Monday, July 23, 2007

Income Tax Increase

The City-County Council voted tonight to increase the County Option Income Tax (COIT), better known simply as the local income tax from 1% to 1.65%. The Mayor indicates that the estimated $90 million to be raised annually will be split roughly into three expenditures:
1) A dedicated source for the unfunded pensions for police and firefighters hired back in the day, who were apparently promised nice pension plans without the city ever setting aside any money to pay for this obligation.
2) Pay for the improvements to the criminal justice system (added attorneys and court personnel, other?) to continue the expenditures that begin last year to streamline the court system and prevent the overcrowding and resulting early releases from the county jail that were rampant prior to last year's slew of homicides, including the sextuple murder on Hamilton Avenue on the Near Eastside.
3) Add 100 new police officers, along with some additional spending on crime prevention programs to enhance public safety.

The most interesting part of the debate leading up to the vote, was the battle between Isaac Randolph, who wished to abstain from voting because of a perceived conflict of interest due to his employment with IFD, and the council leadership who attempted to force him to either vote or leave the Public Assembly Room. Randolph refused to either cast a vote or leave the room, and Council President Monroe Gray Jr. indicated that he could be forcibly removed from the room. Randolph acknowledged the presence of Sheriff Frank Anderson and high ranking members of IMPD and replied "Bring it on!" The vote ensued without any further action.

With Randolph abstaining, the remainder of the Council passed the income tax increase 15-13. Interestingly, it could be noted that, since Dane Mahern (D) voted against the increase indicating that his inner-city southside constituents couldn't afford it, Republican Scott Keller provided the 15th and decisive vote necessary to pass the proposal. Keller, who represents near-eastside and southeastside neighborhoods containing large pockets of low- and middle-income residents, indicated that his 16th District constituents supported the tax increase because they are afraid of being crime victims and want public safety fully funded.

Council President Gray, at the behest of Councilor Lonnell "King Ro" Conley, stifled debate and called for a vote even though all Councilors had not had an opportunity to speak. It appeared that a significant portion of the capacity crowd left, with much jeering, as Mr. Gray ended the discussion. After the vote, the fireworks continued, as each Councilor had one minute to explain their vote. Republican Phil Borst expressed dismay that he was not allowed to speak about his opposition to the proposal before the Council voted. A Democrat northeastside councilor and firefighter (Brown?) implied that Randolph was a coward for refusing to vote. Randolph attempted to respond, but was told that there would be no debate and that the two of them could "take it outside".

For or against the tax increase, it was disappointing to see how our Council operates. While I'm all for spirited debate, it seemed an embarassment to watch these proceedings. There seemed to be more discussion about whether one could abstain or not, then there was about the merit of the proposal. The limited amount of debate, with some Councilors not being allowed to speak, was very disappointing, given the seriousness and long-term implications of the vote that was being cast.

On the merits of the increase, the City certainly needs to fund the pension obligations it committed to decades ago. Why City leadership hasn't seen fit to do it decades ago, is a good question, but nevertheless it needed to be done. Keeping the criminal justice system moving smoothly to prevent early releases from the jail and adding more police officers is important, especially given the reduction of officers in the old IPD jurisdiction since the merger. Of course, it was promised that no officers would be transferred out of the IPD jurisdiction, but every indication is that promise hasn't been kept. Will the 100 new officers be assigned to the old Sheriff's jurisdiction leaving the inner-city no better protected than today? Or will the old IPD beats be replenished. This remains to be seen. Promises made when the merger was proposed included a pledge that additional officer strength would be provided to the suburban beats by eliminating duplication of administrative positions to add more patrol officers, and that $35 million dollars of annual savings would be obtained. Apparently, those savings were to plug some other holes in the budget and couldn't be used to hire any additional officers.

Why does the City need to cut money or raise taxes every year even though the citizens don't seem to be getting in increase in services each year? We aren't hemorrhaging population. Do we have a high and/or increasing unemployment rate? Obviously, the average 35% increase in residential property tax bills has caused quite a stir. It seems reasonable to expect an increase in city services, with such an increase in tax bills. Since no such increase is proposed, will Marion County experience a mass exodus of residents escaping to the relative sanity and stability of surrounding counties? If so, what will be the fallout? Lower property values? An increase in an already sky-high foreclosure rate? Even higher property tax obligations for those who remain as the assessed value of real estate plummets? What are the answers?