County budget fight could wind up in court

2012-11-21T10:44:00Z 2012-11-21T17:45:09Z County budget fight could wind up in courtBob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com
November 21, 2012 10:44 am  • 

VALPARAISO | The ongoing debate over how to fully fund Porter County's 2013 budget may end up being settled by the courts.

At issue is a proposal for the Porter County Council to break with past practice by dipping into local income tax revenue without the support of the Board of County Commissioners.

"Our intention is to utilize that money for operations," said Porter County Councilman Jim Biggs, R-1st.

Biggs said he hopes to yet be able to work out an agreement with the commissioners, but believes he has the support of both a majority on the council and the law to spend the income tax revenue.

Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, disagreed.

"If they try this, I'll take them to court because they can't do it," he said.

The county's income tax ordinance requires the commissioners propose a use for the money before the council can take action, Evans said. The ordinance, which directs the first $3.5 million collected each year to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, is unique from other counties around the state, he said.

Additional revenue is needed because the county is no longer taking in enough property tax money each year to fund its operations.

The council approved a $38 million budget for 2013, yet expects to collect $31.6 million in property taxes, minus $2 million lost to tax caps, according to the county auditor's office. The county expects to collect an additional $6 million in miscellaneous revenue and has $3.2 million on hand in reserve funding.

Funding also has yet to be secured next year for big tickets items including round-the-clock medical service at the jail, the opening of the third pod at the jail and long-term funding for E911.

Biggs said the county no longer has the luxury to use all the income tax revenue on special projects and must begin directing a portion for operational costs.

Councilwoman Laura Blaney, D-at-large, who was elected to take over next year as South District county commissioner, said she has not been included in the talks about the unilateral action by the council and disagrees with the approach.

"It's not a way to build a bridge," she said.

The approach would limit income tax spending to operational costs, since only the commissioners can sign contracts for out-of-house services, she said. Blaney said she would hate to see the income tax revenue spent on operations alone at the expense of capital projects and economic development.

Blaney said she believes the council, as the county's fiscal body, should initiate a discussion with the commissioners to end the funding dispute.

Evans said he is willing to talk, but doubted the sincerity of some council members to make a good faith effort.

"They are not going to have everything their way," Evans said.

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