Impending Lake Co. income tax veto frightens off spending spree

2013-05-09T17:19:00Z 2013-05-10T09:28:03Z Impending Lake Co. income tax veto frightens off spending spreeBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | Austerity fell like a ton of bricks Thursday morning on Lake County officials as they contemplated running county government without a county income tax.

County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, announced to stunned county officials gathered for a council workshop session that all their requests for new spending — totaling $8.6 million — were being deferred until next month but likely never will be approved.

"We won't vote for any appropriations. There will be no action on ($15 million in) requests before the borrowing committee until we figure out where we are going to cut and where we are going to find new sources of revenue," Bilski said.

The council Monday approved by a 4-3 margin a 1.5 percent tax on the personal incomes of all county residents and out-of-state residents working in Lake County.

However, if two of the three county commissioners carry through with promises to veto the tax Friday morning, the tax is likely to die uncollected; it appears unlikely the council will find a five-vote supermajority to override Friday's expected commissioners veto.

Bilski, who voted for the income tax, said the council now must consider radical reductions in not only the spending practices, but also the very shape, of county government.

"The $15 million we borrowed has to be given back. It would be completely irresponsible to spend that money. And we will have to eliminate entire departments," Bilski said.

That brought a protest from County Surveyor George Van Til, who stands to lose more than $1.7 million to dredge seven ditches, draining stormwater from a number of suburban and rural areas in the county.

"Why are we here? To serve and protect. When our budget was cut six months ago, we were told don't worry, everything would be fine. Every time a rain drop falls, I worry about it," Van Til said.

The council borrowed $15 million last year to balance the 2013 county government budget. County officials have put together a wish list of spending that exceeds $16 million, but the council hasn't spent any of the borrowed money yet.

Dante Rondelli, the financial director for the council, said it was the plan all along to hold the borrowed money until they were sure of a new source of government revenue, not only to repay the $15 million, but also to negate the need to do any more such borrowing.

The county income tax would have provided that additional revenue.

The council also deferred actions on $4.5 million to repave county highways, $2 million in salaries and benefits for Lake County Jail staff, $385,000 for computers, $122,000 in court expenses for a death penalty trial earlier this year and $80,000 for new vehicles for the coroner's office.

Council members announced they will hold a special joint meeting with the Board of Commissioners and the county's municipal fire and police chiefs at 9 a.m. May 23 to review progress to date on consolidating the county's 17 emergency communication systems into a single countywide network by the end of next year.

The E-911 consolidation is another multimillion-dollar project for which future income tax money was earmarked.

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