By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
With Tuesday’s tight, party-splitting vote in favor of sending a controversial $27.6 million Goshen Community Center project to a special referendum this spring now behind them, Goshen City Council members Wednesday took some time to reflect on the night’s events and why they chose to vote the way they did.
After sitting through nearly three hours of impassioned comments both for and against the proposed referendum, council members Tuesday voted 4-3 to allow the referendum to proceed. One vote the other way would have ended the project.
Council members voting in favor of sending the project to a referendum were Democrats Julia Gautsche, Jeremy Stutsman, Everett Thomas and Republican newcomer Brett Weddell. Voting in opposition were Republicans Edward Ahlersmeyer, Jim McKee and Dixie Robinson.
Weddell’s vote came as a surprise to many who anticipated he would stick to party lines. Weddell was appointed to the board this month via Republican caucus as a replacement for outgoing member Tom Stump who vacated his position as councilman and City Council president when he assumed his role as a member of the Elkhart County Council Jan. 1.
Weddell said he simply voted with his conscience.
“My vote wasn’t so much supporting the community center, but it was supporting the democratic process, and if I didn’t believe in that democratic process, I don’t think I should be up there,” Weddell said. “It was a tough vote. It was only my second meeting and it was a pretty big issue right out of the gate.”
Weddell’s reasoning was consistent with Council Democrats who also said the community deserves a voice in this project.
“It was a very difficult decision for me, because the project as it stands I don’t support,” said Councilman Jeremy Stutsman of his vote. “But I heard from a lot of people, through emails, phone calls and voices on the street, who wanted this to go to a referendum. ... Even people who don’t want the project seemed to want a referendum, so it was both sides that were asking for that.”
Stutsman said he is very concerned with the project’s $27.6 million price tag and hopes that figure can be reduced by the Goshen Community Center Committee.
“If that number is not dropped dramatically,” Stutsman said, “I just don’t see how I can support this, knowing how this is going to negatively affect the taxes of the people that have contacted me.”
Councilman Everett Thomas also feels the community wanted a referendum, indicating that nine out of ever 10 people he communicated with favored a vote in May. And he doesn’t think the Council is shirking its responsibilities.
“I disagree with people who feel we’re not doing our duty if we don’t block a referendum, because the state set up the process for exactly a situation like this,” Thomas said. “I think it’s a lot better process than the old one where you would have dueling petitions (a remonstrance), and whoever got the most signatures would win.”
Councilwoman Dixie Robinson, one of Tuesday’s three “no” votes, said she is disappointed to see the referendum move forward and remains strongly opposed to the community center.
“I understand that people want to have a say, but I think a lot of people don’t realize what’s going on,” Robinson said. “What they’re planning with the center will be in direct competition for people already in town. “Those people paid for those businesses and are still paying for those businesses. We’ve been trying for years to get people to come in and invest in our community. We’ve already got six fitness centers in Goshen. We don’t need any more. So I’m very disappointed.”
Robinson also said she fears the taxes that will need to be raised in order to pay for the new center will hurt the city’s ability to attract new businesses in the future.
“For at least the past three years or so, we’ve been using these tax abatements or phase-ins and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings to these companies to come here or stay and enlarge their businesses,” Robinson said. “Now, after giving all these tax phase-ins, now we’re going to raise their taxes, so it doesn’t make sense to me.”
Looking forward to the upcoming referendum, Thomas said he anticipates much discussion and debate. He said he encourages the public to get informed about the particulars of the project and what it will mean to them should it be approved by the voters this May.
“I think the next few months will be a time when opponents will mobilize to convince voters to vote no, and proponents will mobilize to encourage voters to vote yes,” Thomas said. “It’s a pure democratic process. I’m looking forward to what happens in the next couple of months and I think it’s going to be a good exercise for our community.”