Lake spending remains on hold while impact of income tax is measured

2013-05-14T21:25:00Z 2013-05-15T14:55:06Z Lake spending remains on hold while impact of income tax is measuredBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | Lake County Council members remained cautious about future spending requests Tuesday despite last week's passage of the local option income tax that promises tens of million of dollars in new revenues.

They deferred until June 11 votes on approving $12.7 million in requested appropriations, primarily to fund road, bridge and stormwater drainage projects and shore up the troubled group insurance plan now providing benefits to the county 1,695 full-time employees.

It was their first meeting since May 6, when they passed a 1.5 percent tax on the personal incomes of county residents and workers by a 4-3 margin and the Lake County Board of Commissioners declined to veto the tax Friday, ensuring it will start being collected beginning Oct. 1.

However, county officials said it was unclear when local governments will begin receiving the money and whether they will receive a full draw or only one quarter of that amount in the first year.

The county does have $15 million it borrowed last year to cover the delay, but it was unclear whether that will stretch over the entire time period. The county may have to borrow millions more this year to make ends meet until 2015 when the impact of the income tax is better known.

So the council delayed until next month voting on whether to approve:  $4.5 million to repave county highways, $4.1 million in tax contributions to the employee insurance plan, $2 million in salaries and benefits for Lake County Jail staff,  $1.3 million to improve several south county drainage ditches, $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.

Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, voted against $40,000 in pay raises to 10 public defenders and several other court employees in the Superior Court Council Division.

The five other council members in attendance approved the appropriations on the advice of Council Attorney Ray Szarmach, who said the public defenders will get no more money this year than previously agreed. The requests were to transfer part of their pay from different accounts than previously used. A court bookkeeper is getting a $5,000 raise from a state grant.

Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, was absent.

The council appropriated $33,650 to the county elections division for work and supplies needed to conduct the referendum earlier this month where voters approved a measure to pay higher taxes to operate Munster schools.

The school district will reimburse the county later this year because its referendum was the only reason for the May election. The next regular elections aren't scheduled until 2014.

The County Council held its first evening meeting Tuesday in hope more residents would attend. However, only a handful of non-county employees were present.

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