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To Remedy Future Shortfalls, Bart. Co. Council Tries to Act Now

Ever since the General Assembly changed property tax laws in 2008, the Bartholomew County Council has known it will have progressively less money to work with. So Council members are left with two options: cut costs — including services, benefits and jobs or find other ways to make money.

Councilwoman Sue Paris says recently a team of consultants laid out for the county its options for collecting more cash.

“They went through each one of these items so that the council could be well informed about decisions we need to make,” Paris said.

Among the taxes likely to be discussed this summer at a Local Option Income Tax, an Economic Development Tax, a Capital Cumulative Fund and various user fees.

“It’s very complicated. There’s no doubt about it,” she said, laughing.

Any new fees must come to a vote before an August 1st deadline in order for the county to start collecting money from them on January 1st.

But would these new taxes together make up for lost property tax revenue?

“I don’t think we fully know the impact coming in 2010, 11, 12. With the circuit breakers and with the loss of revenue,” councilwoman Phyllis Apple said.

“If we sit here and do nothing then we can hit a blank wall. And I don’t think anybody wants to see Bartholomew County do that. Other counties have gone through it. And it takes a long time to get out of it.”

The issue has come to a head this summer, as local governments in Bartholomew County consider their 2010 budgets and forecast the biggest deficits in recent memory. Paris says it’s not just property taxes causing headaches.

“We all know that our income in each of our counties is going down because of loss of jobs, people laid off, some businesses leaving completely. At least in Bartholomew County we’ve had some leaving or folding. So we know they’re going to be losses. I don’t how dramatic that is. Those statistics won’t come out until August.”

Finding the right way to tax is likely the biggest challenge the council faces.  The prospect of new fees during a recession hasn’t met with public approval. The council faced a backlash in May after an attempt to pass a wheel tax. The fee was quickly denounced at public meetings and withdrawn from the council’s agenda.

Apple says there’s more support for an Economic Development Income Tax, or “EDIT.” An EDIT would tax each Bartholomew County citizen a quarter for every hundred dollars they earn.

Columbus Mayor Fred Armstrong says EDIT money can be spent almost anywhere in the budget.

“For example, they can’t spend it on my huge salary. They’re going to have to use it on economic development. Of course economic development is pretty general,” Armstrong said.

“But at least you have to have something in writing that says here’s what you’re going to do with the money or else you won’t be able to spend it. I tell you it’s just about anything.  Roads, you can use it for capital projects. Anything you think is economic development.”

At a recent public meeting, the majority of the Bartholomew County residents who spoke offered support for an EDIT. Seventy-two of Indiana’s 92 counties already employ one as a revenue source. According to Armstrong, it’s likely to pass. But the mayor says it isn’t the only option.

“I mean they can consider LOIT, a Cum Cap Fund. That would help with their bridges, etc. Who knows? But the time they put this on their agenda, it’s hard telling where they’ll be,” Armstrong said.

Most of the new taxes being considered would share revenue between city and county governments.  Columbus, by far the biggest municipality in the county, would receive the lion’s share of the payments. Armstrong says new taxes are an inevitability and he goes to county meetings to deliver this message again and again. He says the county’s been too conservative for too long on the topic.

“It’s time we get in the 21st Century. And we’ve never needed it because the economy was pretty good. And they way we did business was great. But now, when times are tough and business isn’t what it used to be, we have to work a little bit harder. And it takes those tools to work harder,” Armstrong said.

When the council votes on these “tools” Apple predicts none will be met with unanimous approval.  Some people, she says aren’t sold on the idea of passing new taxes, however grim the numbers.

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