Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 10, 2012

SMITH: City-county squabbling won’t end any time soon

Mayor targets ‘double taxing’ of city residents

By Scott Smith
Tribune columnist

— When Howard County officials suggested the city of Kokomo was attempting a property tax increase earlier this month, the statement drew a reaction from City Hall.

The resulting blow up, which happened largely behind the scenes, was just another indication of the tension between city and county officials in the wake of two major annexations.

The reality of next year’s city budget, set by the Kokomo Common Council at $58.9 million, is that it depends on revenue from 12 square miles of newly annexed Howard County.

But Howard County government is losing revenue directly because of the annexation. The county’s share of local income tax revenue will shrink, and property tax caps — which also affect the city’s revenues — will further reduce what the county receives.

That’s part of why — apart from Howard County Councilman John Roberts, who lives in the newly annexed Indian Heights subdivision — there aren’t any county officials openly supportive of the city’s annexation.

In fact, dating back to 2008, county officials actively took steps to thwart the annexation, both by campaigning against it in neighborhoods and by signing an anti-annexation petition on behalf of the properties the county owns.

Annexation might not have been the start of the static between city and county, but it seemed to advance it to a new level. It has been almost non-stop since then.

This week, the big controversy concerns parking downtown. Last week’s controversy dealt with the transfer of responsibility for the Emergency Management Agency and Weights & Measures department to the county.

It’s all “inside baseball” stuff, of seemingly vast importance to certain officials, but of little import to your average person.

Remember the fiery debate over whether the city was seeking a 15 percent levy increase or a 12 percent increase? Missed that one? As it turns out, the city was only entitled to receive a 9 percent increase.

But that percentage difference was a huge deal to county officials as they tried to lay out a budget. One might even say county officials had an incentive to make Mayor Greg Goodnight seem like a cash grabber.

If the city receives more, the county receives less. So exaggerating the impact of annexation — or at least presenting a worst-case scenario — to the county council could be viewed as an effective way to get the council to keep a lean budget.

It also turns out city residents probably won’t see any kind of a tax increase, although that is certainly what county officials were suggesting when they publicly announced concerns about the city’s proposed property tax levy.

Now that the mystery over the city’s property tax levy has been settled (although not without considerable acrimony), it’s on to other things.

The mayor wants the county to start leasing the parking lot the city has been providing, free of charge to the public, along downtown’s Union Street.

The lot is mainly used as a place for county employees to park, and Goodnight says it isn’t unreasonable to expect the county to provide employees with parking spaces.

The county is about 78 spaces short of having enough for its employees, but county officials just got tagged with the loss of several hundred thousand dollars in city support for EMA and Weights & Measures.

The mayor wants the county to help fund a new downtown parking garage, and the lack of a favorable county response to that unofficial request is undoubtedly contributing to the decision to cut off the county’s free parking.

County officials won’t discuss the garage, saying only they haven’t received a formal funding request. But given the level of mutual dissatisfaction, it’s doubtful county officials are ready to embrace multi-million-dollar city funding requests.

This is just a small part of the history between city and county, and rarely a week goes by without some kind of a flare-up.

There is a mayor who is determined to discontinue any type of city subsidy for the county (double taxation is usually how he refers to such issues), and there are county officials who have been used to a certain way of doing things.

That’s why we don’t foresee an end to the city vs. county Cold War any time soon.

Scott Smith covers city government for the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com or 765-454-8569.