Chesterton Tribune

County Council gets power over town budgets in new law

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By VICKI URBANIK

Under Indiana’s new tax law, counties throughout Indiana will be given more responsibility: In addition to taking over township assessing work, counties will also be required to analyze and make recommendations on the budgets for towns, libraries and other civil taxing units.

“You will have a significant statutory duty,” Porter County Council Attorney Dave Hollenbeck warned the council Thursday, as he half-joked that the required budget reviews could turn the council members’ jobs into full-time work.

Under the provisions of H.E.A. 1001, the township level of assessing will begin to disappear on July 1, with county assessors taking over the assessment functions from trustee/assessors in smaller townships, including Jackson and Pine townships.

In addition, beginning this budget cycle, county councils must review every budget for the civil units in their counties. Councils will have to analyze if the tax levies proposed meet state guidelines and then give a non-binding recommendation on each budget.

Exactly how Porter County intends to carry out these added duties remains to be seen.

“You’ve got to hand it to them,” County Council President Robert Poparad, D-1st, said in frustration over the various components of HEA 1001. Of the logistical changes of having the county assessor take over township work, Poparad said: “What a nightmare.”

While the expanded duties for counties could result in the need to hire more staff, counties will also have to brace for lost revenue once the tax caps in HEA 1001 take full effect in 2010. Porter County government is projected to lose 4.6 percent of its levy, or $1.65 million, as a result of the caps in two years.

Assessor Takeover

HEA 1001 sets the stage for eliminating one level of local government – the township assessor.

The assessing functions of the smaller townships will end this July 1. In Porter County, this will affect Jackson, Pine, Washington, Pleasant and Boone townships. Then, at the end of 2009, the county assessor will assume the assessing duties of other, full-time township assessors, including those in Westchester and Liberty Township.

The only township assessors who might get to keep their jobs in their current form are those in townships with more than 15,000 parcels, which, in Porter County, are Portage and Center townships. However, under HEA 1001, referendums must be held in these townships so that the voters could decide whether or not to keep their assessor or turn the duties over to the county.

On Thursday, Porter County Assessor John Scott said he plans to conduct interviews with the township assessing staff from the smaller townships to see who he will hire.

Scott said he would be foolish for him to bring in all new people, since the existing assessors and their deputies already know their townships and the work required. “It would be like committing suicide,” he said.

But he also noted that the assessor staff will now be working under his direct supervision and that they would need to follow his direction.

He said although he needs clarification on some of the items in the new law, it’s his understanding that come July 1, his office will assume the budgets of these township assessors, and their duties transferred to his office.

Plenty of questions remain: Will the newly hired assessing employees work out of the main county assessor’s office and if so, is there space for them and their computers and other equipment? If not, will the county set up satellite offices? How many new employees will be needed? Will the current assessors work as county assessor employees while still serving as the elected township trustee? What will be the mileage costs for the county to send out assessing staff to do field work?

Scott said he hopes to talk with the county commissioners and county council to get some of the issues resolved.

Later, at Thursday’s County Council meeting, the council agreed to form a committee to review the issues involved. At first, Poparad suggested that council members Jim Burge, R-at large, William Carmichael, R-at large, and Karen Conover, R-3rd, serve on this committee, but Burge called for bipartisanship. He noted that since Scott is a Democrat, conflicts could result if the committee recommends something that Scott opposes. It was agreed that one of the Democrats would have to serve on the committee.

Scott also questioned how the township takeover will affect his role on the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals. As county assessor, he serves on this board, which hears challenges to the township assessors’ decision. But now with his office actually handling the assessing functions, he said he doesn’t know how he could serve on a board that decides appeals.

The new law also contains a provision that would allow a re-call of the county assessor, or any remaining township assessor, if the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance finds that the work is not being done properly.

Budget Review

Also under HEA 1001, county councils will be given some authority over the proposed budgets and property tax levies for all civil taxing units in their counties. This would include cities, towns, townships, libraries and conservancy districts.

Under the new law, local taxing units must file their budget information with the council. Then, the council will need to review the proposed tax rate or levy and issue a nonbinding recommendation to the taxing unit.

That recommendation must include an analysis of the increase in the taxing unit’s budget or tax levy, as compared with all other increases in the other taxing units in the county, and as compared with the average increase in non-farm personal income for the preceding six calendar years.

 

Posted 3/21/2008