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Commissioners OK $2.75 million for debt reduction

Harrison County property owners got a late $2.75 million Christmas gift last week, courtesy of revenue from Caesars Indiana, the Harrison County Board of Commissioners and County Council.
The commissioners approved the funds last Wednesday night from riverboat revenue to reduce the debts from capital improvements in the three public school systems. The amount is $250,000 less than the council originally allocated, at the suggestion of the council. The amount was reduced to begin phasing out the allocation through similar reductions each year.
Council chair Gary Davis assured the commissioners that although the payment would be received by the school systems late, the allocation (based on the assessed valuation in each district) would still be in time to reduce property taxes in 2006 for 2005.
Still, the three commissioners weren’t unanimous in the decision, at least not vocally.
J.R. Eckart, chair of the commissioners, said the school debt reduction is a proposal that comes up each year. ‘It reminds me of the dog issue. Some people like to have the conflict more than the program,’ he said, adding that he would like to settle the issue ‘instead of having it come up every time we meet.’
‘That’s the way government works,’ countered Commissioner James Goldman. ‘It’s a balance. We don’t always agree on everything, but we try to reach a consensus that benefits the county as a whole.’
He added: ‘I probably will never agree with some aspects’ of the school debt reduction program. ‘I think the distribution formula is unfair. We’re paying off more debt in one district than another. It should be based on enrollment. But given that, sometimes you have to get to a point where you’ve made your point, but you back up and do what’s in the best interest of everyone.’
Goldman said he is most concerned that the council continue to provide funding from riverboat revenue for road improvements, maintenance and other infrastructure projects. But he has heard from some constituents that spending is too great and should be cut back. ‘I don’t think they realize the magnitude of our job,’ Goldman said. ‘It’s not going to be done overnight.’
A spending plan for the annual $23 million Harrison County is to receive in riverboat taxes, drafted by the council chair and discussed Tuesday night, Dec. 27, at that board’s regular meeting, will be reviewed and submitted for adoption at a public work session of the council and commissioners on Saturday, Jan. 14, at 9 a.m.
As proposed, the spending plan includes continued revenue sharing and funding for hospital construction, police officers, lifelong learning, highway improvements, water systems, wastewater/stormwater treatment and drainage projects, buildings, fire protection, ambulance service, community service programs, education, and property tax reduction ($2.5 million this year for taxes due next year, and $2.25 million in 2007 for 2008). There would still be more than $10 million in unused riverboat dollars in each of those years.
The ‘plan,’ though subject to revision, is a move in the right direction, Goldman said. ‘I just feel we have to take care of county government first. I was elected to do that.
‘I’m willing to support the (school debt) reduction because the council is willing to support our endeavors.’
Eckart countered: ‘I agree the three-year spending plan we’ve got is a start, but I didn’t hear everybody (on the council) buy into that.
‘The plan falls short in every aspect,’ he said. ‘I support needing a plan, but this plan doesn’t address what I think is important.
‘I still stand opposed to the distribution. I think we can well use that $3 million to do something significant.’
Commissioner Jim Heitkemper said he has received ‘quite a few calls’ concerning the plan to reduce property tax bills by reducing school debt.
‘This money is allocated; it’s sitting in the fund ready to be released,’ Heitkemper said. ‘Some of our folks would really like the help.’
‘I do think part of government is compromise, so without further to do, I will make the motion,’ Goldman said, to reduce school debts by $2.75 million.
After Eckart declined to second the motion, Heitkemper said, ‘I like the idea of tax reduction. It helps me out on the farm, so I’ll second that.’
Eckart pounced. ‘I didn’t get into county government to give myself a gift,’ he said to Heitkemper, who replied: ‘I didn’t get in to protect the gift.’
Heitkemper pointed out that the funding for school debt reduction had already gotten underway when he took office.
‘This abatement lowers the tax bill of all property owners,’ he said later, adding: ‘I hope no one believes that I will be the only person in the county it will help.
‘Together in the county we have worked hard to do good projects that, though very worthwhile, end up being quite expensive,’ Heitkemper said. ‘Yet many of our taxpayers will complain that we are doing nothing to help them make ends meet. Many other leaders and myself believe that if you want the public to get behind these projects in broad support, namely the new hospital, you had better give them something back.’