Mark Bennett: Referendums' approval, turnout show voters attuned to community's future

Family outing: Danielle Lowe adds her ballot to the box while her kids show off their “I Voted Today” stickers at Operating Engineers headquarters in Terre Haute on Tuesday.Tribune-Star/Austen Leake

This fall, the future weighed heavily on the minds of folks who call Terre Haute and Vigo County their home.

Two referendums ratcheted up interest in Tuesday's city election, along with an unusually competitive three-way mayor's race. One of the public questions, seeking voters' approval of a new casino, passed comfortably. That wasn't a surprise. The measure was heavily promoted by a political action committee and wasn't asking residents for additional taxes. Their decision on the casino hinged instead on whether the likely increases in gambling addictions and personal bankruptcies were worth the trade-off in short-run construction jobs, long-run casino jobs, possible tourism expansion and casino-paid tax revenue for quality-of-life projects in the community.

Voters said yes to that. Sixty-three percent supported the idea, according to unofficial results from the Vigo County Clerk's Office.

A significant number of voters also showed a willingness to commit extra tax dollars to support operational needs in their local schools. The second referendum called for a property-tax increase to pay for increased student safety and wellness measures, transportation and improving starting pay for newcomer teachers in the Vigo County School Corp. Unlike the casino question, the schools referendum required an investment by residents.

They said yes to that, too. Fifty-four percent backed the tax increase.

And, voters did so while realizing the school district will be asking a much larger commitment in May 2021. That expected referendum will seek funds to renovate the county's high schools.

The VCSC referendum in Tuesday's election calls for an increase of 16.22 cents per $100 of assessed property value. It will generate $7 million annually for eight years, paying for student protection officers, counselors, nurses, buses and new teachers' pay. Estimates of the renovations or reconstruction of the high schools and other facilities — the crux of the 2021 referendum — range from $191 million to $372 million.

So, a majority weren't expecting casino revenue to cover the schools' expenses. The VCSC will get 15% of the casino revenue — which isn't defined yet. Those funds will help, no doubt, but won't come close to paying for the safety and wellness staff, let alone the other expense. Looming cuts by the VCSC totaling $5.5 million, if approved by the School Board, likely persuaded many voters debating whether to say "yes" to increasing their property taxes.

On Sunday afternoon, VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth stood in the atrium of Maryland Community Church, prepared to talk with residents about the district's finances and the referendum following the church services. He's made similar presentations dozens of times since taking his position last year in the wake of past financial controversies. In our short conversation, Haworth made no predictions, but said, "I feel good that we've done the best we could" in engaging the community.

Tuesday's vote totals validate that perception. Uniquely, county residents were able to participate in this fall's Terre Haute municipal election, but on the referendum questions only. Those added numbers boosted the overall turnout to more than 24,000 voters, though just over 12,000 of those were city residents deciding the races for mayor and city council. Still, even the city-only turnout well exceeded the all-time low of 8,434 voters in 2015. The tight mayor's race — which resulted in incumbent Republican Duke Bennett narrowly defeating independent Pat Goodwin, as well as Democrat Karrum Nasser — stirred interest. The casino and schools questions, though, fueled the enhanced turnout, as the county numbers show.

Several voters Tuesday expressed an awareness of the referendums' potential to improve the community's social and economic future. City resident Bob Woods voted at the Vigo County Public Library in favor of both referendums. So did 19-year-old county resident Marley Ferres at the ISU vote center. County resident Tom Nesser voted "yes" on both referendums, putting aside initial reservations about the casino.

"We've got to continue to provide for the schools," Nesser said. "If you don't provide for the schools, you're going to fall behind."

That sentiment prevailed in Tuesday's election.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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