Knox Pages reporter Cheryl Splain presented the inaugural “Citizens' Agenda” to Mount Vernon City Council members, Mayor Matt Starr, and members of Starr's administration on Jan. 10, 2022.
MOUNT VERNON — Last fall, Knox Pages hosted its inaugural “Talk the Vote” event in Mount Vernon.
Created by Knox Pages' parent company, Richland Source, in 2019, Talk the Vote was geared toward Mount Vernon voters. It offered constituents a chance to shape the conversation heading into the Nov. 2 General Election vs. elected officials driving the discussion.
City council candidates were invited to attend but were asked to listen and not speak as the voters voiced their thoughts. Many candidates accepted our invitation and respectfully abided by the rules, and for that, we thank them.
Held Oct. 12, 2021, at the Woodward Opera House, voters touched on a range of topics. From homelessness to childcare to sidewalks, voters noted what they thought the city's priorities should be heading into 2022.
Knox Pages reporter Grant Pepper compiled these priorities into a “Citizens' Agenda,” a document that shows when journalists, elected officials, and community members collaborate, it can have a powerful result.
On behalf of Mount Vernon residents and Talk the Vote, we respectfully ask that the city's elected officials consider these priorities as they make plans for their time in office.
Addressing the local housing shortage
One of the main topics covered in October’s “Talk the Vote” event was housing. A recent report from the Area Development Foundation concluded that Knox County is experiencing a housing shortage, and that 281 to 520 housing units would need to be built within the county each year for the next 10 years, simply to meet the demand (which factors in local job growth, the addition of commuter residents and the number of houses lost annually).
Residents at “Talk the Vote” encouraged the city to play an active role in addressing this issue. One said the city should “try to address this in a way that’s going to meet the needs of the whole population.” This would mean establishing a diverse housing stock, fitting a wide range of lifestyles, “so most everyone can have access to decent and affordable housing, whatever their income might be.”
Finding ways to reduce homelessness
To that end, several residents encouraged the city to play an active role in reducing homelessness within the community.
The Winter Sanctuary, Mount Vernon’s emergency homeless shelter, currently operates from November to April. Some residents discussed the need for year-round emergency shelter services in the city, given the reality that homelessness does not end during the summer months.
“In the summer months, we would try to help them out, but there were no resources in our city,” one former Mount Vernon police officer in attendance said. “So then they’re trespassing, which is another violation. We’d have to tell them to leave or they’ll be placed under arrest, but that doesn’t fix the issue of, ‘Where do they go?’ As a human thing, it’s a huge downfall in the summer months here.”
Some residents in attendance wondered if the city could play a role in addressing this issue. One said the city could conduct a study to determine the most prevalent needs of the city’s homeless residents – finding out whether the majority are in need of short-term, transitional or long-term shelter, and going from there.
“Find out what’s the biggest bucket (of people), or two buckets, then have City Council focus all these different (local non-profit) groups on those buckets,” one resident suggested. “Then you can get some energy and synergy behind that kind of situation.”
Residents in attendance also wondered if the city could work to determine the root causes of homelessness in the area. They asked the following questions:
● Are there not enough job opportunities here?
● What obstacles do homeless individuals face in this area, when seeking housing and employment, and how could the city help expedite that process?
● Could the city incentivize employers to offer higher wages, so that low-income residents are less likely to fall into homelessness?
Addressing the childcare shortage
In a similar vein, residents at Mount Vernon’s “Talk the Vote” session asked what the city could do to help alleviate the local childcare shortage.
“It’s really, really hard to get childcare around here,” one voter in attendance noted. Others said local childcare facilities have closed over the past year, making the shortage even more severe.
Because of this, residents said parents are having to stay home with their children during the day, inhibiting their ability to work and develop professionally. This has lowered household incomes and exacerbated the local workforce shortage, residents said, putting both employers and potential employees in a bind.
“Plenty of places are trying to hire,” one voter explained, “but their workers don’t have childcare.”
Residents in attendance encouraged the city to play an active role in solving this problem. That might mean partnering with other local organizations to fund a new childcare facility, as one resident suggested, or incentivizing the private development of additional centers.
"I think childcare is essential if people with children are to go to work,” one voter said. “If childcare is not provided, people can’t go to work.”
The need for public/private synergy
There were other issues brought up during Mount Vernon’s “Talk the Vote” session. Infrastructure, walkability, and the need for more green space in residential neighborhoods all came up in discussion.
But with each issue – including the major topics of discussion listed above – voters in attendance arrived at the same conclusion. The city would need to partner with other local organizations, including non-profits and private entities, to get the job done efficiently and effectively.
“The words I keep hearing over and over again here are ‘synergy, partnership, and cooperation,’” one resident said. “We’ve all gotta be rowing in the same direction.”