Thursday, October 11, 2007

Initial hearing in South Bend, Indiana with former Governor Joe Kernan

Notes from a meeting in South Bend, Indiana on Wednesday, October 11, 2007 with former Indiana Governor Joe Kernan. Governor Kernan is Co-Chair of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform. Please consult the following link for additional information on the Commission:

I was in attendance at the meeting in South Bend today where Joseph Kernan was hosting a meeting for the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform. Local publication for this seemed scarce in my opinion. Had it not been for Jo Geleski from the Wakarusa Public Library many Librarians would have had little or no information that the meeting was to take place.

A reporter from the South Bend Tribune was there as well as reporters for two other local news channels. The format was different from what was held in Northwest Indiana and in Fort Wayne. Instead of break-out groups with moderators, the attendees were asked to sign-in, but Governor Kernan let those speak who wished.

The meeting was extremely orderly and productive with good ideas coming from all corners of the room. Governor Kernan gave an initial charge to the group that we were not there to discuss tax policy, but to discuss how and what could change to ease the burden on property taxpayers. He very kindly appreciated those who were there to comment on tax policy, but stressed that this "Is a meeting to help design local government to make it more cost effective while remaining responsive to the local citizenery." He stressed also that: "This is a meeting to allow the people to help make a difference by giving their input on what would or wouldn't work regarding the current tax situation."

The group included quite a few from Elkhart County including Connie J. Ozinga and two other folks speaking on behalf of the Nappanee Public Library. Also present were representatives from local volunteer Fire Departments, Township Trustees, Township Assessors etc.

St. Joseph County had representation from some, but not many, landlords, county government officials, township trustees/assessors and Fire/Ems myself representing the New Carlisle Public Library and Don Napoli from the St. Joseph County Public Library.

From Marshall County was a County Commissioner, Marsha Patterson from the Bremen Public Library and Jane Hall from the Argos Public Library

The Lake County Public Library was even represented by Larry Acheff (THANK YOU LARRY FOR TAKING THE TIME TO SPEAK ON THE ISSUE!)

Following is a very rough transcript of statements made during the hearing. Any errors or omissions are my own, so before you quote you'll need to contact the Indiana Commission for Local Government Reform for the official transcript. No tape recordings were made of the meeting. Full or first names are only noted as I was able to understand them.

Attorney from Elkhart: Liked the concept of Uni-Gov, counties should have a single assessor and then subordinates, not a County Assessor then Township Assessors, proposed regional correctional facilities instead of one for each county. Noted that additional taxes could be generated from corporate taxes. Average tax rate for corporations is 5%. Workers pay more than corporations. Corporations pay 6% of the tax bill and homeowners pay 94% of the bill. Noted that corporations can zero-out their tax rate.

Governor Kernan thanked him and agreed that who will provide the services of these local entities if they are closed.

Citizen of Elkhart County: Noted that Elkhart Public Library was responsible for 2.9% of the tax bill, but stressed that different communities have different needs.

Governor Kernan agreed that a “one size fits all” concept would not work in many situations

Landlord from St. Joseph County: Noted that many units of government were having to borrow and pay interest on borrowed monies while waiting for tax mess to be resolved, thus costing the taxpayers even more dollars.

Jane Hall, Director of Argos Public Library: Opposed the consolidation of public libraries, libraries only a very small part of the overall tax problem, but certainly willing to do what is necessary to help. Encouraged that if small libraries are absorbed into larger systems, that there is indeed the potential for closure if the larger unit decides a branch is not worth maintaining in that area. (More later on the position of the writer of this blog regarding the importance of keeping public libraries under local control.)

Person whose name I didn’t copy down: Don’t take government away from the people, agreed that current set-up is arcane, but there could be elements that are worth maintaining. Cities are deteriorating from the inside out. Felt that part of the problem was absentee landlords who depreciate their properties to nothing and then move on. Local landlords who have a vested interest in the community try to take care of their properties because they are proud of where they live.

(SB note: Don’t forget that the whole point of this is to SERVE THE PEOPLE and not let statistics entirely dictate everything. Statistics can be easily skewed to prove the point of the speaker and not necessarily reflect the entire situation.)

A Township Trustee from Elkhart: Says township government so far is being much more efficient than their counterparts in the cities. Noted the number of volunteer firefighters and paid firefighters in his district are doing more and costing the taxpayers less. We need a more objective tax assessment rather one that is subjective.

John Voorde St. Joseph County Commissioners: Consolidate the areas where consolidation will make the most sense such as Human Resources, insurance benefits etc. Recommended the consolidation of elections. Noted that the cost of elections was $400,000.00. Appointed boards could be an alternative to elected officials due to the cost of elections.

