Chesterton Tribune

Council accepts $500,000 plan for tax bill revamp with 4-2 vote

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Tabling requests last month to revamp the county’s process of sending out property tax bills, the council took the step of granting a multi-layered request made jointly by county officials Auditor Bob Wichlinski, Assessor Jon Snyder and Treasurer Mike Bucko who deal with the revenue side of county government.

Even after a month of discussions to convince council members the approximate $500,000 proposal is worth the gamble, the three officials fought tooth and nail on Tuesday to overcome apprehensions.

“This is a large amount of money,” said Council Vice-President Jim Biggs, R-1st, who led the meeting in Council President Dan Whitten’s, D-at large, absence.

Wichlinski repeated his reason behind the team’s mission -- timely and accurate tax bills.

“We view this as a once in a generation opportunity,” said Wichlinski.

The requests would require a large amount of consultant work for all three offices to help remedy the problems that have accumulated over the years. Objectives include back tax violation enforcement, exemption/homestead credit violations, TIF neutralization, mailing address corrections, fixed asset valuations, compliance with the Internal Revenue Service tax methods, improving county ordinances and issuing tax-cap compliant tax bills to reduce the number of appeals. All to be accomplished this year.

Wichlinski said the plan would also promote fairness among the taxpayers. When one person isn’t paying, it causes everyone else to pay more.

From the assessor side where the taxing process begins, $249,000 would be spent on consultants to help clear the roughly 7,000 appeals in backlog and get the office up to speed on countywide reassessment due next year.

Snyder said he does not expect to meet the state’s July 1 deadline to turn in all the land values for reassessment nor the May 1 requirement to have half the field work and data entered. If these obstacles continue to be delayed, Snyder said it could hinder the readiness of the 2012 pay 2013 tax bills although the 2011 pay 2012 bills are still on track.

Only 37 percent of the field work is completed and 14 percent of data entered, Snyder reported.

“I didn’t realize we were in that horrible shape in the assessor’s office,” commented Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

Snyder said he has been hiring as many part-time workers as his budget would allow in order to complete reassessment work. A new full-time position was also sought to work in the commercial department to perform data entry.

The auditor and treasurer consultants, together worth $182,000, would largely assist in collecting delinquent back tax amounts of up to $16 million to $20 million that would then go back to their respective taxing units.

Bucko, who reported his office recently found a list of taxes delinquent from mobile home assessments in 2006 worth $1.5 million, said the county has had the right to collect the money but the preceding officeholders for some reason never made the effort to get it. He said he also plans to have another county tax sale later this year for assessments from 2007 and beyond.

The hired help would also work interchangeably between the three offices which is how the three officials decided to work as a team. One council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, asked if at least some of the work couldn’t be done in-house. Wichlinski said his office has its hands full performing its functions like handling the county payroll.

“We are consumed just by the day-to-day business,” said Wichlinski.

Understanding the costs seemed steep, Wichlinski told the council the measure would prevent the county from reverting back to a few years ago when officials faced a myriad of problems concerning the tax bills.

He asked the council why put off something for tomorrow when it should have been done six years ago.

“This is either a brilliant plan or just throwing more money at reoccurring problems,” added fellow Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd. She said it would be nice for the tax problems to go away so the council can work together on “more important things.”

Wichlinski said the money paid for the requests would not come from county income tax funds or the hospital interest funds, but from unallocated General Fund money and would not negatively impact taxpayers in any way.

The team made an oath to the council to report to the council with a “measurable score card” chronicling the progress on a monthly basis.

Biggs said the team provided the information he needed to hear in order win his trust by pledging accountability of the money.

Biggs remembered pledges made during the fall election season that the county would work together to provide better services for the county and said the council should strive to fulfill that promise.

Agreeing to keep the voter’s wishes in mind was council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, who saw this as a chance to correct problems the county has seen for years, even decades.

“We would be shorting the voters if we didn’t give these gentlemen the chance to fix this problem,” Polarek said.

Bucko said the money “is as good as saved when it is spent responsibly.”

Offering a few words of encouragement for the proposal was Porter County Commission President John Evans who said the council would be “missing a golden opportunity” if it passed it up.

During a tense 4-2 vote, the slim majority to give the all-go for the plan consisted of Polarek, Conover, Laura Blaney, D-at large, and Biggs. Members not approving were Graham and Rivas.

“I want the problem fixed and I want you back here every month,” Conover told the team before voting yes.

The council also took a separate vote to approve the new data-entry position in the assessor’s office, this time with a 6-0 count. The salary, which was included in the requests, was set at $31,929.

Afterwards, Wichlinski gave the council a short presentation on retooling the county’s Geographical Information System by adding layers such as aerial/topographical imaging, well and septic, drainage planning and zoning.

 

Posted 3/23/2011