Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chase: Lake County Council Does About Face on Fiscal Sanity

By Marc Chase in the Northwest Indiana Times:

One shouldn't rake others over the coals for committing acts of folly if one isn't prepared to provide some measure of praise when those criticized end up doing something right.

Even if that something right is tempered by whispers of more shortsighted acts. Even if the admirable deed never would have occurred had a wasteful act not proceeded it.

Earlier this year, Lake County government voted to borrow $15 million to "bridge the gap" in its spending problems prior to those same county leaders voting to adopt a 1.5 percent local income tax on you, the taxpayers.

I previously made the point — realizing I was whispering into a strong headwind — that county leaders should pay back the borrowed $15 million.

After all, that new income tax revenue they're amassing on the backs of working constituents ought to end the further encumbrance of taxpayers with more debt, right?

Last week, it appeared someone in county government was listening to the calls from constituents where the borrowing issue is concerned.

The Lake County Council seemed committed to paying back $5 million of the borrowed $15 million. Its members said as much at a Sept. 4 budget workshop.

The difference between those numbers already has been spent, and the county should never have gone on the borrowing spree to begin with. The borrowed money was being earmarked, in part, for operational expenses. This is never a good fiscal practice.

But opting to repay some of that borrowed money to the bank would have been an absolute step in the right direction.

Except — cue the surprise — that logical, fiscally sound step apparently won't happen. The council did an about-face on fiscal sanity Wednesday.

Apparently after further "balancing" of the budget, it realized the 1.5 percent income tax it just approved isn't enough to make ends meet.

Rather than prioritizing and cutting to make it all work, the council now appears committed to using $3.3 million of the leftover $5 million loan money to bridge another spending gap. It so voted in a budget workshop Wednesday.

And I was so tempted to celebrate this partial loan repayment, so ready to congratulate the council for doing something right by residents who are regularly used as collateral.

Now there are whispers of more borrowing by the county before the first dime of income tax revenue officially arrives.

In workshops last week, the council began setting possible priorities for about $17 million in new county income tax revenue set to begin incrementally disappearing from residents' paychecks next month. The money — at least from a proposal standpoint — is quickly evaporating.

Half of it appears slated for public safety, much of that money bolstering jail and corrections staff to deal with a federal mandate for improvements at the county lockup.

The other half appears earmarked for various other purposes, including arguably important road bridge, drain and other infrastructure improvements.

So what's left for patronage, pet projects and county officials' buddies posing as consultants?

Perhaps that's why we're hearing talk of more borrowing.