GUEST OPINION: Brown County, we can determine our future

By JULIE WINN, guest columnist

When my husband and I moved to Brown County almost 10 years ago, its natural beauty was the main draw. The woods and rolling country, rural fields and Salt Creek running everywhere — well, it all kind of slaps you in the face, doesn’t it?

We were happy to be close to Bloomington and Columbus, Indianapolis and Louisville, but there was more than enough to do at home. So we made friends, got acquainted with Brown County’s history and art, hiked and biked and settled in.

Why the back story? I just want to stress what most of us living here know, however we ended up here: Brown County is a hugely attractive place to live. Not only does it have these wonderful natural and historic assets, but it boasts excellent public schools and a diversity of interesting, neighborly people.

But here’s the thing: Is what we love sustainable in the long run?

Counties all over the U.S. are facing challenges as they cope with the high costs of the services they provide, and Brown County is no exception. We all want to keep our county vibrant and economically healthy, and to protect the assets we have.

That means, I believe, that we have to ask some tough questions about economic development, come to consensus around some answers and build a plan.

County government (roads, schools, law enforcement, and emergency, health and social services) is funded largely through property and income taxes. To cover growing costs, we must 1) raise taxes, 2) cut services or 3) grow our tax base, both property and income.

Although people differ politically on the balance, most would agree that raising taxes and cutting services have their limits; neither can continue indefinitely. Cutting costs without cutting necessary services should always be the primary objective of our elected officials, but it’s not always enough. So we need to look at No. 3.

A couple of recent articles in The Democrat got me thinking. One, some weeks ago, addressed Community Performance Indicators, aka Community Vitality Indicators. According to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Assistance, economically vibrant communities share some characteristics in the year-to-year numbers on assessed value of real property, per capita income, population growth, educational attainment rate and public school enrollment.

The take-away boils down to: “The county needs to attract private endeavors that keep its assessed value up and working families who pay income taxes and enroll their children in the local public schools. If not, it enters a nasty downward spiral of higher tax rates and fewer services that make it harder for people who live here.”

Brown County is not doing terribly on these indicators, but it’s not keeping pace with inflation on assessed value; its population is growing older and trending down a little each year; and its school enrollment has generally trended downward as well.

Another article reported on the Community Readiness Initiative, an OCRA program that applied some general principles to questionnaire responses submitted by our local officials. Some key points were:

In last 10 or more years, people have been more apt to move into a community based on schools, public services and amenities, not jobs. They move to a place because they want to live there.

Brown County has many attractive assets, but the population is relatively static, with a slight trend to growing older, as retirees move in rather than families.

Like it or not, we’re in competition for people and entrepreneurs. As a community, we need to recognize that fact, accept its urgency, decide what our strengths are, and maximize our attractiveness for those people and those entrepreneurs who share our Brown County values and aspirations.

We need to define and implement one or more projects that most of us agree are a good match for us. And we need to take an action oriented and collaborative approach.

As was reported in last week’s Democrat, the Brown County Redevelopment Commission is applying for a joint OCRA-Ball State-Purdue initiative (the Hometown Collaboration Initiative) that will help us do all this as a community. If Brown County is one of the five communities selected, we’ll all be hearing more about this and how we can engage. The HCI process will train us all in gathering data and community views, analyzing potential areas for focus, and, eventually selecting a project based on that data and analysis.

The League of Women Voters has always been actively involved in promoting community exploration and discussion of where Brown County can best use its assets, so we welcome the redevelopment commission’s pursuit of HCI. And I welcome it as an individual citizen of the county.

Maybe we will find that most folks don’t want much change, even taking into account the potential threats signaled by the vitality indicators. Maybe they would like to see fairly limited new projects. But the discussion needs to be held: Let’s choose our future, not allow it to overtake us.

Julie Winn is president of the local League of Women Voters. Send comments to newsroom@bcdemocrat.com.