Housing study sparks discussion, gets shelved
by Michael Cummings
A proposal seeking County funding to study demand for housing in Spencer County got a mixed reception at the July 16 meeting of the Spencer County Council.
Ron Smith, a home-builder and board member of Lincolnland Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and LEDC staffer Valerie Schmitt presented the concept and provided a similar study conducted for Perry County by an Evansville-based appraiser.
“This housing study will be something for the County to use, the bankers to use, the Realtors to use to market Spencer County,” explained Smith.
The idea behind the study is to gather data demonstrating a strong market for new housing, with the hope that the information will encourage investment in residential development. Smith indicated he has already met with several developers in recent weeks and believes there is a high level of interest.
In order to fund the study, which is estimated to cost between $4,000 and $6,000, Smith and Schmitt requested “$2,000 to $2,500.” Smith noted he has verbal commitments from several banks to fund $1,500 and also a $1,500 verbal commitment from LEDC.
Council members listened to the pair for about twenty minutes before wading into the discussion. Members appeared to agree that increasing housing options within the County would be positive. There was less agreement about whether funding this particular study was the right move for the Council.
Councilman Aaron Benton offered a favorable perspective, saying, “The way I look at it, it would only take one or two homes to make our money back on it.”
Council President Blake Bunner interjected, “You’d think somebody could come up with $2,500 to do this.”
Councilman David Gogel added, “Let the people who are going to make the money off of this come up with it. The banks, the real estate agents; let them chip in it and pay for it.”
Councilman Steve Haaff voiced his belief that Spencer County is ripe for multi-lot residential development. Haaff cited the recent success of the Pleasant Grove subdivision on the west side of Rockport. Haaff said, “We need to have some kind of a plan, or at least be willing to invite these people in to share their ideas. I know places right here in Rockport where, one road down the middle of this field you could build 30 homes there. Let them put in the utilities. You could make your money back in no time.”
Haaff then added, “We have missed it down here in the last ten years.”
Haaff, a professional builder himself, also mentioned several young families who have moved out of the County in order to build a home elsewhere because they couldn’t find the right opportunity to invest in Spencer County.
Valerie Schmitt then chimed in, “Those that want to invest $10-$15 million, in order to go to that next level of development, they have to have something in stone showing that there is a need in the County for housing. They need it, and they need it on paper.”
Councilman David Gogel recalled a housing study done several years ago. “Do you remember what that study said? It said there wasn’t a great demand for housing in the County. It was the opposite of what everyone expected.”
Growing more animated, Smith replied, “If you’re treading water, you’re not getting anywhere. You guys are just swimming in circles. You’ve got to be proactive.”
Bunner asked, “Are you telling me $2,000 is standing in the way of Spencer County moving forward?”
Smith answered the question with a question of his own, “But can’t we spend $2,000 to market the County?”
“I guess that’s what I’m saying,” Bunner said. “If I were in your shoes, I would write the check. I don’t understand this.”
Gogel then jumped back in, “We spend $140,000 to market the County every year. That’s about economic development, and we gotta come up with two more to fund this study?”
Bunner explained the greatest power the Council has to impact development is in the form of incentives, like tax abatements and phase-ins for companies that add assessed value to the County.
“I did a million dollars in business in this County last year,” Smith said. “How much assessed value did that add?”
And with that, Smith exited the room, slamming the door behind him.
The Council then continued with another half hour or so of discussion about the need for encouraging housing development and the best ways to go about it.
Ultimately, no action was taken on the plan.
Gogel suggested Schmitt could include the funding in her upcoming budget for LEDC, and they would likely have the funding come January.
The Council also:
• Approved an additional appropriation of $2,000 at the request of Veteran Service Officer Butch Meredith for travel. Meredith had $2,000 in his original 2019 budget, but reported he has consumed those dollars assisting 12 to 15 veterans per month with transportation to and from medical visits to Evansville and Owensboro.
• Approved an additional appropriation of $13,000 for the Spencer County Sheriff’s Office to fund prescriptions for inmates through the month of June. The 2019 Sheriff’s budget included $24,000 for prescription drugs, but the County has been presented $31,000 in drug costs from the Dale Pharmacy through the first five months of the year and expect another $10,000 for the month of June. With Sheriff Kelly Reinke unable to attend the meeting, the Council approved just enough to cover the outstanding bills through June. The issue will need to be revisited in the near future when the Sheriff can present more information.
• Approved an additional appropriation of $10,000 to the Coroner for autopsies. Coroner Rachel Gentry explained she budgeted for about 30 autopsies for the year, which is a typical number based on prior year totals. This year, however, she has already conducted 22 autopsies at a cost of $1,100-$1,800 each. An autopsy is legally required for any unwitnessed accidental death, when litigation is likely to be involved, or when there is no previous medical history on which to determine a cause of death.
• Approved two additional appropriations at the request of Assessor Jane McGinnis allowing her to pay attorney fees to Ice Miller for legal work relating to two ongoing lawsuits with AK Steel involving personal property tax assessments. The first bill covered costs through February in the amount of $252,701, which was approved once before but wasn’t properly advertised in the newspaper. The other bill, covering March and April, totals $48,557. The funds were appropriated from COIT/LIT.
• Approved $109,000 to be used to complete a project that would separate the Courthouse roof drains from the City of Rockport’s sanitary sewer. The Commissioners, at their last meeting, approved engineering firm Kovert Hawkins to bid the project out. The City of Rockport found the inappropriate connection during a smoke test of their system.
• Approved $21,256 from COIT/LIT for Luce Township Regional Sewer District as part of the County’s commitment of $150,000 per year to support the District.
• Appropriated $25,000 for the Health Department allowing them to expend funds they will be receiving through a CDC grant to promote disaster preparedness. The Health Department plans to hire a public health coordinator as a contract laborer.
• Approved the following transfers: Community Corrections, $567.46 from equipment to supplies; Auditor, $8,091.21 from postage to tax sale fees; Coroner $450 from body bags budget to travel.
The next meeting of the Spencer County Council is scheduled for 5 p.m., August 20 at the Courthouse in Rockport.