Lake Council debate continues on option tax plan
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent April 4, 2013 2:50PM
Ordinances to be read Tuesday
Councilmembers will introduce a first reading of the three ordinances at 10 a.m. Tuesday during the regular county council meeting. The meeting will be conducted in the Lake County Government Center Auditorium in building S2 instead of the Commissioners’ Court Room due to construction.
Updated: April 4, 2013 9:03PM
CROWN POINT — Despite a desire to keep approval of a Lake County option income tax from becoming what officials describe as a “political football,” ideologies on the tax remain divided along party lines.
Democratic Lake County Councilmembers said Thursday the time has come for approval of a combination of three income taxes totaling 1.5 percent that would unfreeze the property tax levies throughout the county and generate a new revenue source. Their Republican counterparts, the council’s minority, say they are not ready to tax until all that can be done to cut the county’s budget and restructure services has been done.
Officials in a work session Thursday discussed the three ordinances that would create a 1 percent local county option income tax that would be directed specifically toward property tax relief, a one-quarter of 1 percent public safety income tax, and a one-quarter of 1 percent economic development income tax that could be used for wide variety of expenses including the new consolidated E-911 center and replacing the levies for bridge and drainage repairs eliminated from the 2013 budget.
Councilmen Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, and Daniel Dernulc, R-Highland, said they have devised a five-point plan to help bring the county budget in line. Strong said the council’s financial analyst is putting together the numbers to see how the package will work.
“I am presenting a plan to look at instead of the income tax just so we have another choice instead of the tax,” Strong said.
The councilman said it seems as if county officials are “fast-tracking” approval of an option income tax. Strong said officials first brought the issue up last month and established a committee to look into the tax and now they are ready to vote on the tax.
Councilman Jerome Prince, D-Gary, and Bilski took exception to Strong’s comment. Bilski said the issue has been debated back and forth for years, so it should come as no surprise given the plight of county government the tax is up again for consideration.
Prince said Strong’s and Dernulc’s plan provides some good steps to further tighten the county’s budget, but it will not be enough to right the ship.
“Does that plan or idea produce $15 million… If it doesn’t, I think it is not really genuine,” Prince said.
He said the prevailing public sentiment is no new taxes, but without a new revenue source to help fill the county’s $15 million budget shortfall going forward officials will continue looking to borrow money to run county government.
Strong said cuts are not like a bond issue that produces a large source of revenue instantly. He said it will take time for the cuts he and Dernulc are proposing to work.
“It is going to generate $15 million overnight, no,” Strong said.
In their plan, Strong and Dernulc propose to immediately reinstitute a county hiring freeze and begin reducing staff through attrition, as well as immediately ending the practice of supplemental pay, or raises, for only some employees. They propose initiating a cross training program between departments. The plan also calls for going out for requests for proposals for all service contracts more than $50,000.
The pair would like to institute a two-year plan creating pay grade classifications for employees where completion of training would advance the employee to the next level of pay and only longevity will be considered for pay increases. Supervisory or management positions would become overtime exempt.
In a final step they would like to introduce a three-year plan to consolidate all courts to the Government Center in Crown Point.
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said neither the revenues generated from a new tax nor efforts to cut the county budget would work on their own.
“This is a situation you cannot tax your way out of it and you cannot cut your way out of it,” Bilski said.
Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, said even if officials were able to cut $15 million from the 2014 budget, they would have to do so again every year and there are a lot of expenses that officials cannot control that will continue to rise. Utilities, gasoline, retirement benefits and health care costs are all out of the county’s control, she said.
Cid said she has not received much input from her constituents yet, but she plans to host town hall type meetings in her district to find out what they think. Until she does that, the councilwoman said she cannot say for certain if she supports the tax or not.