Local officials’ wish list could increase taxes | Opinions

In case you didn’t notice, a group that says it speaks for you is talking to Indiana lawmakers.

The Mayors and Commissioners Caucus of Northeast Indiana released its 2019 legislative agenda 10 days ago.

Mayors and county commissioners from an 11-county area make up the group — including all 12 commissioners and six mayors from DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties.

The caucus presented a list of 18 priorities to state legislators.

Eight of the priorities deal with taxes and fees. Nearly a dozen of them potentially could increase government funding.

In general, the local officials seem to want more freedom to increase local taxes, as well as more financial help from the state.

The list of priorities the caucus released does not go into specifics. It includes:

• Tax increment financing. Rarely understood by citizens, “TIF” allows property taxes from business growth to go into a special fund for improvements to specific zones. It allows cities and counties to capture taxes not only from themselves, but also money that would have gone to schools, libraries and other units. The caucus wants more “local decision authority” over TIF.

• The caucus also asked for more local control of business personal property taxes, 911 fees, food-and-beverage tax and innkeepers tax. The caucus might want to reduce or eliminate the first category as a business recruiting tool. More local control of the others likely means the power to increase them.

• The caucus said it supports four ideas to increase transportation and bridge funding. In the category that might be most worrisome to local residents, it wants to “increase the maximum threshold on the wheel tax and surtax.” It also calls for larger grants from the state’s new Community Crossings program, which already has awarded as much as $1 million to local agencies.

• In the category of public safety, the caucus wants a repeal of recent state rules that send low-level felons to county jails instead of state prisons. That has put pressure on some county jails through overcrowding.

• The caucus calls for more opioid-treatment sites and better funding of mental health centers.

• In response to last year’s legalization of CBD oil in Indiana, the caucus wants better enforcement of guidelines for selling the oil, which is a marijuana derivative used for medicinal purposes.

Much of the caucus wish list responds to the growing financial pressure on local governments.

In recent years, whenever state government felt budget pressures, it shifted some of its expenses to local governments.

Housing low-level felony offenders in county jails instead of state prisons is only one example of turning a state problem into a county problem.

Sending felons home came with some well-intentioned motives. The idea was that being closer to home could be better for the prisoners — mostly nonviolent drug offenders. An outgoing local sheriff says that’s not necessarily true. In a state prison, the felons would have access to rehabilitation services that a county jail can’t afford to provide. Apparently, the state couldn’t afford them, either.

As the state hands other burdens down to local government, it can make it sound positive by calling it local control. The problem comes when the state keeps tight control over a local government’s ability to pay for its new responsibilities.

It may seem unsettling that mayors and county leaders are asking for the potential to raise more than one category of local taxes.

That’s the downside of a state government that takes pride in its low state tax rate and big budget surplus, hoping we don’t notice how it forces mayors and county commissioners to raise local taxes — or at least to wish they could.

OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Dave Kurtz, Grace Housholder, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board. We welcome readers’ comments.

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