Governor Kernan noted that all communities are different and said this should be taken into consideration.

Taxpayer: Local Judiciary costs could be shifted to the state instead of being supported by the local taxpayers. Granted that this was just a shifting of the costs. Also mentioned shifting child welfare costs to the state.

Mark Egan St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce: Efficiency isn’t just about money. Need more shared/cooperative ventures between taxing entities instead of the current competition between agencies.

Taxpayer: Some counties need a Township Trustee while others still do. Some things need to be changed while some need to be aided because of how well they work. Townships seem to be an easy mark for consolidation, yet may be the most responsive to the people.

SB note: If consolidation is to occur, then let’s not re-invent the wheel. Keep that which works while changing that which isn’t. It’s the simple/common sense things that are going to be lost in the mix and the most difficult to understand.

Taxpayer: Why isn’t the Indiana Toll Road paying taxes to support the services that are being used? The rest of us have to. Isn’t the Toll Road a private entity now? What was in the agreement that exempted the Toll Road from paying its fair share? Should tax on the selling price of a home instead of what is currently being used.

Taxpayer: Get rid of city court and consolidate the judiciary system to one for each county. Some cities pay for things that they don’t use such as the Sheriff’s Department, yet they are paying for it.

Connie Jo Ozinga Elkhart Public Library: Noted that they have been able to pay for their branches without having to sell bonds. Will have hard time selling bonds to build new downtown building due to having no bonding history. Too much patronage in local government. New person elected and the entire staff leaves and the new person has to re-staff many areas. Need more professionalism in local government. Keep politics out of libraries. That is why the laws were made this way in the first place because there could/would be too much self serving/special interest aspects instead of getting the job done of serving the patrons.

Representative of South Bend Parks Department: Budget process is extremely detailed. Recommended a food and beverage tax such as has been done in other cities and more flexibility in local government.

John Leavitt Nappanee, Indiana: Very little county police coverage in lower half of Elkhart County, yet he is paying taxes for the entire county. Local Police ALWAYS help when needed even outside of the City Limits. No guarantee that if the libraries are forcibily merged that there is no guarantee that the local library will remain open. Noted that branches are frequently at the bottom of the “food chain.” Noted that very few if any taxpayers were present when the library held hearings about the upcoming years budget. No one complained.

Taxpayer from Elkhart: Misconception about Township Assessors. County Assessors handle appeals, inheritance taxes etc., while Township Assessors do all of the real property taxes. Assessors must be educated. Recommended that elected officials be educated for the jobs they are to perform. If they are not educated about how to run things, they shouldn’t be there. Outside vendors are not always a good alternative since they do not have a vested interest in the area.

Marshall County Taxpayer: Small towns face possible extinction with the loss of control of their schools, libraries and local government. Township portion of the tax rate is a small part of the pie. Schools take a majority. Need caps on the levies of the Judiciary. Agrees that one size fits all approach is not viable. Township Trustees are the front line of local government and are the ones closest to the people they serve.

Peter Mullen County Auditor Elect: Recommended an Office of Financial Management for the County.

Don Napoli Director St. Joseph County Public Libraries: Promotes consolidation of public libraries in the state. Noted all of the things that SJCPL is able to do that smaller libraries couldn’t even dream about doing. Stressed unserved areas of the state where library service is not available. Noted how Baltimore, Maryland system is extremely effective. Recommended library operating funds be paid for by income tax and that bond issues be paid for from property taxes.

Representative for South Bend Fire Department: Consolidation may not be good for entire state. Maybe if a particular area were over 200,000 people it would be good for those areas.

Larry Acheff Director Lake County Public Library: Kindly disagreed with the remarks made by Don Napoli. Stressed the one size fits all approach will not work for all areas.

Senior Citizen Taxpayer: Inquired about meeting held between City of South Bend and City of Mishawaka. Noted that meeting was last December and that nothing has been done since. Asked why people are penalized for maintaining their homes. Whenever an improvement is made taxes seem to skyrocket, yet those who let their homes fall into disrepair are given no incentive to turn things around.

Governor Kernan thanked everyone for taking the time to attended and sincerely appreciated the fact that everyone stayed on topic and worked toward a common goal.

Meeting concluded about 12:15 local time.

1 comment:

Connie said...

Great post Steve. My only comment was that I was talking about branch projects, not Main downtown. We have our hearing for a 12 mill bond issue in 2 weeks. Bond would cover construction of new buildings for our two smallest and oldest branch buildings. We have been told that it is unlikely the bond will be approved, since we have no bond history, most particularly, no bonds reaching payout so that the tax rate would increase.