VALPARAISO | A consulting firm finished a recent financial evaluation of Porter County by suggesting officials consider eliminating the property tax break approved when the local income was doubled eight years ago.
The need for the local homestead credit is diminished as a result of the state tax caps and additional deductions in place, according to the study prepared by H. J. Umbaugh & Associates Certified Public Accountants.
The firm also recommends implementing a new vehicle tax and maxing out the property tax rate for capital projects.
Porter County Council President Robert Poparad, D-at large, said he does not believe the answer to the county's financial challenges is to look for more revenue sources.
"We're not at a crisis stage," he said. "We're paying our bills."
The Umbaugh report said while the county has many favorable financial attributes, including the $170 million in proceeds from the sale of the hospital, it does face challenges. These challenges include up to $13.6 million in building needs, $30 million in drainage improvement work and overcrowding at the jail.
Poparad does not disagree there are challenges that need to be addressed, but he said what is needed is better planning. It was with this in mind that the council recently hired former Chesterton Tribune reporter Vicki Urbanik to fill the newly created position of full-time budget and finance specialist.
County Councilman Jim Biggs, R-1st, said he has spent the last two years encouraging his fellow county officials to have a comprehensive operations plan done to identify needs and establish funding priorities.
He said it concerns him that more than $1 million has been spent on operations at the county's Memorial Opera House over the past 15 months, which is more than has been spent over the last 10 years to combat the local drug problem.
"We don't have a budget problem - revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Biggs said.
County Council Vice President Karen Conover, R-3rd, said she is open to the idea of eliminating the homestead credit, but believes the benefit to the county would be limited by the caps on the amount of property taxes that can be collected.
She suggested the possibility of implementing a stormwater tax throughout the unincorporated areas to generate money to help pay for drainage work.
The Umbaugh report also suggests the county improve its approach to budgeting and financial maintenance, and consider partnering with cities and towns to reduce expenses. There is also a recommendation to consider hiring and pay freezes, a review all service fees, and a continual evaluation of higher deductibles, higher co-pays and higher contributions for employee health insurance.
Conover said she thinks the hiring freeze is a good idea for all but public safety employees, but supports pay increases because so many salaries are so low.
"If you are going to retain good people, you are going to need to give them an increase occasionally," she said.