Mayors discuss government-reform proposals

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

PERRY COUNTY - Both of the mayors in Perry County agree government services should be streamlined where possible, but aren't comfortable with some of the recommendations from the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, formed last summer by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"We all realize that's important," Tell City Mayor Barbara Ewing said of increasing efficiency. "It's a balancing act. Taxpayers in Tell City and the whole state want fair taxation, and deserve it."

The balance comes in providing services communities need without imposing too greatly on taxpayers' bank balances. While the government-reform commission's final report was issued in December, legislators have been focused on reforming property taxes, an effort that culminated March 14, the last day of their "short session."

Organizations that provide guidance to local-government officials, such as the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, have also been focused on tax reform. Some legislation tied to the governor's-commission proposals was offered, but most fell to the wayside.

"I think the report will be used in future sessions," Ewing said, adding both financial and service-to-taxpayers aspects of the recommendations are being examined by state, local and IACT officials.

Leaders at any level of government carry a responsibility to seek economical ways to perform their duties, she noted, saying she's worked toward that goal since taking office at the first of the year.

"We have to look at ourselves first,"

she said. "I challenged each department to ensure we're running as efficiently as possible."

The former city clerk-treasurer said the state Legislative Services Agency provided numbers based on the final property-tax bill that emerged from the General Assembly the preceding Friday. For the 2009 budget year, the city can expect a $97,040 reduction in tax revenue, compared to this year's. By 2010, the deficit will climb to $222,350.

"You can't make all that up in efficiency in government," she said. "Some of the larger cities are looking at reducing police and fire departments. Our fire department is volunteer, and we don't have any excess in our police department, so it's going to be tough."

As revenues are being cut, operating costs such as those for fuel and insurance continue to climb.

A sales-tax increase will go into effect next month, "but I don't know how much or if any will come back to local government to help with the shortfalls," Ewing said.

State legislators abolished an inventory tax, and helped businesses, she noted, "but it had to be picked up somewhere else."

Concerning the property-tax cuts, "Do I think all this will be made up? No, there may be some make-up, but cities are looking at some expenditures they'll have to cut."

Cannelton Mayor Smokey Graves said he's not comfortable with the commission's suggestions to take decision-making from voters and "give all of the power to one individual." That kind of suggestion appeared in several places in the commission's report.

"The governor, county commissioners and mayors should appoint all the present elective offices at the state, county and city levels," former Lt. Gov. Robert Rock is quoted as saying in the report, for example. "This would give Indiana a more efficient and streamlined government and would save money. These offices are really performing departmental functions."

A specific recommendation concerning elected positions in cities refers only to second-class cities, those as large as Evansville, Fort Wayne and South Bend, for example.

Headed by Joseph E. Kernan, also a former governor, and Randall T. Shepard, chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, the commission released its 46 pages of recommendations in December. The News has been publishing a series of reports since early January addressing each area of their recommendations, which target school systems, cities, townships and counties.

"To take away from the voters, I'm not comfortable with that," Graves said. At the county level, the Kernan-Shepard group suggested replacing the three commissioners common in many counties with a single county executive. Like all three of Perry County's commissioners did for a Jan. 28 News story, Graves expressed doubt such a move would serve this county's residents.

"With three commissioners, at least there are three voices," he said. "There are too many special interests that could get to that one individual." The people on the Kernan-Shepard commission never lived under the style of government their suggestions envision, he continued, asking, "where were they when they were governing?"

Not surprisingly, Ewing said she doesn't "see a problem with an elected clerk-treasurer. I think we'll see a study done in the next legislature, and groups such as IACT will use the commission's study as a basis as we continue to look for efficiencies.

City-County Government?

Taken collectively, the governor's commission implies counties could benefit by unifying with the cities within them. One area of their report where that's evident is a discussion of public-safety services, No. 5 among their 27 recommendations: Create a countywide body to oversee the provision of all public-safety services.

"Law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical services and 911 dispatch are critical public services and account for a significant proportion of local government spending," the commission wrote. "Costs are increasing as citizens demand higher levels of services at the same time that those services have become increasingly more sophisticated, requiring specialized training and equipment."

