Anti-Musgrave mailer ignites Vanderburgh GOP primary

EVANSVILLE — As they wage the Vanderburgh County Republican Party's latest war from within, Cheryl Musgrave and Amy Canterbury have called each other liberals — and that's the mild stuff.

A recent attack mailer from Canterbury, who is trying to deny incumbent Musgrave renomination to her Vanderburgh County Board of Commissioners seat, accuses Musgrave of "halting job growth," trying to delay downtown redevelopment and fighting efforts to "make job creation & economic development more effective."

All the mailer shows, Musgrave said in response, is that Canterbury would do whatever big corporations and the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership (E-REP) wanted her to do as a member of county government's executive governing body.

More: Here's what Vanderburgh County Commission candidates have to say about growth, development

Canterbury's bid to take down Musgrave from within her own party goes before Republican voters in a May 7 primary election. Here are the Canterbury attack mailer's charges one-by-one:

Canterbury charges that Musgrave 'increased taxes on businesses'

It's about the wheel tax for vehicles large and small that use Vanderburgh County roads, Canterbury said. The money is used for road repairs, reconstruction or maintenance of roads, streets and bridges.

In August 2018, the Vanderburgh County Council was considering a wheel tax increase for heavier trucks and semi-tractors in 2019 to offset the cost of fixing roads. At that time all vehicles were paying a $20 flat fee — which Musgrave called grossly unfair, given that the heaviest tractors and tractor-trailers exceeding 78,000 pounds were doing far more damage to roads than scooters, passenger vehicles, motorcycles and trucks weighing fewer than 11,000 pounds.

An Aug. 8, 2018 Courier & Press story cited by Canterbury's mailer states that the County Council was mulling a proposed wheel tax increase that would have trucks and trailers between 26,001 and 78,000 pounds paying $30 and heavy trucks weighing 78,000-plus pounds paying $60.

Anti-Musgrave mailer.
Anti-Musgrave mailer.

The story quotes Musgrave stating that the heaviest trucks were tearing up city and county roads and that, "you are nowhere near the maximum for the heavier vehicles."

The story states: "(Musgrave) asked Council to consider a bigger wheel tax increase in the proposed amendment for heavier trucks."

With legislative changes designed to give local governments more tools to generate money for roads projects, Vanderburgh County could have charged wheel taxes as high as $80.

As it turned out, the county wheel tax for the heaviest trucks and semi-tractors was raised to $45 in 2019, according to county code.

Amy Canterbury
Amy Canterbury

Musgrave pointed out last week that she cannot as a commissioner increase local taxes, as Canterbury's mailer states, but she did want higher taxes for the heaviest vehicles.

"Still do," she said. "I want the most revenue we can get to fix county roads. Roads and their condition are the number one complaint that the commissioners get."

Musgrave 'sought to delay downtown redevelopment projects,' Canterbury's mailer charges, citing April 8, 2015 Courier & Press story

It is a reference to a time in 2015, during Musgrave's tenure on the Evansville Redevelopment Commission (ERC), when she asked pointed questions about the Downtown Hilton DoubleTree development agreement, which was popular with the business community.

Members of the administration of then-Republican Mayor Lloyd Winnecke — Musgrave's longtime political rival — would later state that a Democratic City Council hostile to Winnecke appointed Musgrave, who was then out of elected office, to the ERC specifically to oppose the mayor's objectives. Musgrave said she supported Winnecke when she agreed, but sometimes did not.

In the April 2015 Courier & Press story cited by Canterbury's mailer, Musgrave said she was concerned about the city's ability to retire borrowed financing on two major Downtown redevelopment projects, and she proposed three additional years of delay on the convention hotel.

"That appears to be when we can afford it — year 4 (2018)," Musgrave was quoted saying. "I think these numbers get way too close to the margin ... Our ability to repay the loan indicates we should wait three years."

The Winnecke administration's bond counsel, Bob Swintz, responded that Evansville's Downtown Tax Increment Financing could afford the $20 million bond committed for the hotel and a $57 million bond for the Indiana University School of Medicine-Evansville project, but money would be undeniably tight for three years.

Anti-Musgrave mailer.
Anti-Musgrave mailer.

At the time, other ERC members said Evansville needed to move forward then on the hotel project, citing operating deficits at the convention facility already being called Old National Events Plaza and the boost a Downtown hotel would bring to businesses. They said construction and wage costs would only increase if Evansville waited.

Two weeks after the ERC debate covered in the April 2015 Courier & Press story, the Vanderburgh County Commissioners — which didn't include Musgrave at the time — approved an amended agreement with Old National Bank for naming rights on the convention facility.

ONB was to pay Vanderburgh County $175,000 in 2014 and again in 2015 in return for the naming rights in those years. The money for the naming rights would go to the hotel project.

Then-ONB CEO Bob Jones told WEHT-ABC25 the agreement was directly connected to the Downtown hotel project.

Cheryl Musgrave
Cheryl Musgrave

“A portion of the $10 million we’re giving is a literal investment into the hotel,” Jones said. “And the balance for it is in the naming rights for what was the Centre, now the Old National Events Plaza.”

In 2024, Musgrave believes subsequent events have shown she was right to ask challenging questions.

"I stand by every single word, action and deed with regard to looking into whether or not the city could afford this hotel," she said. "I did a tremendous amount of research."

City financing still needs shoring up, Musgrave said, noting the City Council's approval last September of a "convoluted scheme" to sell and lease city streets to another arm of the city to be able to pay for up to $9 million in improvements to Ford Center.

But Canterbury believes her mailer highlights problems with Musgrave's leadership style that led to her defeat in the 2023 GOP mayoral primary to Natalie Rascher.

"The mailer highlights examples that reaffirm Musgrave's unwillingness to work collaboratively to bring more economic development to our community," she said. "The last city election proved that the public wants a positive, optimistic voice in local government."

Canterbury's mailer charges that Musgrave 'opposed reducing bureaucracy to help make job creation and economic development more effective.'

It is a reference, Canterbury said, to Musgrave's opposition in 2021 to the merger that brought Evansville and Vanderburgh County E-REP.

When the Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville and the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana voted in 2021 to merge into the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership (E-REP) with the goal of creating a leaner, more effective organization to recruit new jobs and investment, Winnecke, other elected officials and most business leaders were on board — but Musgrave vocally opposed it.

Musgrave said the merger would lessen the input of Vanderburgh County government and citizenry, saying elected officials were largely phased out of the E-REP board in favor of business executives.

Cheryl Musgrave mailer.
Cheryl Musgrave mailer.

The Canterbury mailer, Musgrave believes, was a direct response to a recent mailer of hers stating, "Big Corporations want YOUR TAX DOLLARS to pay their hand picked POLITICIANS!"

Musgrave's mailer referred to her opposition in March to a $300,000 service agreement between the county and E-REP that would enable a political action committee tied to the organization to engage in certain political activities.

Canterbury, Musgrave said, is "E-REP's candidate."

Canterbury declined to respond to that.

Early in-person voting in Vanderburgh County began on April 9. It ends at noon May 6, the day before the primary election.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Anti-Musgrave mailer ignites Vanderburgh GOP primary