By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — All is not well in Elkhart County, and the state needs to hear about it.
That’s the opinion of a small group of local legislators who gathered at the County Public Services Building in Goshen Wednesday afternoon to discuss what they feel are some of the most pressing impacts of state policies on Elkhart County communities.
Billed as an intergovernmental forum, Wednesday’s meeting featured representatives from the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners, Elkhart County Council, county planning and redevelopment departments, as well as several representatives from Elkhart city government.
The goal? To discuss and compile a list of some of the top local issues directly related to state policies, come up with some solutions to those issues, and eventually present those solutions to the state with the hopes of getting those issues addressed.
“We want to make sure today, by the end of this meeting, we have identified at least three, four or five key items that we want to discuss with our legislators, hopefully items that we can come up with some specific recommendations we’d like them to sponsor through legislation or at least a position we’d like them to take,” said County Commissioner and event moderator Mike Yoder
Included among the main topics identified during Wednesday’s meeting were: a need for a restructuring of the Local Option Income Tax (LOIT); the need for increased local highway funding; criminal sentencing structure changes; and tax cap concerns.
In discussing LOIT, the group first determined that they would like the state legislature to free up the current LOIT options from the requirements that make them less desirable, such as levy freezes, while also allowing local governments more leeway in deciding when and for what reason it may want to adopt a new LOIT.
“The idea is to give us more flexibility with local taxes,” Yoder said. “We just need flexibility, and we do not want to freeze our levy if we adopt another LOIT.”
The group also highlighted what they feel is a need to remedy collection and distribution problems. Of particular concern is the state’s out-of-date tracking software, which they feel is resulting in the county not getting its fair share of LOIT revenue returned from the state.
“That may be where we want to focus some of our attention, to ask our legislatures to just pay for the software so we can track this stuff and get it back to us,” Yoder said. “This is their job, and that’s what needs to happen.”
In discussing the highway funding concerns, the group noted that while it is happy that the state legislature dedicated a significant amount of money to local highway funding during its last session, local funding is still not sufficient to pay for all the needed repairs and maintenance currently facing the county.
“The recommendation generally is that more gas sales tax money needs to be spent on highways,” Yoder said.
When discussing their concerns over upcoming changes to the state’s criminal sentencing structure, the issue of note centered on a new policy where the state would like the counties to take on more of the burden of prisoners and inmates, but without providing enough additional funding to make that happen.
“This is more of a county problem than a city problem,” Yoder said. “We’ve got some sentencing changes that will be taking place more next year perhaps that will change our work release, especially here, and probably add some additional cost. The state wants to take care of less prisoners and inmates and they want the counties to take care of more. They put a little bit of money toward those programs but not nearly enough. What we want is more money. If they’re going to send more inmates here, then they need to fund those programs.”
As for the tax caps issue, one of the groups biggest concerns was that the property tax caps discourage annexation of residential neighborhoods by cities because the amount of tax revenue generated by such residential areas is not enough to pay for the added services that must then be provided by the city.
“What we may have to do is demonstrate the effect of the caps — real life examples of the effect of the caps — to our legislators,” Yoder said. “(Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman) did a comparison of residential versus commercial and what it costs to provide services. We could do that. There’s a basic level of services that the caps do not cover for residential at the basic level: fire, police, ambulance, trash, streets, that sort of thing. So the idea of providing services at the level of the taxes paid just doesn’t work in real life.”
The group also noted concern that the caps have negatively impacted the county’s ability to fund things such as road and bridge repair and maintenance and the ability of area schools to fund their transportation needs.
With their issues identified, the group agreed to work over the next couple of weeks to further define talking points and streamline their supporting materials for their upcoming meeting with state legislators.
“This has been good to affirm what we have here,” Yoder said. “We are going to work on this and tighten this stuff up and make it a more presentable document.”
Yoder indicated that the plan is to schedule the meeting with state legislators in late August or early September.