CROWN POINT | Lake County's budget officials started playing with the numbers Wednesday as they confronted the challenges of managing government spending in the new era of a local income tax.
The Lake County Council used its first 2014 budget workshop to vaporize tens of millions of dollars in requests for new money by other county and township officials when they rolled back spending goals to this year's budget.
They adopted the assumption that county property owners will pay nearly 85 percent of the maximum tax levy permitted under law.
They then turned their back on new borrowing to balance the budget.
Last year, the council authorized $15 million in loans to make up for property tax revenue shortfalls. This year it passed a personal income tax on all county residents and workers, which will generate at least $15 million next year for county government alone and much more in 2015. Tax collection doesn't begin until next month.
They debated more than $23 million in spending for an array of initiatives, including hiring as many as 65 corrections officers to satisfy a mandate set by the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division, shoring up the county's health insurance and pensions plans, repairing county highway bridges and drainage ditches, hiring probation officers, pay police and guards overtime as well as set aside money for increased fuel costs and legal services.
Some council members objected to even talking about hiring more employees.
"Word will get out we approved 65 additional people and everybody will want some (money for new hires) too," said Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago.
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said funding decisions made now aren't necessarily set in stone.
"We have to budget for worst case scenarios. It doesn't mean we'll hire them all," he said.
He said there isn't enough money to fund everything, but the council must ask staff to analyze all essential requests before they can begin to cut back to a balanced 2014 budget.
The council agreed not to direct any more money to the Lake County surveyor's Geographic Information System, a database the county poured $5.2 million into years ago to provide premium services to private business needing property boundaries, flood plain contours, soil types, zoning, easements, ownership information.
Cid said GIS needs to more widely used by all county offices to justify money for updates. Mark Pearman, head of the county's information technology department, said the service needs more content and to be more available to the public.