County mulls raising taxes; residents push back after recent rise in state rates

A public hearing on a proposed new property tax before the Bartholomew County Council blossomed into a 90-minute discussion of all potential county taxes, and some of the few residents who attended pushed back at the idea of greater taxation.

The cumulative capital development tax, which was advertised at a rate of .0167 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for 2018, would raise only enough to get back $698,053 lost this year due to a state law change that reduces income to counties that have not enacted the proposed tax, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman said.

A vote on the proposed tax is scheduled for July 18 at 6 p.m. in the council chambers.

Individual council members acknowledged at Monday’s meeting, attended by about 10 residents, that the proposed new tax is far too insufficient to address the county’s mounting financial needs.

“I think we all know what’s down the road,” said council member Bill Lentz, acknowledging other new taxes may be proposed later this year.

Residents Russell Poling and Glenn Petri, who were among the seven speakers, reminded the council that all Hoosiers began paying dozens of new state taxes and fees this month, including a 10 cents-per-gallon gas tax hike and a $15 increase in vehicle registration fees.

Both men also brought up that the Columbus City Council voted 5 to 2 to increase its own cumulative capital development tax rate to the maximum allowed by the state last month.

“All three levels of government want to hit us all at once,” said Poling, who added all the recent tax increases go against Republican ideology and hurt those on fixed incomes.

While not arguing the point, council President Laura DeDomenic described some of the financial challenges ahead:

Two more public defenders needed in the courts, according to a May commission finding.

An increasingly crowded jail (226 inmates on Monday with a capacity for 249), which increases both danger and potential legal liability, council members said.

Jail medical expenses that are project to be up 39-percent compared to last year.

$12 million in building renovations and new facilities needed over the next decade, according to consultant’s findings released in February.

About 20 additional deputies needed for public safety in order to meet state guidelines.

In advocating for more jail staff, Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton pointed out the sheriff’s department recently participated in a Six Sigma efficiency evaluation that showed a need for a minimum seven additional employees at the jail.

Most of the jail’s problems are caused by dangerous and illegal narcotics, both Worton and Sheriff Matt Myers said.

“We have a new community now with the heroin epidemic,” Worton said. “In terms of criminal justice, the Columbus we all knew growing up is no more. We have to come to terms with that.”

To illustrate Worton’s point, Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin said judges no longer consider releasing drug-addicted inmates in order to let them go home.

“Now, we wonder if we release them whether they will die,” Benjamin said.

In addition, a state law passed three years ago requires most Indiana inmates convicted of the lowest felony crime level to serve their time in county jails rather than state prisons, Worton said.

Although the state reimburses the county $35 a day for each of those prisoners, the sheriff estimates the actual cost is close to $90 a day.

After DeDomenic emphasized the necessity of prioritizing, council member Matt Miller asked Worton if judges such as himself would be willing to give up new staff members to provide the jail additional personnel.

“Jail staff is most important,” said Worton, a former Columbus police chief. “But criminal justice is not the place to make your cuts, because we are overwhelmed.”

Benjamin agreed, adding that after making annual cuts for several years, all of the courts in Columbus are “now down to the seams — and they are splitting.”

The public hearing took place just as Fourth of July festivities got underway by the Columbus Municipal Airport. The scheduling appeared to be unintentional.

A number of other dates, including last Saturday, were briefly considered by the council after a misjudgment was discovered regarding the timetable necessary to meet state-mandated requirements, Hackman said.

The hearing had to be held Monday in order to provide a 30-day remonstrance period before the Aug. 1 deadline to submit the new tax to the state, council attorney Chris Monroe said.

Overview / financial impact

Proceeds from a cumulative capital development tax can be used to purchase, construct, equip, maintain or repair county buildings. The money also can be used to acquire land and make improvements necessary to create public facilities.

If the proposed cumulative capital improvement is approved, a property owner with a home assessed at $100,000 who takes normal deductions would pay an additional $5.44 a year, according to Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman.

For owners of a residence assessed at $200,000, the tax liability would be $16.26 annually, she said.

A vote on the tax, which was advertised at a rate of .0167 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for 2018, is scheduled for 6 p.m. July in the council chambers, located on the fourth floor of the Bartholomew County Government Office Building at the corner of Third and Franklin streets.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.