Lake County Council goes through motions of futile budget review of county entities

2013-09-19T14:13:00Z 2013-09-20T10:01:04Z Lake County Council goes through motions of futile budget review of county entitiesBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
September 19, 2013 2:13 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | The Lake County Council conducted its annual theater of the absurd Thursday in reviewing proposed 2014 budgets of 55 local government entities, including cities, towns, library and conservancy districts and the like.

State law has required the council for several years to analyze all county agencies' spending plans for the following year and recommend whether they are fiscally sound.

However, none of the agencies or entities has to follow those recommendations and rarely do, since state law makes them nonbinding.

Ray Szarmach, the council's attorney, said the state Legislature passed the law several years ago in an apparent effort to merge the county's many agencies into a single "unigov" concept similar to that practiced in Indianapolis and Marion County. However, the Legislature never followed through, leaving a toothless budget review as the only remnant of the unigov idea.

The council initially took the budget review seriously when it began several years ago and rated the other entities' finances as either dangerously high and stamped them with a symbolic red light, or with a yellow light if they had a small deficit or a green light if they were fiscally sound.

However, state officials rejected the county's traffic-light system. "So what's the point?" Szarmach said.

That left the County Council on Thursday with little choice but to approve all 55 budgets, some whose numbers were as absurd as the review.

Only seven of the 55 submitted balanced budgets: the city of Hammond, the Cedar Creek Township trustee's office and the Crown Point, East Chicago, Gary and Hammond public libraries.

The others public budgets exceed the nearly $1 billion in taxes the county's residents, workers and property owners will be paying next year by more than $658 million.

Szarmach said state officials will push those budgets numbers down between now and next year.

Local government officials say they knowingly budget for much more than is possible,because quirky state laws force them to bid impossibly high for spending authority to avoid the state's cutting too deeply into their essential programs.

The council, which passed its own balanced budget Wednesday, shifted $23,000 Thursday into the tiny Soil and Water Conservation and Purdue Cooperation Extension service departments to ensure it could pay all its bills next year.

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