Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown said no Bartholomew County resident wants to see the city and county clash over their respective financial obligations.
Nevertheless, clash they did when the mayor addressed the Bartholomew County Council on Tuesday night. In fact, Brown accused one council member of disrespectful behavior before returning to her seat in the audience.
The mayor spoke during a public hearing before the council’s unanimous passing of the preliminary 2013 general fund budget.
Her main point was to ask the County Council to consider paying all costs for three countywide services: primary emergency ambulances, the 911 Emergency Operations Center, and the maintenance of stream gauges on Haw Creek River used to monitor possible flooding in northern Bartholomew County.
Brown argued that because the city has paid 75 percent of total ambulance subsidies since 2006, city residents are paying twice for the same service through property taxes.
Council members listened attentively as Brown explained a chart indicating Columbus residents had a tax rate 152 percent larger than what county residents pay. She quoted a number of figures concerning the city’s larger assessed property valuations and population as the basis for her case.
But when the mayor also claimed the city was paying twice for 911 service, County Auditor Barb Hackman disagreed. Hackman said most of that department’s funding comes from user fees for landline telephone service.
While the growing popularity of cellphones has led to a drop in user-fee funding, Hackman said most of the shortfall is made up from money generated from a payroll tax.
“Everybody pays into that tax equally from their paychecks,” county council member Chris Ogle said. “They are not getting double-dipped. Also, the 911 building belongs to Bartholomew County. All payroll, insurance, liability and benefits is handled through the county.”
Council President Bill Lentz added that his fellow council members’ decision to base the distribution of the payroll tax on population, rather than raw property tax levies, actually hurt the county financially. But Lentz said it was intentionally done that way to help small towns and cities.
Only $18,500 of the operation center’s annual expenses are actually paid through property taxes, according to Hackman. She said that in 2011, the city paid 65 percent of that cost. This year, the amount dropped to 55 percent for Columbus residents, and the preliminary 2013 budget calls for city property owners to only pick up 45 percent.
“But city residents represent 55 percent of calls to the 911 center,” Brown said. “We are 57 percent of the county residents, and pay 62 percent of the assessed value.”
“That’s based on an interlocal agreement that was agreed upon by the city and county,” replied council member Jorge Morales. “Are you trying to say we need to change that? I don’t understand what you are trying to say, Kristen.”
After Morales began to talk about a number of exclusive services that city residents receive for their municipal taxes, Brown tried to narrow the focus of the discussion.
“I’m only talking about the county picking up three services here,” Brown said.
“You’re picking up the services that you want. You’re not picking up the whole thing,” Morales said. “We are picking up a higher percent for the 911. We are picking up half of the ambulance service. What else do we need to be picking up?”
“The fair and reasonable thing is that these three countywide services be picked up at the county level,” Brown said.
After noting that state law dictates how much cities and counties pay for many joint services, Morales pointed out the Columbus City Council has not yet agreed to pick up half the cost of the $300,000 ambulance subsidy.
“Last time you were here, you told us we could not contract ambulance services without city approval,” Morales told Brown. “So I assume the city wants to pay for the other half. If that’s not what you want, let us know. Then you are relieving us from the city having a say on the ambulance service.”
“This is not about city and county government, Jorge,” Brown replied. “This is about what is fair and reasonable for the citizens of Columbus.”
“I am a citizen of Columbus,” Morales said. “So the bottom line is: What do you want? You want us to pay for the full ambulance service?”
At that, Brown paused a moment.
“First, I’d like to be spoken to respectfully,” Brown said with quiet intensity.
“I am speaking to you respectfully,” Morales said. “If I am not, please forgive me. That was not my intent.”
At that moment, Brown quietly rose from the chair at the presentation table and returned to her seat in the audience. Council members discussed the issue among themselves for a few minutes before Brown, from her place in the audience, added a few additional comments.
At the end of the 35-minute discussion, Lentz tried to provide a conciliatory remark to both city and county officials.
“It’s been a tough year,” Lentz said. “All of you have worked real hard. But in the end, the winners are the citizens of Bartholomew County. We went from a million dollars to pay for the ambulances this year to $300,000 next year and zero the next year. The financial burden of 911 has dropped tremendously. The county is taking steps toward doing what you want, Kristen, and we’re getting better and better.”
“We’re asking only for what is fair and reasonable,” Brown said. “I think that would mean that the county would take it all. But if you choose not to, we’ll pick it up the rest.”
The Columbus City Council is expected to take up the issue of paying half of next year’s emergency ambulance subsidies on Tuesday. If the City Council votes against it, most county officials say they are prepared to pay for the entire $300,000 through money available in their rainy day fund.
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