MARC CHASE: Budget review equals toothless man gumming tough steak

2013-10-10T00:05:00Z MARC CHASE: Budget review equals toothless man gumming tough steakMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
October 10, 2013 12:05 am  • 

Lake County government — including most of its municipalities — is an absolute master at inventing excessive layers of bureaucracy, furthering inefficiencies and encouraging gridlock by way of foot dragging.

So the Indiana Legislature — most of whose downstate leaders are well versed in our dead-end politics and processes — should have thought better of it when tossing another dead-weight layer atop an already rotund system.

Some of you might have heard recently when county leaders were partaking in the most futile of annual functions: reviewing the budgets of city, school and town units of government.

Every year since 2008 — when the leaves start thinking about taking on an autumn hue — the Lake County Council follows a state edict to review all local government budgets before sending the ledgers on to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance for final approval.

To be clear, all Indiana county councils must do the same thing under a law enacted by the Legislature that year. But why?

The review by county officials is nonbinding. In fact, one county finance expert likened it to a game of cut-and-paste in which the county just mimics the same numbers requested by the municipalities and school boards — void of any critique or input.

The bite in the law is less than a toothless man gumming a rare chuck steak.

Perhaps to their credit, the Lake County Council tried to take it seriously back in 2008, giving some nonbinding input to local government leaders regarding their budgets. A red light meant something was askew in the numbers, a yellow meant problems could exist in the numbers, and a green light meant the dollars and cents all added up.

But the Department of Local Government Finance put the kibosh on that process, instructing Lake County leaders to avoid input or feedback.

Before going further, let me acknowledge that the historic wastefulness and bloated patronage spending of Lake County government made the advice given somewhat dubious — or even laughable. But hey, at least they were trying.

And what's the point of a budgetary review that lacks teeth for any kind of enforcement, remediation or even basic financial input?

Too many laws in Indiana already lack the incisors to be effective. We have open records laws that lack any true bite unless a wronged party takes it to court — and wins — after legal expense. Drunken driving charges — in Lake County, at least — are frequently pleaded down to lesser reckless driving charges, carrying much lighter penalties.

This mandated county budget review belongs in the same general category.

The Department of Local Government Finance, which already holds the binding thumbs up or down for local government budgets, is check-and-balance enough.

The Legislature should revisit this meaningless process — and use the real teeth it possesses to remove it.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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