Lake County government entities are seeing their budgets under increasing scrutiny amid pressure to stay under the frozen tax levy. These entities are even starting to compete with each other for property tax dollars.
The Hammond City Council turned a cold shoulder to the Hammond Public Library's request for an $800,000 increase in 2013. This is the first year the city is reviewing the budget crafted by the appointed, rather than elected, Library Board.
The reason is clear enough -- with a frozen property tax levy, there are only so many tax dollars to go around. It's competition pure and simple.
At the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point, overall spending in the county is very much on everyone's minds. The County Council is faced with the possible need to cut $20 million from the budget to make revenue and spending line up with each other.
Councilman Mike Repay, a Hammond Democrat running for commissioner, said he and two other council members discussed their options Sept. 20.
"They combine recommended cuts, recommended borrowing and (future) legislative strategies," Repay said.
Wait a minute. Borrowing?
Borrowing money for operational costs not only kicks the can down the road but also makes the burden even worse by adding interest charges. It's as if the county were considering a payday lender instead of looking at all its financial options.
The County Council even cut $5.7 million in future highway bridge and flood control work and liability insurance coverage Tuesday. Is that wise?
While it's good to squeeze waste out of local government, at some point there must be a serious discussion of how to adequately provide government services.
The county option income tax, while despised, must not be ruled out immediately.
Indiana lawmakers froze the property tax levy at 2007 levels to add pressure on the county to enact a county option income tax. Don't expect a legislative remedy when the income tax option remains unused.
Look at all the financial options, then come up with recommendations to put before the public. Start with educating the public, then public debate, and it will become clear what must be done.
If the solution to living within the county's means includes consolidation or other creative solutions, so be it. If it means jeopardizing public safety or eliminating essential services, as happened with bus service in Hammond, that is inexcusable.
Voting for an income tax might end political careers -- no one is eager for a new tax -- but if it becomes clear that there's no other option, so be it. Elected officials must do what's right rather than what's politically expedient.