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Serving: IN

Property Tax Issue Remains Hottest Debate in Country

Rural township trustee/assessor sees value in local government.

Don Berger loves to talk about soil conservation, almost as much as he loves to talk about his 15 grandkids. In fact, he talks about them together, because he feels one of his roles as a grandfather and farmer is to help instill the soil conservation ethic in his grandchildren. He hopes to lead by example.

If there's anything else he and his wife, Melanie, would rather talk about than conservation, kids and grandkids these days, it's property taxes. And that's because the Wayne County couple have strong feelings about various proposals in the hopper to resolve the property tax issue.

A life-long farmer, Berger recently accepted the township trustee position. With it came being township assessor. One part of some plans floating out there in the legislative cyberspace would do away with county assessors. "Personally, it wouldn't bother me not to have the job," he says. "It's not a big paying position, trust me. But I believe there is more at stake than that.

"Our concern is that local government is basic, and extremely important. If we move away from government at the most local, basic, level, I have concerns about the consequences."

Berger doesn't do actual assessing of land and real estate. But he's the first person local residents call when they think their bill is too high, or if they have some other sorts of issue. Berger takes each call seriously, he promises, and tries his best to resolve whatever the issue might be. In a way, he sees himself as a representative for the local people- someone they can talk to and get an explanation from.

What he fears is that if that level of government is stripped away, the ability of taxpayers to get local answers, or deal with a local person who understands their situation, might get tossed away with it. They call it 'unintended consequences.'

If a person who believes they have a problem, or who believes their assessment is too high, is forced to call a statewide phone number because local people handling these issues no longer exist, then the process will become more impersonal, he fears. It could come down to dealing with impersonal phone answering services, and the answer the person finally gets coming from a computer, based on what's happening statewide. While consistency in assessing is one thing many opponents of property taxes clamor for, there are situations that need to be dealt with individually, Berger believes, Or at least there are situations where the taxpayer needs and deserves the personal touch to help explain how a nearly inexplicable process has worked to somehow raise his or her property taxes to levels he or she never fathomed possible.

Melanie fears that faced with a score of details and chances for unintended consequences, such as the local assessor issue, the legislature next spring may opt for yet another band-aid approach. Right now, most political observers believe that this time will be different- that the legislature will get down to the nitty-gritty and make real changes.

Let it suffice to see that not every hard-working taxpayer, especially in rural Indiana, is ready to buy into that optimism. They've heard it before. And if all they do get is another band-aid, many fear the situation may get worse before it gets better.

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