The tax that took Lake by surprise

2013-05-10T14:09:00Z The tax that took Lake by surpriseBill Dolan, (219) 662-5328

CROWN POINT | Friday's passage of a Lake County income tax relieved supporters, disgusted opponents, and amazed everyone following the impassioned debate.

A tax protester shouted, "McDermott's puppet!" at Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, after Repay allowed five motions to veto the tax by Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, die by refusing to support them.

Repay said he made up his mind for the tax only minutes before the commissioners meeting — about the time he was listening to WJOB radio, and Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. was predicting on air that Repay would veto the tax.

However, McDermott said he was caught off-guard when, he said, "I was being texted that Repay isn't seconding any motions. I couldn't believed it was happening."

Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, who had navigated the tax through the fiscal body, had been expecting a veto, too.

"I had no idea until I got the news this morning," Bilski said. "Yesterday, I was thinking, I am going to have to cut everything I love that government provides.

"Right now, there are a lot of angry people who feel they are being taxed to provide pay raises and to promote nepotism and political favoritism.

"But I'm breathing a sigh of relief. I finally feel confident we are taking care of what we need to do, to maintain public safety, infrastructure and a balanced county budget. It's a positive thing, but it may take a while for folks to realize that," Bilski said.

Merrillville Clerk-Treasurer Eugene Guernsey thinks Bilski's support of the income tax will "absolutely" affect his chances for re-election next year. Bilski represents Hobart and Merrillville. "Whenever you pass a new tax, it's like the kiss of death," Guernsey said.

As a taxpayer, Guernsey opposes the income tax, but he supports it as Merrillville's clerk-treasurer, he said. The town has faced financial struggles for years. Merrillville pursued several options to increase its funding to hire more police officers, but each has been unsuccessful.

Hobart City Councilman David Vinzant, D-4th, said he couldn't have been happier because local government can't operate its streets, public safety and E-911 without the additional income.

He served as City Council president in September when Hobart passed a resolution asking county officials to approve the personal income tax. Merrillville, Gary and New Chicago, followed suit.

"The system works. The right thing happens even when they are hard to do. Commissioner Mike Repay did the right thing," Vinzant said.

Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist said, "Under the circumstances there is no other alternative to preserve our current government services. And without the passage of this, there would be a sharp decline not only in the county services but in cities and towns throughout the county."

"Now we've joined the rest of the state and can move on and get this behind us," Soderquist said.

Lake was the only county in the state without a local income tax.

Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, who voted against the tax, said, "It was a surprise. But it still won't change the avenue I'm going to take as far as promoting tighter, reduced spending. We still have to get ourselves into a position where we don't have to come back again in five years and revisit this."

Times staff writers Deborah Laverty and Chas Reilly contributed to this report.

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