CROWN POINT | Lake County Council members are leaning on town and city officials to help with a looming $20 million deficit.
The council voted during its first budget workshop Tuesday to have its staff send letters this week to the county's 19 municipalities to keep their 2013 spending within the state-mandated tax caps.
Dante Rondelli, financial director for the Lake County Council, said Tuesday the county is being forced to raise at least $4 million in additional property taxes next year to cover overspending, primarily by big city governments with high property tax rates.
"We have never recommended they live within their tax levies," said Councilman Mike Repay, D-Hammond.
However, the council only can recommend municipal belt-tightening. It is unclear whether the cities or the state, which has final budget authority, would follow the council's suggestions.
Council members took the first steps to put their own financial house in order Tuesday by rolling back two dozen county agencies to their 2012 spending levels and eliminating a year-end paycheck for all elected county officials.
Unelected county employees still will get their so-called 27th paycheck, an additional salary amount owed them under county government's system of paying employees every other week. It usually results in 26 pay periods most years, but a quirk in the calendar results in a 27th pay period once every 11 years.
Council members rejected a call to approve an across-the-board 4 percent budget cut but will ask elected officials and department heads to explain in greater detail how their spending supports their core services as defined by state law.
Rondelli said the County Council still must confront an additional $16.7 million in what appears to be unavoidable new spending. That includes $8.4 million to hire additional county jail corrections officers demanded by the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure the safety of jail inmates; $1.5 million additional salaries, retirement benefits and fuel for county police vehicles; and $3.3 million to cover rising health care bills for all full-time county government employees.
Rondelli said county government will set up a committee that will lend money to those departments on condition they pay off the loans within a year.
Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, complained that is only a short-term solution. "What about 2014, 2015 or 2016?" he asked.
Councilman Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said the cities and towns either must voluntarily cut spending or support the passage of a permanent new county income tax. "Our back is against the wall," Bilski said.
Council workshops will continue until a final vote early next month.