FORT WAYNE — Allen County Council members wasted almost two hours of everyone’s time Wednesday – but they had little choice.
In a move the council called “pointless,” “ridiculous” and a “waste,” members performed their state-required duty to review the 2013 budgets of almost every taxing body in the county and make recommendations on most of them.
The practice is an exercise in futility, not only because the council has no power to make changes, but the figures they were shown are preliminary numbers artificially inflated to ensure the entity is able to tax as much as possible. In addition, tax levies – by law – can increase only 2.8 percent this year. And the council’s recommendations are non-binding.
“You’re looking at numbers that aren’t real,” County Auditor Tera Klutz told the council. “For example, the city of Fort Wayne, the City Council hasn’t even seen their budget. How can you make recommendations on something they haven’t even considered?”
The numbers the council reviewed – for every entity from townships to school districts – are the preliminary numbers officials issue before they know what their revenue for the year will be.
But the law requires the County Council to review them, and review them they did.
When Councilman Darren Vogt, R-3rd, asked what the results of the council’s recommendations have been in the past, the answer was terse.
“Nothing,” Klutz said.
Three agencies came before the council to answer questions, but those, too, were largely perfunctory. The discussion with Allen County Public Library officials, for example, quickly turned to a discussion of e-books.
The idea of examining budgets and levy requests became even more futile when Klutz explained that entities no longer have to charge the maximum levy or forever lose the ability to tax that amount.
Now, they can keep their levy flat one year, but the maximum levy they can charge will still increase at the same rate. That means their levy could increase much more than the 2.8 percent allowed, because it could go up 2.8 percent for this year, plus whatever they did not use last year.
That means there is no way for the County Council to know – without investigating each and every one – how much the levy is allowed to increase.
“This is the hardest process across the state to figure out, and at the end of the day, what does it matter?” Klutz said.
“I think it’s ridiculous for the General Assembly to put this burden on county councils,” said Councilman Roy Buskirk, R-at large, especially because the council can’t do anything even if the numbers were accurate, which they aren’t.
“I agree with them that it’s good that someone is looking at the overall finances in the county,” Vogt said, “but the way it’s done now is pointless.”
In the end, council members voted unanimously to make a blanket recommendation that entities not increase their levies beyond what the law allows and that they spend cash balances before raising taxes. They also recommended that Washington Township lower its township board salaries to be in line with what other townships pay, a move township Trustee Bob Arnold said he expects to happen soon.
If there was any bright spot for council members, it was hearing that the General Assembly has directed the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance to find a way to improve the process, and that state officials seem to be listening to county auditors and their concerns over the way it works now.
“We’re not against a review,” said Larry Brown, R-4th. “But let’s make it worthwhile.”
The council continues work today reviewing budgets over which it does have control, including budgets for the county itself and elected offices such as sheriff.