Friday, July 05, 2002
West Chester a city? Idea cooks
Proponents want earnings tax
By Jennifer Edwards firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WEST CHESTER TWP. This fast-growing township, which officially changed its name two years ago, may be headed to an evenbigger change. Its longtime administrator confidently predicts that West Chester will become a city within 10 years. With a growth and development boom that shows no sign of letting up, he says it will soon make more sense to incorporate than not.
Township government is best now for West Chester because we are still growing and defining ourselves. We are just now coming into a place where we can support ourselves as a city, Administrator Dave Gully says. In previous years, it wasn't really feasible to incorporate; but in another 10 years, West Chester will be able to be a viable city.
West Chester, which grew by more than 38 percent in the last decade, is projected to surpass Hamilton, Butler County's seat, by 2010, and would become the Tristate's second-largest city with an estimated 62,000 people. Incorporation would give West Chester, formerly known as Union Township, more control over its future and increased regional clout.
If West Chester incorporates, that would have a big impact on Butler County. They would be the big dog, Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox says. It would put West Chester in a pivotal position with a lot of power and influence.
But it's a rare move in Ohio, where a township hasn't incorporated in more than two decades, and there are many obstacles.
Incorporations can be a hard sell to township residents, who link cities with more taxes and bureaucracy. And developers and builders tend to prefer townships, because incorporation often means more costs and restrictions.
Three previous incorporation movements have failed in West Chester, the last in 1993. Mr. Gully, however, says as the growth continues, it will soon make financial sense to incorporate and that the case will be made on pocketbook issues.
By 2012, West Chester would lose more money than its current $57 million annual budget if it does not incorporate to collect an earnings tax on the at least 50,000 people who work here, he says.
Collections from the new tax would surpass the township's budget and also exceed money collected from property taxes, he says. If it incorporates, the township wouldn't have to borrow for capital projects such as a community center, road improvements and park improvements.
In 10 years, ... we will have a tax base, says Mr. Gully, township administrator since 1990. We will have a lot of people working here that make big bucks that we can tax. In fact, if we're not a city in 10 years, we will be forfeiting a major sum of money, more than our township budget is today.
For generations, Hamilton and Middletown dominated Butler County.
But for the past 20 years, while those cities' industrial bases declined, West Chester has blossomed. So dramatic has its growth been and so valuable is its undeveloped land near Interstate 75 that some local developers have dubbed West Chester the Gold Coast.
West Chester was identified nearly 10 years ago in a 1993 University of Cincinnati study as a Metro Town now called Edge Cities by experts on urban trends in the area north of the Interstate 275 beltway because of its location, demographics and housing and economic development.
The Edge City is everything north of 275, but I would expect West Chester to be the center between Dayton and Cincinnati as those two cities grow closer together, says Michael Romanos, the UC professor of economic development who wrote the study.
Twelve of the 20 most-populated townships in Ohio are between Cincinnati and Dayton, according to the Ohio Township Association. The three largest are Colerain and Green townships in Hamilton County, and West Chester.
The Ohio Township Association's executive director, Michael Cochran, believes the last time a township incorporated was when the Dayton suburb Huber Heights did so in 1981. He doubts there will be a future trend, even as some townships become more urban.
Paul Rattermann, chairman of Green Township's board of trustees, says: I would not find it horribly appealing as a resident. People don't like taxes. That's the first word out of everyone's mouths the second you say "city.'
A lot of people feel township government is less government, and less government control means good government, says Keith Corman, vice president of Colerain's board of trustees. ""Right now, the city of Cincinnati makes incorporation look sour.
For a township to incorporate, a petition to place the issue on the ballot must be signed by 20 percent of a township's voters in the last gubernatorial election. A majority of voters then has to approve for a township to become a city.
Each of the three earlier votes in West Chester lost by fewer than 400 votes.
Backers say the key is gaining the power to enact an earnings tax, something state law prohibits townships from doing. Proceeds would supplement property tax revenue and provide more money for West Chester.
An estimated 49,358 employees work at 2,572 West Chester businesses, according to a June 2001 report compiled by Claritas Inc., a national business and community data tracking and reporting company.
Other incorporation advantages, supporters say, include protection from annexation, preservation of its tax base, the power to pass a wide range of ordinances, and stronger zoning laws.
There would also be more clout. West Chester would replace Hamilton as one of the three deciding parties on how local government funds from the state are divided in Butler County.
The largest city; the county, and the majority of the remaining townships, cities and villages approve the allocations. This year, nearly $18 million is expected from the state, said Randy Groves, the county's chief deputy auditor over fiscal services. The money goes into municipalities' general operating budgets.
Disadvantages include more government, a higher cost of providing services and loss of state and county funds for roads.
West Chester also may be less attractive to builders and developers, especially residential ones, if it has an earnings tax and stronger zoning laws. Cities also can impose impact fees on new housing developments.
Business owners and developers are wary, saying an earnings tax would deter other companies from locating here and reduce profits.
Any earnings tax would hurt us, says Nyla Kramer, owner of Nyla's Flowers in Olde West Chester. That means more money I have to put out. Everything's going to go up in price for my customers. I'll have to cover my expenses. I don't want to become a city and don't see it happening.
Mark Schumacher of Schumacher Dugan Construction Inc., the primary developer of Union Centre Boulevard, says it wouldn't support incorporation.
We have a big selling point, he says of West Chester's township status. If we don't have that advantage, companies might want to stay closer to Cincinnati and might reconsider Blue Ash or Sharonville. We like it just the way it is.
Opposition from developers and builders hurt the three failed efforts, says Bitsy Shaffner, a former Lakota Local Schools board member and township trustee from 1985 to 1993. She spearheaded the earlier incorporation drives after, among other issues, growing tired of needing county approval for such routine items as textbook approval.
The developers and builders were very opposed to it, because they saw that if we became a city, they would be much restricted in their ability to do what they wanted to do, Ms. Shaffner says.
Trustees, residents leery
While the township administrator says West Chester would be smart to incorporate, at least one trustee isn't so sure.
And the homeowners associa tion president of the Tristate's wealthiest community, Wetherington, also isn't too keen on the idea.
Wetherington shut its gates to stop drivers from cutting through. The subdivision's private status makes residents responsible for their own streets. I don't know for our neighborhood whether incorporation would be the best thing, says Kevin Plank, president of the Wetherington Homeowners Association.
Trustee Dave Tacosik, an elementary school gym teacher, says he would oppose incorporation.
The only thing you're going to gain is a little less money in your paychecks, he says. A lot of people don't want this because they don't pay anything now. That's why a lot of these businesses and people move here.
The reason people go to a city form of government is because they are unhappy with township services. Our services are good. Granted, it's a lot of responsibility on three trustees, but we've been managing pretty well. Other communities are out there drooling over what we've been doing here, so we can't be doing anything too wrong.
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