Chesterton Tribune

County Council finishes new state mandate to do 'make believe work'

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By VICKI URBANIK

The confusion continued Monday as the Porter County Council wrapped up its new state-mandated task of making non-binding recommendations on the proposed 2009 budgets for a number of taxing units in the county, including Chesterton’s.

“All this is make-believe” was how Porter County Council President Robert Poparad, D-1st, described the process.

Poparad made his comments after Porter County Library Director James Cline urged the council not to send a negative letter to the state about the county library’s proposed 2009 budget. The council found that the library’s total budget is about $32,000 in excess of the 4 percent increase expected to be allowed by the state. But as Cline noted, that increase is only because the budget includes a fund that’s been built up over the years for new library branches, a fund that won’t be immediately spent and which ultimately will save taxpayer money.

A different but similar concern was raised over the town of Cheserton’s budget. The council found that the town’s total is about $1.6 million over the state’s limit. But that total includes some funds, such as the town’s share of county income tax funds, that don’t come from property taxes.

Chesterton Clerk-Treasurer Gayle Polakowski said the town’s budget is indeed proposed to increase, but mainly due to an excess levy appeal of $865,833, which she said the town needs due to annexations.

The county council, however, agreed that whatever the reason and no matter how justified the budget increases might be, its only role is to notify the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance if a budget exceeds the state limit.

The council’s reviews of the budgets were prompted by the state’s new tax law, H.E.A. 1001, which requires councils to make non-binding recommendations on whether all budgets in the county, except for schools, comply with state-imposed limits. For Porter County units, the increase is projected to be 4 percent.

Council members have made it clear that they have no interest in picking apart the budget plans for municipalities or libraries or townships. And even if they wanted to, the new state law only requires that the council submit a non-binding recommendation.

But next year, Poparad said it’s possible that the state will require county councils to take a more active role in actually deciding where to cut each taxing units’ budget.

One question raised Monday was whether the council should consider the entire budget of the taxing units or just the funds that come from property taxes when deciding what falls under the 4 percent increase. Poparad said the council was informed to consider the entire spending plans, though he and a number of other county and local officials agreed that that shouldn’t be necessary, since the state’s levy restrictions refer only to property tax collections and not other sources of funding, like income tax funds or fees collected from the park department.

Poparad also noted that all of the figures under review are tentative only, since the current year’s budgets have yet to be finalized.

Trying to make sense of the budget numbers at this point is like “trying to pin Jell-O to the wall,” he said.

The council noted that the Redevelopment Commissions in the municipalities, including Chesterton, Porter and Burns Harbor, opted not to send the council their budgets.

Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, said the legal opinion given to the redevelopment commissions was that their budgets don’t have to come under the county’s review, since they don’t have their own tax levy. Poparad noted, on the other hand, that there is a legal dispute over this issue, since the redevelopment commissions do get property tax funds.

“You’ve got three attorneys. You’ve got three opinions,” he said.

As for the county library’s budget, Cline said he fears that if the county sends the DLGF a letter saying that its budget is over the limit, the DLGF will automatically cut it. Poparad said he doubts that, but that the library has to make its case to the state, not to the county. One library representative said she feels sorry for the council for having to deal with the others’ budgets when there are so many unknowns. Poparad responded: “We don’t even know what we’re doing.”

 

Posted 9/23/2008