CROWN POINT | The Lake County Council started the new year by spending money it may not have and setting the stage for a possible new tax.
Council members hired four new Lake County police officers and 18 new county jail corrections officers who will cost taxpayers an additional $727,463 in salaries.
Council members also voted to appropriate $230,000 to shore up the county police retirement fund.
Dante Rondelli, the county's financial director, begged the council to impose a substantial spending moratorium until he and other financial officials review future expenses threatening to throw the county into a deeper deficit.
He warned the two new County Council members, David Hamm, D-Hammond, and Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, the council must find an additional $4.5 million for improvements to the Lake County Jail. He said the police retirement fund may need an additional $1 million to remain solvent in the long run.
"This is a good segue to discuss an income tax," said Councilman Jerome Prince, D-Gary, who relinquished the council presidency after a year. "At the very minimum, we have to put it up for a vote."
The council and Board of Commissioners have been forced to borrow $15 million to plug a looming budget deficit caused by an explosion of new spending to bring the county jail up to federal standards under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The DOJ cited the jail several years ago for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and a lack of medical and mental health for jail inmates. The agreement avoided a federal takeover of the jail that could have been even more costly.
The council also signed a labor agreement a year ago with unionized county police that required the county to keep the department at 162 merit officers. The council has approved 17 hires under that agreement. The hires fill positions vacated by departing officers.
The county has been forced to cut spending and reduce other areas of its payroll because of state-mandated property tax caps and a freeze on the county's total property tax levy until the county approves a local income tax.
The council attempted to pass an income tax in 2007, but the commissioners vetoed it. The Lake County Council couldn't muster a supermajority to override the veto.
Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, opposed any talk of an income tax until she could hold public forums with her constituents about the possible impact of a new tax.
New council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, who helped kill the 2007 tax move, said it was time to begin debating the income tax.