For the first time in eight years, the Bartholomew County Council is poised to enact a tax increase.
By a vote of 4-3, the council gave its preliminary approval Tuesday to a 40 percent increase in the county’s local income tax.
If final approval is given Oct. 10, the current tax rate of 1.25 percent of a worker’s gross pay would rise to 1.75 percent next year. As an example of the financial impact, county auditor Barb Hackman said individuals making $50,000 a year would see their local income tax go up by $4.80 a week or $250 a year.
Council members who voted in favor of the increase were Laura DeDomenic, Jorge Morales, Mark Gorbett and Chris Ogle. The three who cast their votes against raising the tax were Bill Lentz, Evelyn Pence and Matt Miller.
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While the county is facing several financial challenges, much of the new revenue is earmarked to address the consequences of widespread drug use, council members said.
That includes staffing shortages at both the Bartholomew County Jail and the court system, as well as a lack of an addiction-recovery program for jail inmates.
About 90 people were in the audience, with 16 addressing the council during a public hearing held prior to the vote. Half of the 16 were in favor of the increase, while half spoke against it.
Many of those who opposed raising the tax brought up similar arguments heard last July when the council refused to consider establishing a cumulative capital development tax.
“Throwing money at a problem is not a solution,” said audience member Joe Swaim, who campaigned against mismanagement of taxes during an unsuccessful 2011 campaign for Columbus City Council.
Glenn Petri, another Republican who also lost in his effort to win a city council seat that year, said the tax increase will be especially harmful because it is coming after both the city and the state raised taxes this summer.
Columbus businessman Carl Miller urged the council to stay within its budget, while Lisa Deaton — known for her work with the We The People group — asked for proof that additional taxes would solve problems.
But the most intense moments came after former Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown accused the council of lacking the data to justify a tax increase and advocating for a 3 percent pay raise for employees they can’t afford.
Brown also renewed an accusation she made against Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman in September 2015. The former mayor accused Hackman of misleading the public in saying the county had suffered a $6 million loss in state-controlled revenue over several years.
Her insistence that the $6 million was never lost, but simply placed into a different county fund, was not substantiated or argued by county officials during the meeting.
When Brown accused the council members of not doing their jobs, councilman Mark Gorbett responded.
“Kristen, you have attended less than five meetings in three years, and I take offense to that,” Gorbett said. “We’ve done our job to the best of our ability.”
After noting the tax increase would raise about $6.2 million for the city of Columbus, as well as $4.8 million for the county, the former mayor criticized the county council for giving money to the city without having a plan on how it would be spent.
This time, it was council president Laura DeDomenic who responded to Brown, saying county government has no control over how the city spends it money.
“When you were mayor, would you have liked me telling you how to spend $6 million?” DeDomenic asked Brown.
Seven minutes after she began addressing the council, Brown returned to her seat.
But when Michelle Richards, who works in the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s office, later spoke in favor of the tax increase, councilman Chris Ogle asked whether the former mayor was accurate when she claimed county employees receive “Cadillac” health benefits.
“Obviously, our Cadillac has got a few rusty spots,” replied Richards, whose answer drew both laughter and applause from many other county employees in the audience.
One of many working to establish a halfway house for local inmates, Pat Badgley described current conditions at the Bartholomew County Jail as “a powder keg ready to explode.” Both Badgley and his wife, Sevy, have frequently ministered to jail inmates for several years.
C. W. McKittrick said the council can no longer keep putting Band-Aids on a growing list of financial challenges, while David Barker reminded them more than 1,000 Bartholomew County residents are addicted to narcotics.
Detective Will Kinman of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department provided a personal appeal for the tax increase.
Although he has responded to several drug overdoses as part of his job, Kinman said it didn’t hit home until his cousin was found dead last week with a band around his arm and a needle in his hand.
Days later, Kinman learned his cousin had repeatedly cried out for help in breaking his heroin addiction, but nobody he talked to knew what to do.
“I’m going to be carrying my cousin to his grave Friday because our community has a heroin problem,” the detective said. “That’s the reality of it.”
Seventeen deaths from drug overdoses were reported in the Columbus area through June, with a projected year-end total of 34.
“If this tax doesn’t go forward, we’re still going to have a drug problem – but we’re not going to be able to do anything about it. The sheriff’s hands will be tied, the court’s hands will be tied, and there will be nothing done about it.”
— Bartholomew County councilman Mark Gorbett
Two Bartholomew County Council members well-known for being against new taxes explained Tuesday why they are now supporting a 40-percent increase in the county’s local income tax.
Jorge Morales: “In a way, we are preparing ourselves to address proposals (from the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress) that both the city and the county are going to have to handle. I don’t believe the way to address the drug problem is by putting people in jail. It’s a matter of education, detoxification, counseling – and getting people away from a bad environment. I don’t particularly care for taxes. I wish we could have found other ways to do this. Even though we had $1.7 million more in expenses above our income (in the proposed 2018 budget), we left it there because the next step would have been to cut people and programs. The majority of the people I have talked to are in favor of this. I’m looking at this from the long term for the well-being of everyone in this community.”
Laura DeDomenic: “When I got on the council three years ago, it was because I was tired of paying more taxes. I wanted to find ways to become more efficient and reduce expenses. I’ve tried my best, but a Six Sigma efficiency audit shows the sheriff is vastly understaffed. Our court cases have either doubled or tripled in the last five years. The jail population is about 50 percent higher, and about 90 percent have either drug or mental health issues. The Youth Services Center has burgeoned because those people with drug or mental health issues have children. And outside a professional office building I own, I have found discarded needles twice in the last two months. This is a community issue, and we need the financial resources to come together to address it.”
The second and final reading of an ordinance to raise Bartholomew County’s local income tax in 2018 from 1.25 percent of a worker’s gross pay to 1.75 percent will be considered by the Bartholomew County Council next month.
Date: Tuesday, Oct. 10
Time: 6 p.m.
Location: Fourth floor of the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building at the corner of Third and Franklin streets.