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Commissioners delay $3 million tax cut

The $3 million in riverboat money for school debt reduction is back in the Harrison County Council’s court.
The Harrison County commissioners Monday night postponed signing the checks to the three public school systems again, this time so the council can review a two-year spending plan for riverboat money drafted for ‘discussion only’ by council Chair Gary Davis. That plan is expected to come up at the council’s Dec. 27 planning meeting. The commissioners would then act on the school debt-reduction plan at their year-end meeting, Dec. 28, scheduled to wrap up last-minute business.
Commissioner Jim Heitkemper objected. ‘We’ve got the information right here,’ Heitkemper said, referring to the spending plan drafted by Davis but not acted upon yet by the council.
‘We could discuss it tonight or bring all these people back in on the 28th?’ Heitkemper asked, with a glance at the attentive audience.
‘That’s my motion,’ said Commissioner James Goldman. ‘There’s adequate time for the state to act on this. They’re not going to do anything until the first of the year anyway.’
Commission chair J.R. Eckart seconded Goldman’s motion. ‘I agree with James,’ Eckart said.
‘We could still talk about it,’ Goldman said to Heitkemper.
Referring to the agenda, Eckart said, ‘We can talk about it under other county business.’ (‘Other business’ was addressed beginning about 1 a.m.)
Davis’ proposed spending plan would leave a balance of $11.2 million in riverboat funds at the end of the two years, based on anticipated annual revenue of $23.2 million.
The commissioners have refused to sign the checks to the schools, arguing that the school debt reduction plan gives property owners a tax break but does nothing to ensure funding to meet other needs. Also, the commissioners have objected to tax breaks for large corporate property owners, especially when some of those companies have received tax breaks as incentives to expand or locate in Harrison County.
The money earmarked for school debt reduction results in reduced property taxes. But the commissioners stress that while no promises were made to reduce property taxes through direct use of riverboat money, improving roads and meeting other infrastructure needs was clearly an objective for the voters to consider when the riverboat issue narrowly passed a referendum.
Funding for road improvements continues to be a high priority for the commissioners, but Goldman said the council has forgotten the promises ‘now that the dust has settled’ on the once-graveled roads.
‘The commissioners want assurances that the spending plan will be followed,’ Goldman said. ‘This is the only way that the commissioners can do long-range infrastructure improvements.’
‘We are all pleased to see a spending plan, and are looking at the reality of these numbers,’ Heitkemper said yesterday. ‘It is my hope they (council) will, at the very least, hammer out a compromise we can all live with.’
Under Davis’ proposal, riverboat revenue sharing would continue as is, $4 million would be dedicated for blacktop and contractual services to be shared equally in the three commissioners’ districts, the Lanesville connector road would get $1.5 million and a new Interstate-64 interchange, $250,000.
Four million would be earmarked for hospital construction each year (as earlier promised) plus $750,000 for a frontage road; a regional sewer district would get $2 million and the sewage treatment project for Corydon would get $2 million and the town of Milltown would get $500,000 for sewage treatment.
School property tax reduction would be reduced to $2.7 million next year and $2.5 million in 2007, as several officials have said the tax break should be phased out, if eliminated at all.
The schools would continue to get $1.8 million divided according to enrollment, to improve education. The alternative school would continue to get $175,000 each year.
Funding would also continue for riverboat police officers, fire departments, Lifelong Learning, economic development, community service programs and other items.
Those funds would not be automatically approved and would serve as a guideline only for spending. Each item would still require an appropriation from the council.
‘I think we can pass it as long as everyone understands that a plan is not a budget but is subject to change based on subsequent events,’ Davis said.