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Published: Wednesday, 11/12/2008

Merger defeat silences 10-year debate in Sylvania city, township - for now

BY ANGIE SCHMITT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sylvania Township resident Omer Abubaker arrived at the polls Nov. 4 with little knowledge about the merger commission issue other than the vague notion that it could be costly.

"Merging will make the taxes go higher," he said, as he headed into the polls at Joseph W. Diehn American Legion Post with his wife and two young children.

Mr. Abubaker, 39, decided to vote "no" on the merger, as did almost 73 percent of township residents who voted on the issue.

Despite a strong showing that day in the city, the merger commission issue went on to resounding defeat because of the township votes.

The decision will effectively silence a debate - at least for the time being - that has been building in the greater Sylvania community for nearly 10 years. Following its defeat, the merger issue cannot be reintroduced in the community for three years.

Lynn Bachelor, co-author of the University of Toledo study that helped inspire the ballot issue, said she wasn't surprised by the results.

"There was opposition to it in the township from the get-go," Ms. Bachelor said. "The township people have a sense of identity as a township, distinct from a city."

After years of discussion, a group of community players including Sylvania City Council, the township trustees, the Sylvania Area Community Improvement Corp., and private citizens put forward the money to conduct two separate studies on the merger question.

The UT study, completed last year, assumed the city's 1.5 percent income tax would be extended to township residents. Researchers found that the additional $12 million generated by the new tax could be used to lower property taxes significantly.

Inspired by the results, in July, 2007, a group of citizens calling themselves One Sylvania began gathering signatures to have the merger issue placed on the ballot. Its first effort failed to win approval for the November, 2007, ballot when a number of signatures were invalidated by the board of elections.

The second effort, conducted over the course of a year, was certified for the ballot in August.

Ms. Bachelor said merger efforts rarely come to fruition unless one entity is under threat of annexation from a third municipality. Confusion about the basic question being presented also may have contributed to the results, she added.

The issue would have established a commission of five township residents and five city residents who would develop a merger plan for the communities. A second vote would have been needed to enact a merger.

"People thought they were voting against a merger," she said. "That distinction is often hard to communicate to people."

Gary Sommer, a spokesman for One Sylvania, said his group had a difficult time advancing its message. The group's slogan was, "It's not a tax. It's not a merger."

Merger opponents' message that the measure would be tantamount to a tax increase seemed to resonate more with voters, Mr. Sommer said.

"I think it's easier to scare people than inform them," he said.

One Sylvania's fund-raising also was disappointing. After receiving a $10,000 matching grant - plus a possible $5,000 - from the Sylvania Area Community Improvement Corp., One Sylvania only raised $3,285 from individual donors, Mr. Sommer said. The group spent its combined $6,570 on mailers outlining its position, he said.

The group suffered another setback in October when the Ohio attorney general issued an opinion that the improvement corporation's expenditure was improper because it received public funds from the city and township.

Mr. Sommer said the group has returned $6,715 it was not able to match to the improvement corporation. One Sylvania has no plans to return the rest of the money unless instructed to do so by the attorney general, he added.

Among the biggest opponents of the merger commission were Sylvania Township trustees, who voted unanimously to oppose the issue in October. Late in the campaign an opposition group called Stop Sylvania Merger emerged as well.

After the vote, Trustee DeeDee Liedel said the results were a strong affirmation for township government.

"Township residents are happy with the size, the structure, and the responsiveness of township government," she said. "They didn't want the income tax."

Meanwhile, in Sylvania voters approved the measure by more than 60 percent.

Former Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant employee and Sylvania resident Dawn Simpson, 53, voted for the merger commission.

"I don't see the reason to have two of everything," she said. "Just put it all together."

Mr. Sommer said he's pessimistic the issue could be reintroduced even if another group adopts the cause. In three years the two studies commissioned for the topic will be out of date, he said.

About $60,500 was spent on the studies. One was conducted by UT, the other by Public Financial Management, Inc., Sylvania Area Community Improvement Corp. President Gary Madrzykowski said. The cost was split between the improvement corporation, the city and township, and private donors. The public contribution was about $22,000, he said. That total was split 60-40 between the township and city.

Contact Angie Schmitt at:

aschmitt@theblade.com

or 419-724-6104.



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