Chesterton Tribune


Friday hearing splits residents on Burns Harbor capital fund increase

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Road paving, sidewalks, restored services, new police cars and town equipment.

But at what cost?

Burns Harbor residents opposed to a requested jump in annual collections for the cumulative capital development fund from $29,805 to approximately $202,066 let a state hearing officer know Friday why they don’t want their taxes increased to pay for it.

“We’re being stretched to the limit. Please do not allow this tax,” urged Gayle Van Loon, who carried the remonstrance petition that prompted the hearing attended by 21 people.

Three Town Council members and others said it’s imperative the town be allowed to raise more money.

“I never thought I’d be here saying something in favor of a tax increase, but it seems to me the town is robbing Peter to pay Paul just to survive,” commented Brad Enslen.

If the council’s request is approved, the CCDF rate would go from just over one-half cent now to $0.04 per each $100 of assessed valuation. The tax impact is estimated to be about $38 per year for a newer home and $60 per year for commercial properties.

Department of Local Government Finance hearing officer Kurt Ott, who conducted the rare field hearing, said the DLGF will issue its CCDF decision in about 10 days. The revised tax rate, which could be set at less than $0.04, would take effect in 2013.

Friday’s debate reopened the split between residents who want Burns Harbor to retain its small-town rural atmosphere, and those who want it to develop and grow as a full-service community.

But at the core of the arguments was money --- what residents, especially senior citizens, can afford, and what the town cannot afford to lose. However, there was support on both sides for the Burns Harbor Fire Department beginning advanced-life-support ambulance service in November.

Frozen levy artificially low

Long-time Town Council member Mike Perrine told Ott that when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001 and stopped paying property taxes, the town cut its budget to the bone so residents wouldn’t have to pay what its largest taxpayer didn’t. But in 2003 Indiana froze government tax levies and since then only allows a small percentage for growth each year.

That meant Burns Harbor’s budget was artifically low to begin with in 2003 and has been stuck in a hole ever since, said Perrine. With the town’s current needs too many and too great, he added, at some point even more services could have to be cut.

Van Loon said Burns Harbor is finding ways around it, like moving to pass along to residents a $4.12 per-month user fee for fire-hydrant maintenance; trash pick-up and MS4 stormwater user fees are possible also, she noted.

William Henning said the CCDF increase should be put on the ballot just like Duneland Schools was subject to a referendum.

In May voters narrowly gave Duneland permission to raise property taxes by $0.22 per each $100 of assessed valuation; speakers Friday disagreed whether Duneland’s increase should have anything to do with the town’s CCDF request to collect more.

Resident Jim Constantine told Ott that earlier this year Burns Harbor’s council rejected a tax abatement extension for ArcelorMittal, part of those terms being that the steelmaker would have paid off the town’s outstanding sewer bonds freeing up millions of dollars for the town. Now, the residents are being asked to pay more instead. “It’s wrong.”

What the new Burns Harbor CCDF revenue would be used for prompted several comments.

Joyce Fleming said the previous Town Council hired planners to map out Burns Harbor’s future. Yet “we seem to keep shooting ourselves in the foot.” She said it would be nice to have sidewalks to current businesses, and to bring in more shops including an ice cream parlor. “We can’t do any of these things. We should not be going backwards.”

Former Town Council member Toni Biancardi and others said they signed the remonstrance petition because current officials haven’t been specific enough about how they’d spend the money.

Council members Gene Weibl and Jeff Freeze cited infrastructure needs like sidewalks to Lakeland Park on Haglund Road, and road repairs to Old Porter Road east of Indiana 149. Resident Phyllis Constantine said neither project is needed.

Freeze pointed to a $60 million capital projects list drafted by the previous council. Biancardi said it was never adopted so it’s not clear if all those items are true priorities.

Tax rate a bargain now

Town financial consultant Dan Botich of Cender & Co. said Burns Harbor’s tax rate is extremely low for Porter County, and the current half-cent CCDF rate is the lowest. He also said for certain properties the CCDF increase would amount to only $2.26 a month, and that the 64 certified signatures on the remonstrance petition represented just over 3 percent of the total parcels in town.

“We may only be 3 percent but that doesn’t make us insignificant,” said Biancardi. Perrine, speaking as a resident, said he appreciates the facts presented but he doesn’t see why how much property one owns should matter because if the person’s a legal voter, he or she has a right to say what happens here.

During the hearing Weibl submitted a petition favoring the CCDF increase signed by approximately 34 residents of The Village subdivision. Also read into the record was a remonstrance letter from former Town Council member Myrtle Zehner.

ArcelorMittal, which now owns the former Bethlehem Steel, could have financial reversals as well, said Zehner. “It does not behoove us to forget our history moving forward.” And if the current council’s goal is to have what other towns have, “When did responsible governing begin with keeping up with the Joneses?” she asked.

The DLGF hearing procedure saw remonstrators make their presentation, those in favor of the CCDF increase were heard, then remonstrators were given an opportunity for rebuttal. In all 15 persons gave recorded testimony.

Shirley Hummel spoke in closing on another matter, making a strong suggestion that Town Council members curb their communication with each other behind the scenes and instead have open discourse at public meetings rather than reporting on things already decided as old news.


Posted 9/24/2012