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By KEVIN KOELLING
TELL CITY – People mounting a fight against annexation of their property by Tell City had secured approximately 330 signatures and collected an estimated $11,500 toward legal costs, some of them learned at a meeting May 15.
“We’re bringing money in every day,” said Randy Cole, one of the leaders of Citizens Against Annexation. People inside and outside the annexation area are contributing, he added. “We’re well on our way.”
He said at a previous meeting costs could go as high as $30,000 or $40,000.
Only people whose property faces annexation can sign a petition which would give the group standing in court if enough signatures are obtained. But Cole and Keith Huck, who has also helped lead meetings, have said every property owner in Tell City can donate money because they will all share in paying the costs of services extended to the annexation area if the city is successful. As the News reported March 10, city estimates show it will see a deficit of $92,828 next year and shortfalls of $72,328 in 2016 and $78,328 in 2017.
“We have had some anonymous donors,” Cole said at last week’s meeting.
After the city council adopted an annexation ordinance, they published it April 10, starting a 90-day period in which people opposed to the annexation are required to obtain the signatures of 65 percent of the property owners in the affected area or those holding property worth 75 percent of its assessed value.
The precise number of signatures needed is uncertain because some of the parcels in the annexation area are owned by the city, state, companies or other entities.
Cole told those at the latest meeting he’d asked an attorney hired to help in the fight whether owners of tax-exempt properties can sign, but the lawyer couldn’t answer the question.
“We want to be overwhelming in our numbers,” he said, adding that anyone who declines to sign the petition is “on Tell City’s side. Remember, five individuals voted on this, and we didn’t vote for them.” He estimated 450 to 480 people could be eligible to sign the petition and most of the people with property in the annexation area are doing so.
Cole said efforts to obtain a certified list of the affected properties have been difficult.
Huck said he went to Marlow Smethurst, chairman of the city’s annexation committee and superintendent of the Tell City Electric Department to get a signature confirming the list.
“He was out of the office every time I went back, two or three different times,” Huck said. Smethurst finally called him and said he turned the list over to city attorney Jim Tyler.
The list they were given shows 642 parcels in the annexation area, Cole said, and approximately 57 of them belong to the city, state or other entities “which means they get removed,” reducing the number of possible signatures to about 580. Approximately 380 signatures would be needed to comprise 65 percent of the total, “and tonight we’re at least at 330, maybe a few more,” he added. “That means we’ve got another 50 to pick up to make it, but we don’t want to stop there. What I think we can get is in the neighborhood of probably 450 to 480.”
Some people may be reluctant to sign the petition or openly donate money because they fear retribution.
“We have a few people who are active in Tell City’s … government or politics,” Cole said. “They’re either scared or toeing the line, so we will not get those people, either. But I do think we have a good chance of getting 450 or 480.”
He said it’s important to get more than needed because the city will attempt to challenge as many signatures as possible in the hopes of having them ruled invalid.
Cole said at an April 17 meeting an attorney familiar with annexation issues would need a $5,000 retainer before he would represent the group, which was raised. He said at this month’s meeting he had received a bill. He opened it and read the amount, $352, eliciting applause from the audience.
The organizers had assembled a list of people who hadn’t yet signed the petition, and Cole asked those present to check it to see if they could help contact them. Some are difficult to catch because of their work schedules, he said.
Some petitions had been mailed out and none of those had yet been returned, he added. While he was confident about progress so far, he noted Memorial Day and July 4th holidays were coming, “and we don’t want to wait until the last minute.”
“The question keeps coming up, ‘how much have they spent?’ and they haven’t volunteered the number,” Cole also said. “The ones of you that attended (a March 3) hearing, (the mayor) said she had it in a desk drawer, so I thought I’d go down there and she’d pull it out and I could look at it. Well, she sent me an email and referred me over to the clerk-treasurer, so I went over there and I filed a request to get the information. They thought they’d have it to me the first of this week, but I still haven’t received it … they probably didn’t want me to have it tonight.”
Cole sent the News an email message Monday saying he’d received the city’s response that day. It shows the city spent $101,167.54 for “all expenses since the annexation committee was formed and began working in early 2013.” Among them were costs for engineering, surveying, legal services, financial consulting publication expenses, postage and printing.
“I think it’s a substantial amount of money,” Cole said before he saw the total, “and people who live here should know” what the city is spending.
In response to a question from the audience about whether county officials can help fight the city’s effort, Cole said he didn’t think any county-government entity would get involved.
“One of the commissioners has already said … they don’t want anything to do with it,” Huck added. “They wished us the best.”
An audience member asked about the strategy for getting more signatures.
“We have caught a few people because neighbors were watching for us,” Cole said. Huck added that some people have called him to express interest, but left no phone number.
He asked that anyone who called but hasn’t heard from him to call again.
Cole said he’s bothered that some people may fear objecting to annexation could bring retribution.
“You shouldn’t be handcuffed from standing up and expressing what you actually feel,” he said. “You shouldn’t give up that right.”
“I’ve seen too many people that are fearful; they think there’s going to be retribution,” he continued. “It is absolutely not right that we live under that fear. Everyone should be able to speak, and speak what they think. We don’t have to agree, but we have the right to express our opinions.”