in giving up their land.
“I talked to Lancia during the Stellar grant work. They said one of the biggest things was they needed land and wanted it in town,” Bartl said. “They won’t develop unless they have utilities.”
Growing the town will increase the burden on the town’s utilities. Excluding infiltration issues with the town’s wastewater system, the town appears ready to take on new residents when the time comes.
“We’re aware of the infiltration issue and we’re on it,” Kessler said. “That’s Jeremy’s (Hart) number one task.”
The town will be conducting smoke testing this summer to address the infiltration issues — water that should not be going into the town’s system is being processed and treated by the wastewater plant.
“Part of the system is over 100 years old, there are a lot of moving parts,” Kessler said. “When there are heavy rains or a snow melt, it does tax the system.”
As far as the town’s other utilities, such as water, it’s ready for growth. Current usage does not tax the town’s water supply.
One utility the town doesn’t control, but plays a factor in a young family’s considerations for moving to Churubusco is the internet.
“If we want younger people to come in, we need internet,” said Green Township resident Susan Brandt. “I love Churubusco and my kids want their kids to go here, but we have to focus on internet and high speed internet.”
Many agreed that the current providers are not cutting it. Frontier told several Churubusco residents that its at capacity and cannot take new customers at all. Current customers experience issues with their service.
Community issue, not just council
Toward the end of the meeting several people spoke up about the issue as a whole — the lack of growth in Churubusco does not solely fall on the town council.
“It’s a community issue,” said Miles Wilson. “My question is, what can we do as a community to support the three of you and help get the momentum going in the right direction?”
Dick Conrow, founder of C&A Tool, Churubusco’s largest business and one of Whitley County’s largest employers, offered his opinion on the situation.
“It’s this community — not just the board, chamber or school. This community has been asleep for 40 years — complacent,” Conrow said. “You’re dealing with the results of that now.”
Conrow owns 35 percent of the town’s downtown businesses.
“I’m struggling to determine the best use of these properties to benefit the town. Nobody has talked to me,” he said. “You have your work cut out for you. There are no silver bullets.”
Conrow said no individual item — annexation, utilities, demographics —will be a quick fix to the issue at hand.
“You can’t furnish a sewer to Circle drive, and you want to bring in 400 new families to somewhere that a landowner will give you a good price, a realtor will sell the properties and the town will foot the bill,” Conrow said. “You better start breaking it down and getting aggressive. It all has to happen together.”
Rothgeb agreed — it doesn’t all fall on the town council.
“You’re only three gentlemen and we have a whole town here,” Rothgeb said.
Pepple hopes something beneficial came from the meeting — a call to action.
“I’ll be disappointed if we walk away from this meeting and nothing happens. All of you brought great ideas. This is what we needed as a community,” Pepple said. “Now its time to not kick the can down the road.”