By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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It seems like just about everybody who sticks around Hilltop long enough eventually takes a turn in the mayor's office. The job is very much a no-frills position--it pays $300 a month; council members get $250. Jerry Murphy has been the Hilltop mayor for the past six years. Before that he served on the city council for 14 years. Murphy is a former drag racer with a bad back, and he has lived in Hilltop for 26 years. "I like it here," Murphy says. "This is the little town that could. Back when I was still doing a lot of racing I wasn't around that much, and I wanted a place that didn't require a lot of maintenance. It's a close community, and you can always go out and find somebody to talk to." Murphy admits that his first mayoral bid was something of a lark. "Nobody else was running," he says. "I figured I was pretty much done for the rest of my life, and this sort of allows me to keep my nose in things. I stop in up at city hall once a day, and when people need something they'll call me. There's not a whole lot to the job other than trying to stay on top of the budget. I suppose it eats up about an hour of my day."
Hilltop's survival has been nothing if not improbable, and, while most of the challenges facing the city these days seem like the pedestrian concerns of any small town (Murphy mentions that he'd like to resurface all the streets and build a city garage), there are still people in Columbia Heights who believe that it's only a matter of time before practical concerns effectively erase the little town from the metropolitan map. With suburban communities increasingly feeling the pinch of the state's budget woes--Hilltop receives 51 percent of its annual projected revenues from state-allotted local government aid--the consolidation of the two longtime antagonists makes more economic sense now than ever to city officials in Columbia Heights.
Bruce Nawrocki, who as mayor of Heights sat across the table from Hilltop's Vivian Caesar at that "historic" 1968 conference that signaled a thaw in the relations between the two cities, is now a member of the Columbia Heights council. "I understand that people in Hilltop probably like things the way they are," Nawrocki says. "I also think it's a fair statement that things have been pretty amicable between our cities for quite some time now. There's quite a lot of water over the dam. That said, however, I think in this day and age it would be much more cost-effective for everyone involved if we were to somehow merge the two cities. My personal opinion is that it's only a matter of time. At some point they're going to have some sort of major financial crisis and they're going to see that a merger makes sense. Notice that I don't use the term 'annexation.' It's not like we're interested in gobbling them up."
Columbia Heights mayor Julienne Wycoff is even more blunt on the issue. "They cannot survive alone," Wycoff says. "If they have a major financial crisis or lose government aid, Hilltop would be sunk. The truth is that economically it would be a lot better for both cities if we were to consolidate. And, yes, mobile homes would be against Columbia Heights ordinances, but there are a lot of good people who live in Hilltop, and I would never go to those people and tell them that they have to leave their homes. It would take a number of years to phase out the mobile homes and perhaps replace them with low-income housing. As things stand, the issue isn't on our list of priorities right now, but maybe Hilltop wants to come to us. I'd welcome Mayor Murphy and anyone else from the community to come in any time to discuss the issue with me."
Wycoff probably shouldn't hold her breath. I also might recommend that she pay a visit to the Hilltop offices and spend some time poking through Eva Shear's archives. And listen to Jerry Murphy. "We like our place just fine," the Hilltop mayor says. "We enjoy doing things ourselves. When we need people, they're there. We always seem to find a way to get by. If push comes to shove we can always go begging and sneaking."