Reeling from higher property tax bills and focusing on what the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly might do to ease the property tax burden, at least some Hoosiers were surprised, caught off guard and even more than a little skeptical when the commission report on overhauling local and county government was released last week.
The only part of that reform actually expected to be included in legislation in the '08 short session would be eliminating local township assessors. That's a plank in Governor Daniels' property tax reform plan, already set to be introduced as a comprehensive bill in the Indiana House come January. It will first go to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration. The Senate is expected to work on similar legislation, but any legislation passed on property tax reform that includes financial implications must originate in the House, notes Bob Kraft, long-time political observer at the Indiana Statehouse, and a governmental relations specialist with Indiana Farm Bureau, Inc.
Reaction in the countryside to the commission report seems to be that eliminating township assessors might be one thing, but knocking out township government altogether, and significantly reforming the face of county governments across the state, would be quite another. Under the plan, county sheriffs would no longer be elected, but instead would be appointed.
The part of the plan drawing the most comment seems to be concerning local schools. The plan calls for consolidation and elimination of the smallest school corporations in Indiana. School districts still exist in Indiana with 200-500 total enrollment in grades 1-12. Some of those commenting, however, remember the outcry in the early 1960's when most rural consolidation of schools took place. They can't envision why the outcry today would be any less from taxpayers and parents inside districts that would be affected.
One school official in a larger school corporation seemed skeptical about the wisdom of the plan as well. Consolidating does add efficiency to a certain point, he notes, but after about 1,500 students, increased size no longer increases efficiency. In fact, he believes there's a point where costs increase with larger district size.
One school official's biggest skepticism currently relates to the central governing body that's to be established in each county. It's not speculation, but fact- county tax control boards were authorized by legislation established by the 2007 Indiana General Assembly. This official questions the ability of a small board to be knowledgeable about the needs of every type of group form libraries to schools, especially in larger counties with multiple school corporations. Currently, regulation and approval of capital improvement projects rests with the Indiana Department of Government and Local Finance.
As the law currently stands, however, these local boards will only have authority in capital projects matters if the size of the project is $7 million or more. Indiana Farm Bureau's Kraft, in favor of the local boards, believing they will help curb local spending that is driving out-of-control property tax increases, suggests the $7 million trigger is actually too high. In their own property tax reform plan issues earlier this fall, Farm Bureau recommends lowering the rigger.
"The problem is that in many rural districts, a project that requires less than $7 million could still have a big impact on property taxes for local taxpayers," Kraft notes.