By a vote of 4-3, the Bartholomew County Council has enacted its first tax increase in eight years.

Beginning in January, all wage earners in Bartholomew County will experience a 40 percent increase in the county’s portion of local income tax taken out of wages.

As an example of the financial impact, individuals making $50,000 a year will see their local income tax go up by $4.80 a week or $250 a year, county auditor Barb Hackman said.

The county will receive about $4.8 million of the revenue raised next year, while the city of Columbus will get about $6.2 million due to the size of the city’s population, council president Laura DeDomenic said.

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A general fund budget of $22.7 million for next year was also given final approval Tuesday. That’s 9 percent higher than a $20.8 million dollar budget for 2017 approved by the county council last October.

Three incumbent Republican county council members were defeated in the 2010 spring primary after the 2009 approval of a county economic development income tax. A number of county officials today say that’s why no new taxes have been approved since.

This year, some tax opponents have also suggested potential consequences after accusing the all-Republican council of acting against their own political ideology.

While councilman Mark Gorbett acknowledged they may be correct, “I can go to bed tonight knowing that what I did was right,” a comment that prompted expressions of approval from some fellow council members.

Stating their case

Of the nearly 50 people in attendance, 10 spoke to the council. Half of them spoke in favor of the tax increase, mostly as a way to address the community’s opioid problem.

“We must make investments to reduce overcrowding in the jail, and create proven in-jail treatment programs,” said Jeff Jones, executive lead for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) in Bartholomew County.

A study released earlier this year states current jail staffing is 16 full-time positions lower than the standard set by the Indiana Department of Correction. Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers requested five additional correction staff members and 10 part-time jail employees in budget discussions.

In the law enforcement division, additional money will be spent on hiring three new road patrol deputies and obtaining 11 patrol vehicles, Myers said.

Three of the speakers opposed the tax increase Tuesday, while the remaining two said they had insufficient data to voice a clear preference.

Opponent Lisa Denton asked the council not to spend any of the new revenue without enacting a specific plan on how the funds would be used to fight the opioid crisis.

But in response, both Gorbett and DeDomenic said such a plan is not possible at this time because they believe the worst of the opioid crisis has not yet arrived.

“Everybody I’ve talked to says there’s a storm coming,” DeDomenic said. “We need to get ready for it. We need to build our storm walls. We need to put a foundation in place so we can deal with it.”

Three speakers who weren’t present during earlier hearings addressed their concerns to the council for the first time, including a Columbus physician who has provided medical-assisted addiction treatment since early 2014.

“This is a disease where the brain has been damaged,” said Dr. Theodora Saddoris of people with an opioid addiction. “We can’t arrest people who have COPD or diabetes because they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do. But yet, we are arresting people who have a disease that is taking away control from their behavior.”

Saddoris also said that if residents realized how much money opioids are already costing, they’d quickly realize treatment is better and more cost-effective.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year estimated the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the United States is $78.5 billion a year. That includes the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement, the report stated.

SIHO Insurance Services President and CEO Dave Barker told the council that county government has been insufficiently funded for the past four years.

“The effort has been to reduce costs, but you can’t fix the problem by reducing yourself into prosperity,” Barker said. “You certainly can’t reduce costs, and fix something like drug addictions. We have to pay for things if we want to live in a safe community that takes care of its neighbors.”

After stating he believed the council had cut all unnecessary expenses, Columbus plumber Joe Lohmeyer said he supports the tax increase as the only way to pay for necessary expenses.

How they voted

Bartholomew County Council members who voted in favor of raising the county’s local income tax rate from 1.25 percent of a worker’s gross pay to 1.75 percent were Mark Gorbett, council president Laura DeDomenic, Jorge Morales and Chris Ogle.

Casting their votes against raising the tax were Bill Lentz, Evelyn Pence and Matt Miller.

Pull Quote

“I can go to bed tonight knowing that what I did was right.”

— Mark Gorbett, Bartholomew County councilman after voting for tax increase

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