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Revitalizing wallets, not houses

It’s time for another imaginary trip into the make-believe world of county finances, likely the most outlandish journey yet.

Then again, it’s perhaps no more outlandish than county commissioners’ recent handling of the county neighborhood revitalization program. Save that thought for later.

It’s early one Monday morning, you’re freshly showered, dressed, and fed. You’ve kissed your spouse goodbye, and you’re in a great mood as you head out the door to go to work.

But you stop dead in your tracks, jaw dropped in bewilderment, when you see what’s happening with your car.

There’s Commissioner Dan Holub standing beside the car, arms outstretched and holding open a canvas bag, quietly but merrily humming “We’re in the money, we’re in the money.” Strange, but it gets stranger still.

Inside the car in the front is Commissioner Lori Lalouette has a hand in the cup holder between the seats. She finds coins, scoops them up, and tosses the coins toward Holub, who deftly catches the coins in the bag and bows. The humming gets louder.

Commissioner Randy Dallke is in the back, hands jammed in seat cushion cracks. His right hand wiggles a bit, then emerges from the crack with a bright shiny quarter. He executes a no-look flip of the coin that lands it perfectly in Holub’s bag. Dallke smiles, and digs in again.

You recover from your shock demanding to know what in the world they’re doing.

“You know your neighbor over there?” Holub asks, pointing down the block. “He just built a new garage, and boy, is it terrific. We’re going through all the cars in the neighborhood, and when we’ve found all the spare change, we’re going to march over there and surprise him with this big, big bag of coins.”

And as if your head isn’t spinning out of control yet ….

“Oh, and we’ll be back on this day next year, and the next, and the next, and the next, to do it again,” Holub said.

Told you it was going to be outlandish. This couldn’t happen in a million years. But it has, less outlandishly, three times this year already, and that’s just the beginning.

Three times this year commissioners took your money and gave it to somebody down the street as a “thank you” for something they’ve already built. And it seems those folks have a lot of company.

Commissioners received a survey a few weeks ago of people who participated in the residential portion of the county’s neighborhood revitalization program. Remember, that program is designed to give people incentive to build something they might not otherwise have built.

So did five-year property tax rebates lead them to build? Nine out of ten said NO. They said instead that the rebates were a nice “bonus.” A nice taxpayer-funded bonus.

Does the program work to stimulate new residential construction? No.

And lest you think, “Well, that’s the county’s share they’re giving away,” think again.

The county collects property taxes for schools, townships, cities, water districts, fire districts, and special improvement districts, then divides them accordingly. Most, but not all, have agreed that growth is important, and they signed on to letting some of their tax money go to the revitalization program.

When commissioners vote to give someone a property tax rebate gift, the money they’re giving away isn’t all theirs. Some of it would’ve gone to a school district, or a township, or any of the others where a program beneficiary lives.

There’s no similar survey on the business side of the program, but there are questions to ask about the usefulness of a five-year plan for stimulating business development. For attracting large businesses with large equipment needs, there are better incentives available through the state. Smaller businesses might need a boost, but if they’re going into an existing building and don’t plan extensive renovations, the return they get on property taxes is much less likely to be a deciding factor in their decision.

I’m relatively certain Marion County has businesses that wouldn’t be as successful as they are if not for a boost for renovations or additions incentivized by the revitalization program, and homes that would be decrepit or nonexistent without it.

The question is, do they bring enough value to offset the giveaways to folks who didn’t need it, but welcomed the bonus? Commissioners need to ask that question and study hard to come up with an answer that will satisfy not only this little ol’ news editor, but constituents that are tired of seeing money needlessly squirreled away.

I’ll go through the seat cushions of my ladder car myself if I think it will help someone better their lives in a meaningful way. But I don’t want someone else doing it for me, using my coins as a bonus for someone else. Revitalization is supposed to be for neighborhoods, not wallets.

— david colburn

Last modified Sept. 9, 2015

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