The first significant snowfall this winter in south-central Indiana sent snowplow drivers scrambling to clear the roads and municipal officials scrambling to pay for it. And unplowed roads and students forced to stay home from school may figure into an ongoing debate at the Indiana Statehouse.
In Columbus, where 16 street department employees have been laid off over the past year as part of massive budget cuts, salt and sand are precious, meaning many roads weren’t being plowed until the precipitation eased or stopped entirely. Street department supervisor Brian Burton said there’s a simple reason he doesn’t have as much money to use on personnel and supplies to combat the bad weather.
“Property taxes — when they cut those, that put a cap on everything and kind of hurt our budget citywide, so we had to make some cuts,” he said.
Though Burton’s department isn’t funded directly by property taxes, the city of Columbus had to cut its budget 10% for the current year in order to offset losses from property tax revenue. Mayor Fred Armstrong said that has meant 104 layoffs city-wide, as well as reductions in some city services and new fees to pay for others, like trash pickup. But Columbus state representative Milo Smith said the ability for local officials to levy new taxes offsets any need for a reduction in services.
“The lost revenue from the property tax caps, to the best of my ability to determine those numbers, it looks to me like they’ve replaced up to $6 million with that [Local Option Income Tax] and with taking $2 million out of their budget that they were spending for trash pickup,” Smith said. “So it looks like they’re right back where they were.”
As Bloomington state rep Peggy Welch sat in her Statehouse office Thursday, she too watched snow falling and wondered about the roads. Informed of Burton’s assertion that property tax caps are to blame for poor road conditions, Welch said she hoped the situation would help inform an electorate which may have to vote in November on putting the caps into the state constitution.
“We as citizens see more and more — and understand better and better — the types of services that are provided to us through property taxes that are paid by the citizens,” she said. “People may say ‘Wait a minute — I want the libraries open, I want the streetlights on, I want the snow removed.’”
But even though Welch, who had been on the fence about how she’d side in a House vote, now says she’ll vote against putting the tax caps in the constitution, she says it appears the votes of many other legislators are all but snowed in.
“I think that train’s already left the station and it’ll be very difficult to change its track,” she said.
But as much as Welch and Burton assert that drivers being forced to navigate snowy roads is a consequence of property tax caps, the caps may also be a driver of increased costs themselves. For most school districts in south-central Indiana, Thursday was a snow day, meaning students stayed home from school following a couple inches of early-morning snow falling on local roads. Monroe County Community School Corporation officials make their decision whether to cancel classes by determining if it’s either too cold to hold school or if the roads are too dangerous to drive. MCCSC Superintendent J.T. Coopman says Thursday’s weather was warm enough for class, but snow made the roads impassible. Coopman said a reduction in city services also has a direct correlation to how his school corporation can act.
“All of those kinds of things that heretofore relied on property taxes — and you eliminate those property taxes or the ability to raise money through property taxes, there’s no question those services are going to be lessened,” Coopman said.
When students stay home — especially on days when more manpower might have been able to clear roads — Coopman said that means added costs to parents.
“Whether they pay it out in daycare or whether they lose it in lost wages, one way or another it’s going to be a loss for them.”
But Milo Smith said passing blame — either between Statehouse lawmakers and local officials or between the effects of the larger recession and those of property tax caps — will not solve the state’s budget woes.
“We need to stop pointing the finger at each other,” he said. ‘The state has less money to spend. We just need to provide the services that are expected in the most efficient manner we can.”
Still, Smith and other lawmakers say they’re tired of being the ones who always shoulder the blame.
“I didn’t vote for the new LOIT tax and I didn’t vote for the trash pickup to be on city utilities. I didn’t do that. The local units did that.”
A vote in the Indiana House on putting the tax caps into the consitition could come later this month. If it passes, a voter referendum in November is the final hurdle the measure must clear.