EDITORIAL: Income tax revenues are not mad-money windfall

2013-08-04T00:00:00Z EDITORIAL: Income tax revenues are not mad-money windfall nwitimes.com
August 04, 2013 12:00 am

The newly adopted local-option county income tax promises an additional $15.3 million in revenue for Lake County government alone on Jan. 1, and the temptation will be great to pretend like it's Christmas.

Various county departments are likely dreaming up ways to spend the money before they even have it in hand. But as the county prepares for September budget workshop sessions, those who control the purse strings must resist the urge to view the new revenue as a windfall of mad money.

County government finance officials are already bracing themselves for a wave of requests to increase spending in various departments, including likely requests for county employee pay raises.

County Financial Director Dante Rondelli expects spending proposals for $5 million for health and sanitation improvements in the Lake County Jail, $7 million for employee pensions and benefits and more than $3 million to maintain the county's bridges and for flood control.

Add all those expected requests for additional funding together, and the $15.3 million in new revenue will have all-but evaporated.

There will no doubt be other requests too, as some covet the cash to create or preserve patronage positions and other waste. But government leaders need to keep their priorities straight.

The health and sanitation improvements at the Lake County Jail should be at or near the top of the list. It's not a matter of making things more posh for inmates. It's a federal mandate from the U.S. Department of Justice that these improvements occur.

Preservation of existing infrastructure -- bridges, highways and county roads -- are also of high importance. Transportation is at the center of everything in the region, whether it's getting to work or providing government services.

Also belonging near the top of the list is funding for the state-mandated emergency dispatch consolidation, commonly referred to as E-911, which will bring together 17 municipal and county police, fire and ambulance call centers into one common facility in Crown Point. Ultimately this is an investment in future good government through shared resources, even though it is expensive up front.

The funding responsibility for E-911 doesn't just rest on county government's shoulders. On Jan. 1, Lake County local government units -- including cities, towns and the county -- collectively will receive $45.3 million in new revenues from the income tax. The individual municipalities should pay a portion of the E-911 expense from their individual tax revenues as well.

If anything is left from this initial round of cash, government leaders on both the county and municipal levels should consider paying down any debt they have accrued from wasteful borrowing. Government pay raises and increased pension benefits don't belong in the conversation right now.

A glut of local government borrowing has occurred lately, some of it explained away by elected leaders who said they were waiting for an income tax windfall.

But they better be careful with that new money. Those same leaders owe it to the taxpayers -- who are providing the new revenues through 1.5 percent of their hard-earned wages -- not to blow through the cash and commence the typical borrowing trend yet again.

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