MARC CHASE: Third-party contracts carve up Lake taxpayers

2013-11-26T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Third-party contracts carve up Lake taxpayersMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
November 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

At least five people should be giving extra thanks during their Thanksgiving dinners for newly approved, lucrative Lake County government contracts that further carve into taxpayers' wallets.

The five stand to make hundreds of thousands in county taxpayer dollars for collecting delinquent property taxes — essentially performing the work of the Lake County treasurer's office. Taxpayers should demand an end to this gravy train.

Delinquent county tax collections put fat turkeys on the tables of politically connected hired guns year after year.

Some of those folks, like former tax collector Roosevelt Powell, haven't exactly fostered confidence we're spending our money wisely. Powell was convicted in 2007 in Hammond federal court for defrauding taxpayers in a Gary land deal.

Powell's crime aside, county officials need to begin explaining why they require so many third-party tax collectors — and other outside consultants — to perform work required of government offices.

Last week, the Lake County commissioners rubber-stamped tax collection contracts with five perennial hired guns, each of whom stands to pocket 10 percent to 15 percent of any delinquent property taxes collected.

Four of the five — Jewell Harris Jr., Ronald Ostojic, John Stanish and Alexander Lopez — collectively made $465,000 last year and netted $107,585 thus far in 2013.

Harris alone received $180,518 in 2012 and collected $73,393 this year to date.

Thanks to new 2014 deals, the tax collectors will have a chance to do it all again. How exciting for them and disappointing for the rest us.

The county treasurer is quick to explain delinquent taxpayers end up funding these third-party collectors through late fees. But wouldn't that money be better used in the county's general fund — you know, the one so economically malnourished that county officials passed a new local income tax earlier this year to fatten it up?

The treasurer's office boasts 37 employees and a $1.8 million budget.

Are any of these folks capable of collecting taxes without the additional expense of a group of virtual bounty hunters?

Delinquent taxes are a hindrance to efficient government. But why must the county so frequently answer inefficiencies with more inefficiencies? If the county staff already receiving government pay and handsome health care and other benefits aren't capable of handling these tasks, perhaps it's time to restructure how the office does business.

The five recently approved tax collection contracts are just a small example of a much larger problem in Lake County. The common denominator is county leaders of nearly all offices farming out millions of dollars in county work each year to third-party vendors to perform government tasks. And it adds up dramatically over the years.

A Times investigation of county spending published in 2010 found $16.9 million spent on third-party consultants over 10 years.

When will the 1,600 full-time county employees, more than 500 part-time employees and their 19 elected bosses actually do the county's work without expensive hand-holding from their private-sector friends?

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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