Lake County officials ponder whether to borrow more again this year

2013-09-03T00:04:00Z 2013-09-03T15:00:05Z Lake County officials ponder whether to borrow more again this yearBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
September 03, 2013 12:04 am  • 

CROWN POINT | This year, Lake County's budget-makers will have to struggle with prosperity.

County and municipal officials have begun setting spending goals for 2014 that for the first time in years will be higher, not lower, than the previous budget because of the new 1.5 percent local income tax the state will begin collecting Oct. 1 from all county residents and workers.

Fiscal officials are gleefully preparing to receive an additional $24 million Jan. 1 to be spread among the 19 cities, towns and county government. And 2015 will bring millions more in additional tax dollars when the full impact of the income tax hits local wallets.

The question now is whether local government can restrain itself after years of property tax levy freezes and caps that have forced it to skin back payrolls and spending dreams.

The County Council, which passed the income tax in May, will receive an estimated bonus of at least $15 million in new revenues next year. However, that won't be enough to cover the wish list county elected officials and department heads already have assembled.

Lake Coroner Merrilee Frey said she needed an additional $112,000 next year to ensure she could pay doctors to perform the many autopsies she orders in cases of homicides, suicides and questionable deaths.

"They do one to four every day, six days a week," Frey said.

Hobart Township Assessor Julia Wolek said her staff of five has been decimated by people on leave.

"I desperately need another employee," Wolek said. "I'm down practically to me and my chief deputy. I'm seriously considering putting a sign on the door that we're out to lunch."

Some 50 officials generated a wave of spending-increase requests for more full-time and part-time employees, more office supplies, gasoline, money for higher rent and utility bills, and salary increases ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent for the bulk of the county's 1,695 full-time employees whose pay has been frozen since 2006.

Then there is the $5 million Sheriff John Buncich said is needed to maintain sanitation, health care and inmate safety improvements in the Lake County Jail as required by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Another $7 million will be requested to shore up employee pension and health care benefits and more than $3 million to maintain the county's bridges and flood-control waterways.

However, Dante Rondelli, finance director for the County Council, warned county officials at their initial budget hearing in August there also is a downside to 2014 income estimations.

"We are going to open up 2014 with lagging finances and too much appropriation. Our inheritance tax is down, our collections are ebbing by another quarter of a percent because of the tax caps. They also are a drag on the (property tax levy) growth," he said recently.

"We may start the year in the negative even before we start plastering on any new stuff."

Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said he doesn't want the county to have to borrow any more money like it did this year, when officials went to the banking community for $15 million to keep their 2013 budget balanced.

Listening to requests to increase spending by tens of millions of dollars next year, Bilski said, "I'm prepared to say no to everything." 

"We have to look at what caused shortfalls this year," Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, said.

The County Council is scheduled to debate these issues at a series of workshops before voting on a final budget by the end of September.

Rondelli told council members they have the options of returning the remaining $5 million they borrowed, but haven't yet spent this year; deny all spending increases and wait until tax revenues increase further; or approve several pressing capital expenses and public safety needs -- and borrow one more time.

"I'm not saying you have to borrow," Rondelli quickly added.

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