MARC CHASE: New income tax not a license to fatten up

2013-05-16T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: New income tax not a license to fatten upBy Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com

Lake County officials who just thrust a 1.5 percent local option income tax on county breadwinners would have us all believe the Lake County Government Center roof would have collapsed without the adoption of the tax.

The tax survived a veto attempt by Commissioner Gerry Scheub last week, but my guess is the building's roof would still be standing if the tax had failed, inflated like a balloon by the plethora of hot air exhaled by all the current and past patronage workers inside.

Supporters of the tax make some good arguments. It's true Lake County was the only Hoosier county lacking a local income tax. It's also true county finances are struggling to provide services — with the massive weight of financing the jail and county police force as major burdens.

But has the county exhibited responsible stewardship of the money it already receives from taxpayers to warrant this new supplement to government coffers?

If you answered no, you're not alone. And you're feelings are justified if you worry the income tax adoption opens a potential floodgate to even more taxes, spending and waste.

Despite some cuts by county government in recent years, many taxpayers — and even some government leaders — believe the county has existing waste that should be trimmed and unnecessary patronage positions ripe for the cutting block.

County officials have only themselves to blame for this overwhelming impression of waste.

A few short years ago, The Times highlighted a decade of wasteful spending by county government offices that included $500,000 spent annually on travel and lodging, including extravagant conference destinations such as Disney World and Las Vegas for county parks employees.

Those spending trends aren't entirely to blame for the financial situation in which the county now finds itself. Property tax caps and freezes thrust upon the county by the state — in part because of the county's wasteful past — are the major factors. But long-held bad habits certainly don't foster public trust.

Based on that history, we all need to hold the feet of our local elected leaders to the fires of continued austerity. This income tax should not be held as a license to cease attempts at good government, trimming of waste and responsible use of the public's money.

Government may still be struggling to recover from the deep recession that hatched a few years ago, but so are the everyday taxpayers and their families.

County government leaders should take the opportunity to get even leaner. Here's an idea to get things going: Give back, rather than spending, the $15 million the county borrowed last year, in part for operational expenses. That would be a token of good faith — but one history tells us we're not likely to see.

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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