Annexation Trial: Day 1 Diary
I arrived in the courtroom around 8:40 am only to hear the lawyers admitting evidence into the court. At issue was whether or not the subject matter around the Towns of East and West Geist were going to be admissible by the Town of Fishers. They claimed that several petitioners spoke at the public forum last December about the incorporation efforts as their alternative to annexation. Steve Buschmann, attorney for the Geist petitioners, objected saying that the incorporation wasn’t on trial, it was whether or not Geist was to be in the Town of Fishers or not. Judge Nation decided to proceed with the objection under advisement meaning Buschmann can keep his objection on record and the Judge will decide afterward whether or not it will be admissible evidence.
The basis of Fishers’ argument for annexation is that the annexation “is in the best interest of the residents” living in and around Geist. They also believe that they are providing essential services to the area already: fire protection, police, roads and sewers.
Buschmann is arguing that a 20.7% increase in property taxes is a “significant” increase and that the fire contract that Fall Creek Township has with Fishers is being “provided” by the Town, not “furnished” by the Town through their $2 million/year contract.
First witness for the Town was Town Manager Gary Huff. Among many things, he spoke of the Money Magazine “10th Best Place to Live in the United States” award, high AA- credit rating, police patrols in the Geist area, snow removal, and statistics around the cost of the Fishers Police DARE program in the schools since 1991. Buschmann noted that the schools do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Town and no Town funds are spent on the schools themselves. Roads were also the center of discussion, Huff noted that Olio Road from 96th to 146th Street is being plowed by the Town of Fishers which is partially in the unincorporated areas.
Huff also testified about the recently formed Hoosier Port Authority which the Town is involved in to bring light rail to the Nickel Plate railroad running from Noblesville to Indianapolis. The Town also provides a roundtrip bus service from Fishers to Indianapolis on weekdays to help with traffic congestion. Buschmann pointed out that the light rail would benefit several residents living around Fishers, not just Geist residents.
Scott Faultless took the stand and explained the SPORTS program in Hamilton Southeastern Schools. This volunteer organization manages all of the youth sports programs offered through HSE for children ages 4 to 18. Several of the activities take place on town parks, which Buschmann pointed out were limited to soccer and a few other outdoor sports at Brooks School Park. School sports such as volleyball, basketball, and baseball take place on school grounds. And while the town loaned the SPORTS program $200,000 in a no interest loan to put up lights on the park, they will be owned by the town and those lights are being funded by the SPORTS program.
We also got an education on sewers. HSE Utilities services most of the Geist East and North annexation areas. Fishers treats the waste coming through these sewers; however, the sewers in Geist West are mostly on Indianapolis sewers. Faultless stated that the Town of Fishers plans to purchase these sewers from Indianapolis and upgrade them from “combined” sewers which he argued are bad for the environment.
Faultless spoke at length about the town’s long-term plans to annex Geist, starting over 12 years ago when the Fishers Town Council expanded to 7 seats and Faultless was first elected to serve. The impression I got was that the Town of Fishers is trying to make the case around their “plans” to acquire/annex all the land from White River on the West to the Madison County line on the East. Their plans to upgrade and acquire sewers in Masthead, road improvement plans, sewer facility plans, and plans to build 2 or 3 more fire stations somehow justify the annexation.
“I look at this as an issue of public safety,” said Faultless. He went on to argue that his vision for Fishers is a unified community where everyone has the same police protection, kids are in the same sports programs, and a 911 call is dispatched to the same police/fire department as everyone else in the area.
“Our services are intertwined,” he stated.
Buschmann countered that the Town is merely looking at Geist as a financial windfall, pointing out that after legal expenses and other costs, the Town will net over $10 million from the Geist annexations in the first 5 years.
Fishers then called their financial experts Melissa Ambre and Mike Shaver, the President of Wabash Scientific. In short, both testified that the annexation is in the “best interest” of the residents compared to incorporation (which was objected to by Buschmann) or staying unincorporated.
At the center of the financial discussion was the significance of HEA 1001 which in short lowers property taxes statewide. Greg Guerrettaz, financial consultant to the Geist homeowners, argued that even with the HEA 1001 bill enacted, residents will pay 20.7% more in property taxes if they are annexed into Fishers. He also pointed out that the schools, which under HEA 1001 are funded by the State, will lose over $500,000 in funding if Geist is annexed.
During cross examination, Guerrettaz was asked about a $500-$1,000 per child per sport per year user fee that Fishers has considered to subsidize the costs of the sports programs for non-Fishers children.
“I view that as a threat,” said Guerrettaz. “I don’t take kindly to threats like that and I’m sure others in the area don’t either.”
Towards the end of the day, Pete Peterson took the stand. His testimony centered around the lifestyle of him and his family living in the area and any benefits he receives from the town. Buschmann showed him the infamous “Fire Truck” postcard mailing that the Town of Fishers mailed out during the remonstrance period.
“I didn’t see it as a threat, but my neighbors did,” Peterson explained. The postcard featured a fire truck on the front and eluded to a loss of fire service if the residents remonstrated.
Peterson wrapped up around 6:00 pm and the court decided to recess and reconvene at 8:00 am. Witnesses today for the Geist remonstrators include Mike Fisher, Rachel Quade, Kirk Bidwell, and Joe Weingarten.
Check out my Twitter feed on the right hand side of the atGeist.com website for updates throughout the day. I won’t be there the entire day today, but I’ll try to cover as much as I can.