From: Mayor Kristen Brown
The financial health of county government concerns Columbus’ residents and businesses because we depend on critical countywide services. To name a few: emergency dispatch, the judicial system, jail and health department.
We pay for these services, too. The taxpayers of Columbus are also taxpayers of county government. In fact, 60 percent of the county’s property tax revenue comes from residents and businesses in the city’s limits.
For the last three months, The Republic’s coverage of the county’s budget process has painted an alarming picture of our county government. The newspaper claims the county is in “financial crisis” and county officials are facing a “budget crunch,” making deep “budget cuts.”
One front-page headline stated, “Facing a harsh reality — county forced to deal with revenue shortfall.” It explained, “Bartholomew County’s revenue dropped significantly in 2013.” A financial chart showed a plummeting revenue line.
County Auditor Barb Hackman provided the data with her explanation. The problem is “lost revenue,” insisting tax revenues have been dramatically cut.
The Republic, citing Hackman’s data, substantiates her claim in multiple articles: “County government has had to operate with $6 million less in income, a 25.6 percent drop.”
In two separate editorials, the editors urge county officials to respond by increasing our taxes.
However, the revenue Hackman refers to is only the revenue received into the county’s general fund. The county has many funds it receives money into and spends money from.
The “lost revenue” can very simply be found in a separate fund.
Starting in 2013, state government directed county government to account for income tax separately, simply creating a shift, not a loss, of the revenue. The shifted revenue was over $5 million in 2013 and nearly $6 million last year.
That’s the bulk of the “lost revenue” and, yes, it is being spent by the county.
Also, general fund revenues were artificially high in 2012 by more than $600,000 due to a payment from the state for an underpayment in 2011.
Factor in these adjustments for an apples-to-apples comparison, and the county’s general fund revenue is nearly flat, not decreasing by $6 million as claimed.
Additionally, the auditor excludes revenue from the Economic Development Income Tax — another income tax the county began in 2010. Last year, the county received $1.9 million from this tax alone.
Why then would the county council have to make such deep “budget cuts” as reported by The Republic?
All the budget “cutting” wasn’t decreasing spending from the previous year. It was just decreasing the exorbitant 26 percent year-over-year increase in spending requested by the other county officials.
After all of these “cuts,” the general fund budget for 2016 ended up at $17.2 million — flat compared to this year’s budget of $17.2 million.
The auditor is the principal financial officer for county government. Without an auditor who can accurately report the county’s financial condition, the county council should hire an experienced financial adviser to provide this essential service.
Doing otherwise looks likely to result in financial disaster or unnecessary tax increases.