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May 11, 2012

Relations between Floyd County, New Albany examined following parks veto

NEW ALBANY — So, after a 911 dispatch merger and a new parks agreement were struck down by the city over the last eight months, how are relations between the New Albany and Floyd County governments these days?

“Honestly, it doesn’t take a genius to know that relationships are strained right now,” said Floyd County Commissioners President Steve Bush.

But Bush, like other city and county officials interviewed by the News and Tribune this week, said recent actions haven’t permanently tainted connections between New Albany and Floyd County.

However, each entity represents a different base of people with varying needs, New Albany City Councilmen John Gonder and Pat McLaughlin said. Both McLaughlin and Gonder voted against the 911 and parks proposals.

“Quite honestly, there are a lot of people in the city that due to their circumstances you would not find in the county, and we have different responsibilities than they do,” Gonder said.

Financial priorities can also make it difficult for city and county governments to partner on projects and services, McLaughlin said. For example, the county is on tap to fund another David Camm murder trial which has to be accounted for while the city is dealing with its own separate demands, he continued. 

“What happens is, you don’t see that many inter-local agreements over the state because there are different funding issues,” McLaughlin said. “There’s just certain things that kind of keep counties and cities separate.”

And the debate over funding has certainly marked recent debates over a revised New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department agreement, as well as a proposal to merge the city and county 911 dispatch centers into one entity.

Both measures were defeated by the city, though New Albany officials that were against the proposal said there’s more to the story than just cooperation.

After the city council approved a new parks deal in April, Mayor Jeff Gahan vetoed the move. On Monday, the city council upheld the veto.

While county and parks officials said they were focused on the future, Gahan reminded the city council that Floyd County had paid about $4 million less than New Albany toward the department over the past eight years.

The 911 merger was also approved by the county last year, but some city leaders referenced the parks funding discrepancy as reason not to join into a new agreement.

“I personally like a lot of the county officials, with my experience dealing with them I like them and think it’s a good group of people,” Gahan said Friday. “But in the past, county officials, I think they’ve taken advantage of our good nature, and it’s hurt the city financially. That’s not going to happen anymore.”

When it comes to merging services, Gahan said the county is promoting such agreements “so they can gain access to the city’s general fund.”

“If they need to provide additional revenue they have the tools to generate more revenue,” he said. “And I suggest they use them instead of spending their time trying to gain access to the city taxpayers’ general fund.”

Floyd County Commissioner Mark Seabrook contended that if recent disagreements have been a matter of protecting the city’s general fund, than a 911 merger makes all the more sense for New Albany.

County officials touted the merger as not only a means to save the city up to $250,000 as soon as the first year of the joint operation, but also as a way to run emergency dispatch in a more efficient manner.

County officials also said that Floyd County would be paying more for 911 dispatch under the merger, but that it was the right move to stave off duplicated services.

“I don’t like the damage that’s been done, however, I think we all live in the same county and the same state and the same country, and that means you have to learn to get along one way or another,” Seabrook said, as he added he’s not pointing fingers at the city only inferring officials are elected to serve the people.

“The past is the past, and there was a future started, but the brakes were applied.”

But Seabrook believes a new parks agreement and a 911 merger could still happen, and he supports both. Bush added that the past can’t be changed, and there’s officials on each side ready to move forward.

And it’s not like the city and county haven’t enjoyed fruitful partnerships in the past, Bush continued. He pointed to the joint funding agreement between the city and county to foot a portion of the Floyd County branch of the YMCA of Southern Indiana.

There are other issues that are likely to come forward that will require joint participation, Bush said. He referenced the possibility of a new youth baseball and softball complex, and said the county has to make a decision later this year on the North Annex property near Sam Peden Community Park.

A community pool has been one idea proposed for the park and property, Bush said, and that could be something that would benefit city and county residents.

“These are future discussions we’re going to have to have, and need to have, and I think the community expects us to have,” he said.

But when it comes to funding, McLaughlin said New Albany residents are paying both city and county taxes. Therefore, a joint funding agreement is typically shouldered more by city taxpayers than county residents, he added.

Gonder said innovative approaches are needed as governments continue to tighten their financial belts. For example, he said a joint parks and library district should be researched.

The idea that government should be run like a business doesn’t necessarily apply to all programs, Gonder said. He again touched on his belief that city and county residents require different services that sometimes conflict with one another.

“By the same token, I think that we are part of the same county, and we do have elements or areas we can cooperate on and cooperate on very well,” Gonder said. “But I don’t think it needs to be always from the standpoint of shared bureaucracies, or shared structures, it’s more like we’ve got our responsibilities and we’ve got to meet those, and they have their responsibilities and they’ve got to meet those.”


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