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7-min read

They Wanted to Save Their 119-Year-Old Village. So They Got Rid of It.

For more than a year, the residents of Amelia, just outside Cincinnati, have been consumed by a fiery debate over a proposal to impose a new local tax of just 1%.

New York Times

Updated:November 27, 2019, 11:53 AM IST
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They Wanted to Save Their 119-Year-Old Village. So They Got Rid of It.
A sign outside of the Amelia, Ohio police department on November 16, 2019, thanks those who have served the village. After more than a year of being consumed by a fiery debate over a proposal to impose a new local tax of just 1 percent, the village voted in November to get rid of the village altogether. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times).

Amelia (Ohio): There were allegations of suspicious political donations and rumors about fake social media accounts. Protesters wore T-shirts that said “Stop the tyranny!” At one point, a former official was escorted out of a public meeting in handcuffs.

For more than a year, the residents of Amelia, just outside Cincinnati, have been consumed by a fiery debate over a proposal to impose a new local tax of just 1%. This month, voters found a way around the problem — by getting rid of their 119-year-old village altogether.

In some ways, the dramatic move, which takes effect this week, reflects the frugal, small-government mindset that permeates Amelia, a conservative community of 5,000 people where the median household income is $61,500. Many residents are reluctant to hand over any more of their paychecks to the government, even the one that picks up their leaves in the fall and plows snow from their streets through the winter.

But at a time when Americans’ trust in government is at historic lows, the fight in Amelia also shows what can happen when polarized voters decide that their government is so broken that it simply shouldn’t exist.

“This all got way out of hand,” said Todd Hart, the one-time mayor of Amelia, who lost his bid for reelection on the same night the village disbanded.

While there might be an argument that eliminating a layer of government could result in greater efficiency, the decision in Amelia represents a shift, said William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

“That you would have this kind of violent reaction against the introduction of a 1% tax suggests a deep-seated aversion to government generally,” he said.

On Amelia’s Main Street, cars will still cruise down the 1.5-mile road lined with a hair salon, a tattoo parlor, a yoga studio and a bustling Dollar Tree. But the “Welcome to Amelia” sign has already been taken down. As of this week, the village’s seven police officers and a handful of other employees are out of a job. And the village, established in 1900, is being split in half: Residents who live on one side of Main Street will belong to one township and their neighbors across the street to another.

Wearing a sweater with Amelia’s logo on it, Hart, 60, drove through town after the election, pointing out the ranch-style house near the library where he has lived for half his life and the park where city officials gave away pumpkins at Halloween.

“If you don’t like what your government is doing, just vote them out,” he said. “That’s democracy. That’s why we live in America.”

But he added: “Don’t destroy your town.”

‘What Am I Getting for My Money?’

The drama started last year when the village council decided to impose a 1% income tax on all residents and workers, without public input. Many in the village found out about the change from a letter sent in the mail only after the decision was made.

Most Americans pay no local income taxes, but the practice is common in parts of the East Coast and Midwest, particularly Ohio, where more than 600 municipalities have an income tax to help pay for local services.

While Ohio’s tax burden is moderate overall, experts say the local taxes are comparatively high. According to a calculation by the Tax Foundation in Washington, a conservative think tank, the average couple in Amelia was already paying about $1,400 in state income tax, $780 in state sales tax, $130 in local sales tax and $3,300 in property taxes. The new, 1% income tax worked out to about $615 extra a year.

“You have these different layers of taxation, and it is not always clear to individuals what they are getting for each layer they are paying,” said Greg R Lawson, a research fellow at the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank in Columbus.

The mayor said the village had waited as long as it could, but needed the money to help pay for roads and other expenses.

Faced with the prospect of digging into their pockets, residents in Amelia began to question the village council’s spending, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade village offices to a Victorian-style building, with a lion door-knocker, chandeliers on the ceiling and a gazebo in the backyard. (Hart said that officials had been cramped in their old offices and that buying the historic building was cheaper than new construction.)