Graves wondered if city and county police and fire agencies were consolidated, "how often would Cannelton get (police) patrols? Would we have to add officers; would there be more cost than with our own police force? I would rather rely on my own police department, not someone who may be out at St. Croix. I don't want response time at the bridge to be 15 minutes."

"I've always been a numbers person," Ewing said. "I would want to run those numbers. I would want to ensure citizens aren't losing out on safety-response times. Without more study, I'm not sure it's workable."

Ewing said some discussion has focused on local-option income taxes as a means of making up the lost revenue. A decision to implement one would have to come from a county tax council for counties, such as Perry, that have a county-option income tax.

City Officials May Approve School, Library Bonds

The governor's commission would also have city officials take on duties such as approving school and library bonds.

"Require that school corporation bonds be approved by the fiscal body of the municipal or county government containing the greatest proportion of assessed value in the school district," they urged. "Taxpayers in parts of the state are frustrated with the cost of school construction, particularly for non-educational facilities," the commission said. "School debt service is the fastest-growing part of the property-tax levy. Indiana needs a stronger approval process for school debt."

They noted library boards are appointed, not elected, and have the power to levy property taxes and issue debt.

"Taxpayers have indicated frustration with the gap in accountability created by such enormous fiscal powers in the hands of non-elected officials," they wrote.

"I'm not uncomfortable with that," Graves said of taking on an approval role. "It gives the city a little more opportunity to oversee spending. We'd have another opportunity to serve the city. We should watch all that's going on in the city, including in the school corporation."

He stressed, however, "the daily operation would still belong to the superintendent. He has the degree and experience, and he's the one held responsible for decisions."

Tell City residents just voted to go to an elected school board, Ewing noted. "Having projects undergo another layer of review defeats the purpose of electing them," she said. "They have to be accountable. To bring into the picture another level, that takes away the responsibility voters have charged those individuals with."

Oversight of major library operations would not overwhelm even a part-time mayor and council, he feels, because the library board would still exist to provide oversight. Graves feels the city leader's impact would be a positive one. "I don't see that there would be any loss," he added.

"This is a little different, because library boards are not elected," Ewing said, "but again, I think you have to have a certain amount of trust in people appointed to those boards. There's already criteria in place they have to meet in their means of raising funds. It would add another level of compliance that just might add cost."

He agrees, too, with a recommendation to move all municipal elections to an even-year election cycle.

"Municipal elections are held in odd years," the Kernan-Shepard group noted. " All other Indiana elections are held in even years. Because of this system, municipalities must cover the cost of odd-year elections. We recommend moving municipal elections to even years to save costs and increase the probability of greater participation."

He doesn't understand why elections were split, but feels voters would prepare themselves for the longer ballots they'll need to complete if the suggestion is adopted. He recalled Cannelton voters were the first in the county to try out new electronic voting machines, and boasted, "we've shown that, in Cannelton, voters will prepare themselves."

Ewing said Tell city spent $14,800 for a 2007 election, which didn't include a primary, "so I would be open to see what would come out of a study committee. I'm sure there was a reason it was set up that way; maybe our forefathers thought there would be too much election information floating around out there."

Public-service Districts

The Kernan-Shepard commission's 22nd recommendation is to allow local governments to establish service districts with differentiated levels of service and corresponding tax rates.

"Service districts have been used successfully in a number of consolidation efforts around the country," they wrote, "to address the concerns of nonmunicipal residents about paying for levels of service that are unavailable or inappropriate," they wrote.

"I'm not sure where they're going with that unless they mean a city-county government," Graves said. The Cannelton Volunteer Fire Department responds to areas in Troy Township outside the city and receives a stipend for providing that service, he noted. Law-enforcement officers of all the departments operating in Perry County back each other up, as in a Cannelton murder to which Tell City police officers responded. "I have no doubt our police department would be alongside others when needed," he said. "If we were the size of Indianapolis or fort Wayne, it might make sense. But each community has its own identity. Who would lose in that arrangement. would the money go to the biggest city? That's an area the people of Cannelton should be aware of."