Lake wheel tax is back around for debate

2013-02-07T19:09:00Z 2013-02-07T20:12:07Z Lake wheel tax is back around for debateBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
February 07, 2013 7:09 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | The debate about whether to pass a Lake County wheel tax has come round again.

Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said Thursday he would like council members to reconsider later this year passing a tax on the county's vehicles to raise an estimated $10 million for road construction.

Bilski said he is open to discussions on whether to impose a flat tax on vehicles or a small percentage of a vehicle's value, similar to the state's excise tax on vehicles.

Two years ago, the council debated but refused to impose a flat $25 tax on passenger cars and motorcycles and a higher assessment on heavier cargo-carrying trucks.

Last year, the council was forced to borrow $5 million to repave the most pot-holed sections of the 559 miles of roads the county highway department maintains outside the municipal limits of Lake's 19 cities and towns.

County officials complain the state's support of local roads has remained frozen for the decade while the cost of paving materials has risen by 128 percent in the same period. Bilski said 70 percent of the money raised by the state motor vehicle tax on gasoline is siphoned off to support the Indiana State Police.

Bilski said, "It's one of the ways to fix the crumbling infrastructure and is well needed in my communities," Bilski said.

The tax would be distributed by population and miles of road with Gary getting about 20 percent of the total; Hammond and county government about 14 percent; Merrillville 6 percent; East Chicago, Hobart and Schererville 5 percent; Crown Point, Highland and Munster about 4 percent; Griffith and Dyer about 3 percent; and Winfield, New Chicago, Whiting, Lowell, St. John, Cedar Lake, Schneider and Lake Station would each get 2 percent or less.

Bilski said he hopes a team of Purdue University government finance experts can give a public seminar on the wheel tax between now and March to educate the public before any vote is taken.

He said the council would hold a special night meeting to give the public an opportunity to remonstate or support the tax. No date has been set for that meeting. He said he hopes he and other council members will lobby city and town officials to support passing the tax. 

Council members said they will defer action at least until next month on a request by Sheriff John Buncich for a $5.3 million appropriation. It would maintain the medical and mental health staff and additional corrections officers recently hired to comply with U.S. Justice Department demands for the county to upgrade health care for the 14,000 men and women incarcerated in the lockup each year.

The council has been preparing for this since last fall when when it authorized the extraordinary measure of borrowing $15 million, at an interest rate of a little more than 2 percent, to avoid spending county government into a deficit.

The Justice Department cited the jail in 2009 for violating the civil rights of inmates following the suicide of seven inmates during the early 2000s. The county avoided the second federal takeover of the jail since the 1970s when a U.S. District Court judge took it over after a diabetic inmate failed to get his insulin.

Federal inspectors reported last fall health care in the jail is improving in all areas, but more work needs to be done to end Justice Department oversight.

Jail consultants reported last year that more than 60 percent of all correctional inmates complain of some form of mental illness and many are substance abusers.

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