“I would think every American would say, ‘What am I getting?’” said Renee Gerber, a former council member who was arrested while protesting during a meeting last year. “What am I getting for my money?”

Gerber, 57, soon launched a campaign for mayor.

“We don’t want our hardworking dollars to be misspent,” she said.

But for many, the debate became not just a question of who should be running the village, but whether the village should even exist. Like other small communities across Ohio, Amelia is within a township, within a county.

“That’s just too many layers of fat,” said Ed McCoy, 53, a salesman who drove around town with an “ax the tax” sign plastered prominently on his sedan and led a group in favor of dissolving the village.

“The best way to get rid of that fat,” he said, “is to start at the bottom.”

A Fight to ‘Free’ or ‘Save’ the Village

At least 130 municipalities across the country dissolved between 2000 and 2011, with an uptick after the start of the Great Recession of 2008, according to Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who studied the trend. Since 2012, others dissolved or are in the process of doing so, including at least 12 in Ohio alone, according to the state auditor’s office.

“It’s a very dramatic remedy,” said Anderson, who found that local governments primarily disband for financial reasons, often because shrinking populations or reduced state funding make paying for basic services unsustainable.

But Amelia was financially stable, with a population that had nearly doubled since 2000. In recent years, a Kroger supermarket opened on Main Street. New subdivisions sprouted up, advertising tidy suburban homes for starting prices around $180,000. Residents zipped up Interstate 275 for easy access to jobs in Cincinnati.

And so, a village known for being quaint and friendly — the story goes that it was named for the woman who operated the tollgate into town in the 1800s — found itself embroiled in a bitter fight.

Residents debated the village’s fate in dueling Facebook groups called “Wake Up,” “Free” and “Citizens to Save” Amelia.

There were threats to boycott businesses. An anonymous letter urging residents to “defend our village” showed up in mailboxes. McCoy, the activist in favor of dissolving the village, stood outside a gas station in a clown suit, encouraging voters to “stop the clown show.”

“This election was worse than any presidential election I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Steve Crawford, 56, who owns a flooring store and was among those who wanted to keep the village intact. He blamed much of the division on social media.

On Election Day, the vote to disband was decisive: 893-419. Whoops of celebration filled the night air. But there were also murmurs of regret.

A Chance to Make Amelia ‘Great Again’

Amelia had its own police force, with a chief and six officers who knew many residents by name. Each week, a maintenance crew picked up leaves and other waste from yards. When a deer was struck by a car, “we’d come right out and pick it up,” Hart said.

Now, bigger townships will handle those kinds of services, raising fears among some residents that it could take authorities longer to respond to drug overdoses or other emergencies.

But Johnny Parsons, 59, an insurance salesman, remained confident that the village did not provide anything he could not get for cheaper somewhere else. A supporter of President Donald Trump, he celebrated by taping a piece of paper over his red hat so that it read “Make Amelia Great Again.”

“If you give people back more of their earnings, they can live a better lifestyle and buy things for their kids,” he said, instead of funding what he viewed as “endless stupidity and reckless spending.”

A few doors down, Vickie Wenstrup, 60, a florist whose business sits just outside the town line, lamented the loss of the small touches that made the community feel like home. After Wenstrup was chosen to help decorate the White House for Christmas last year, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring a day in her honor. The proclamation hangs on the wall in her florist shop, next to a tile sign made by the local high school’s ceramics class.

That, she said, was the essence of “small-town America” and the kind of thing she feared would be missing in the new setup. Who would issue the next proclamation? Or hang military flags over the cemetery on Veterans Day? Would the annual toy drive for needy children at Christmas go on?

“I’m very sad about it,” she said.

Even Gerber, the candidate for mayor who had originally pushed for the village to dissolve, was left with mixed emotions. On the same day that she was elected, the town voted to disband, making her, she joked, the “mayor-elect of ashes.”

Sarah Mervosh c.2019 The New York Times Company

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