EDITORIAL: Lake's income tax debate begins

2013-04-10T00:00:00Z 2013-04-10T08:58:03Z EDITORIAL: Lake's income tax debate begins nwitimes.com
April 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Tuesday's 4-3 preliminary vote on an income tax for Lake County should not be seen as an opening salvo against the county's taxpayers. Rather, it's a step toward coming to grips with reality.

No one likes to introduce a new tax. Anyone who believes otherwise has a lot to learn about politics. But Lake County's back is against the wall. There is more cutting to be done, but it won't be enough to prevent the county from needing a local income tax.

Without the income tax, the property tax levy is frozen at 2007 levels for not just the county, but other local units of government as well. Everyone has a stake in what the County Council and Board of Commissioners decide.

State law froze the property tax levy for Lake County, the sole holdout against the income tax, to pressure the county to adopt the tax, just as the 91 other counties have done.

The county was forced to cut spending, fortunately, but now the county is resorting to the equivalent of payday lending to try to pay its bills this year. The county's $15 million shortfall will balloon in future years if nothing is done this year to address revenue.

Even with that $15 million shortfall, the county is not yet meeting all of its responsibilities. Regional bus service must happen so residents can get to jobs, grocery stores, pharmacies, health care appointments and elsewhere. On-demand service is sufficient for many areas, but the most densely populated areas need a unified bus service that crosses municipal boundaries and doesn't leave vast areas unserved.

There are expenses coming up for public safety initiatives, too, including mandatory services at Lake County Jail and the mandatory consolidation of E-911 dispatch services.

That doesn't take into account other transportation issues like maintaining the county's roads and bridges.

As the debate on this proposed tax continues, it is vital that the public officials involved show respect for each other, to model the civility needed on this highly emotional issue. It is also vital that a detailed explanation of how the tax works and how it would be spent be presented.

The Lake County Council's vote Tuesday was on first reading for a 1.5 percent income tax. It is not a veto-proof majority, but it's a start toward finally taking responsibility for pressing issues instead of expecting a federal or state bailout without first showing the commitment every other state has shown.

Why 1.5 percent? Proponents must explain it carefully. Citizens must remember in the process that the money will go not just to county government but to other units of local government in the county as well -- and there are a lot of them in Lake County.

Explain as well how much money Lake County would gain -- and Porter County stands to lose -- from Lake County residents who work on the east side of the county line.

This is a painful conversation, but the need for it must no longer be ignored.

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