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No peace on earth at council meeting

‘Tis the season of peace on earth, good will toward men, but apparently somebody forgot to tell some Harrison County officials.
The Harrison County Council and the Harrison County Board of Commissioners clashed again at Monday night’s meeting of the council over the amount of riverboat revenue to be applied to school debt. The council wants to spend $3.5 million, while the commissioners want to hold the amount to $3 million, as recommended by a task force appointed to study the issue.
Shortly before the meeting ended at about 10:30 p.m., Commission chair J.R. Eckart proposed a truce.
‘In the interest of advancing the cause of the tax abatement, I would ask the council to appropriate the $3 million for tax abatement next year,’ Eckart said. ‘I offer that as chairman of the board, knowing we are at an impasse.’
Council chair Gary Davis told the council, ‘We have a request. Do we have any motions?’
‘Apparently not,’ he said, after no one on the council spoke up.
Under the protocol established by the commissioners and the council when riverboat revenue began to stream into county coffers in 1999, the commissioners recommend to the council that riverboat money be appropriated for specific reasons. The council, if it agrees, then appropriates the money for the commissioners to spend or to award a contract for the money to be spent.
Monday night, Davis read a letter from Bruce Hartman, a county supervisor of the Indiana State Board of Accounts, who says the council alone has the duty and power to appropriate funds: ‘The commissioners can monitor what this fund is being used for, but there is no law that says it has to be that way. This is a procedure this county (Harrison) has adopted. If push comes to shove, our position is that the commissioners have no say in how the riverboat funds are spent; that is the council’s responsibility.’
Commissioner James Goldman said to Davis: ‘You say there’s no use debating it. Based on what you are saying, the commissioners don’t have a thing to do with county government. We’re just here for your pleasure.’
Davis said the council is not proposing a change in protocol. He said, ‘When we appropriate $3.5 million, your option is to spend it or not.’
Goldman asked what the purpose was for the council to establish a task force (on which he served) to study the issue and make a recommendation, which this year was to spend $3 million.
But when the issue came up before the council, Councilman Alvin Brown moved to appropriate the full amount, notwithstanding the task force recommendation. His motion passed unanimously. But when the commissioners asked for the money to be appropriated, they asked only for $3 million.
They may as well have drawn a line in the sand.
Goldman asked, ‘If we can’t lower it, what are you trying to say?’ He asked why Brown, who was not part of the task force, had the authority to make a motion to appropriate any amount other than that recommended by the task force.
Davis said the task force made a recommendation only; the ‘ultimate recommendation was passed unanimously by the council.’
‘Why did you ask me to sit on your task force?’ Goldman asked. ‘To be a nice guy?’
Davis said, ‘We wanted the commissioners to be a part of the process. But we didn’t want you to cut the amount.
‘The commissioners did not have the authority to reduce the $3.5 million to $3 million.’
Davis said the $3.5 million has already been appropriated.
Auditor Pat Wolfe, who serves as secretary to both the council and the commissioners and handles advertising as directed, said the $3.5 million has not been advertised as required.
‘This puts me between a rock and a hard place,’ she said.
To which Goldman replied: ‘I’ll make it easy for you, Pat. They will appropriate $3.5 million. We’re going to spend $3 million.’
Eckart said the controversy between a $3 million and a $3.5 million tax abatement is simply that the amount of savings to individuals is minimal compared to the savings realized by large companies or businesses such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods or Caesars Indiana. That also applies to any company that has received a tax abatement on real or personal property.
‘The private taxpayer in the county just gets a pittance of the money.
‘From my standpoint, I don’t think this is appropriate at all,’ Eckart said. ‘It takes that money and scatters it across the whole county. It functionally provides no benefit to anybody. It is just a gift.
‘At this point, we could take that $3 million and resolve some issues.’
Possible uses, he said, would be to increase fire protection or to get started resolving some storm water and wastewater drainage problems.
‘We have issues, and issues and issues to deal with,’ Eckart said. ‘That $3 million parcel of money could produce some real benefits.’
The council’s stance now is that the commissioners must spend all or none of the amount the council appropriates, Eckart said.
‘I think we have the right to spend a portion of any appropriation,’ he said, referring the council to times when a project winds up costing less than originally budgeted.
Monday night was the council’s last meeting of the year. The commissioners will, however, hold a special meeting Dec. 29 at 7 p.m. to handle some last-minute chores and make board appointments.
Eckart said Dec. 29 is his wedding anniversary, so he’s hoping the session is over quickly so he and his wife, Kathy, can go out to dinner.

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