This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Best meeting ever

The County Council met for their September meeting on Tuesday evening and they had an unusually large number of citizens in attendance. After a couple of preliminary items, the Council announced their budget for 2016 (which still must go through state review). It totaled $34 million. (Later in the evening it was revealed that this is the second largest budget of a public entity in the county. The KV school corporation tops it at $39 million.) There was no discussion or comments from the audience, and the Council voted to approve it.

Next came about twenty minutes of non-binding reviews of budgets. I am not quite sure what the purpose is since the review is non binding. The Council looked through the budgets of the 13 townships, the four towns or cities of the county, the KV school district, the Remington Library, and the Jasper County Library.

Next came the binding reviews, where the Council has the option of rejecting a budget, though the vote on these budgets will not be held until the October meeting. First up was the Rensselaer Central School Corporation. It has a binding review because its board is appointed, while KVSC has a non binding because its board members are elected. The total budget is a bit over $17 million and was slightly lower than last year. About $10 million of that is financed by the state. The state has new funding guidelines but RCSC and KVSC are little affected. However, the new rules adversely affect small schools, so most of the neighboring schools will face cuts of between five and ten percent.

The proposed Jasper County Airport budget was slightly lower than last year. On September 14 the Airport received their much anticipated grant of over $400,000 from the FAA for replacing the fuel farm. The forms were returned on the 15th and the FAA acknowledged their receipt. The next airport project will be hangars. Most of the hangars were built in the 1930s and no longer meet FAA regulations.

The Jasper County Council approved the budget of the Northwest Indiana Solid Waste District even though it operates in multiple counties. If you are interested in why, check last year’s account of the Council’s September meeting. In comments about this budget, a couple members of the audience voiced concerns that the Jasper County Frost Law was widely ignored, resulting in much damage to county roads.

There was no representative to speak for the Iroquois Conservancy Budget.

Then the fun part of the meeting began. There were three parts of the Local Option Income Tax (LOIT) to be discussed and put to vote. Two of the three were not controversial, but the Property Tax Replacement Rate was.

If you pay state income taxes, you may notice that you pay almost as much in county income taxes as you do in state income taxes. The reason is that Jasper County has the second highest county income tax in the state. In 2007 the County Council doubled the rate to over 3% on a 6-1 vote. The goal was to reduce the burden of the property tax.

Though the county was able to make a big hike in the tax in 2007, it is limited in how much it can cut it—only a .1% rate cut is allowed. The discussion began with each of the County Council members stating where he was on the issue. Rein Bontreger said he thought it should be left as it is, but because he is chairman of the Council, he only votes to break ties. Andrew Andree said that he is torn by the pros and cons but thought the small decrease was desirable. John Price argued that the high income tax rate discourages people from becoming residents of Jasper County, and those who are most discouraged are those with high incomes, people we should want to have move here. The small cut would not have much effect but would send a message that we want to be more welcoming (and also may drop us to third highest rather than second highest). Garrit DeVries argued that it was unwise for a county to rely so much on an income tax because it was inherently volatile—the revenue raised jumped around too much.

Paul Norwine said that he had met with constituents on both sides of the issue. He said some thought that the hike in the tax had slowed county growth. The Demotte area had been growing very rapidly in the years before the hike and has been growing much more slowly since. He suggested we need the proper balance of taxes. Gary Fritts said that other counties had been raising their income taxes. He said that he did not want to see any more burden placed on the property tax. Steven Jordan noted that property taxes that farmers pay have more than doubled in the last few years as assessed valuation of farm land has risen. (The assessed value of farmland is determined by the state, not the county, and the method used is widely understood as defective.) In contrast, the taxes on residences and homestead had increased only slightly. He was in favor of leaving the tax as it is.

There was then some spirited back and forth among the councilmen before the floor was opened for public comment. Many people spoke, some quite elegantly and with emotion. The main argument in favor of lowering the rate was that it was sending an incentive to high-income people to leave the county or to avoid it if relocating. The advantage of the property tax is that it has smaller incentive effects because land cannot move but people can. There were two related arguments on the other side. The first was that because of the way farm land was assessed, farmers were going to pay hefty taxes in a year of very low income. The other argument was that the people who owned the land were paying more than they were getting in services and the taxes should be paid by those who actually get the services of government. Property pays more than its fair share.

When it was time to vote, the motion to lower the rate by .1% passed four to two. Voting for the motion were Norwine, Andree, Price, and DeVries. Voting against were Fritz and Jordan.

Then Councilman DeVries made a motion that surprised the other members. He noted that when the LOIT was raised, it gave relief not just to local residents who owned property, but also to absentee landlords and large corporations. They got relief but paid nothing in taxes. He said that it was not possible to single out just residents for property tax relief, but suggested that the distribution of relief could be set up so that more of the benefits would accrue to locals. He suggested that 50% of the relief should go to homeowners and 50% spread over everyone. The motion failed for lack of a second. The council members needed more time to think about revising the distribution formula.

The time was late—the meeting had run two and a half hours, so after a quick approval of a salary ordinance (not sure what that was), the meeting adjourned. The report from the Airport manager that was on the agenda was moved to the October meeting.

I have been going to County Council meetings for about two years and this one was by far the most entertaining and exciting meeting I have been to. I suggested to one of the commissioners who was at the meeting that the commissioners needed some exciting meetings like this one. He did not agree with me.

In Court House news, work has finally resumed on fixing the retaining wall. The section shown here was missing blocks for weeks.

1 comment:

Gerrit H. DeVries, County Councilman said...

Yes, it WAS the best meeting ever in that this time the tables were turned in favor of the "general public" of Jasper County. The current members of the County Council do not so lopsidedly represent one particular self-interest group in the county anymore as it did in 2007 when this high rate of tax was voted in. In that light, the income tax can now be gradually decreased each year until it becomes a much more equitable balance between income tax and property tax. Those that favor the high rate now realize the forces are there to outvote them. The motion I made that may have shocked some had come from Senator Hershman when this all began in 2007 and was meant to help the homeowners. I anticipated shock and really that this motion would not pass, but it certainly sent chills up the spines of those who now could feel what the "general public" felt when they were hit with a 203.33% increase in their county income tax back in 2007 and were the ones to shoulder the high tax at the benefit of the special interest group. Kind of brought justice. Maybe now we can get to talking together as to how the County Council can deal with this issue of income tax and property tax so ALL bear an equal burden and an equal gain - Not one more than the other as ALL are important people here in this county and compassion is a necessary ingredient.