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County officials frustrated by DLGF’s tax ‘hoops’

Crawford County officials are frustrated. They believe they have jumped through all the property tax ‘hoops’ that the state has put in the way but claim that the state keeps adding more hoops. However, the state denies those claims and insists the county’s financial problems are of its own making.
The county hasn’t been able to send out tax bills this year because the state advised Assessor Tammy Proctor several months ago that the county should do a reassessment in order to bring the trending rates into line with state guidelines. The state also informed Proctor that the county couldn’t send out tax bills until the reassessment was well under way. Proctor then took that information to the county council, which approved the funding for a company to do the reassessment.
With little or no money coming in, Crawford County tightened its fiscal belt and laid off several employees at the judicial complex. Then, the Dept. of Local Government Finance notified county officials that the county’s commercial and industrial properties did not meet state standards, which could also lead to a reassessment of those. If that is required, tax bills could be delayed even longer.
‘As a commissioner of Crawford County, I challenge the state to come up with a reason for not allowing us to go ahead and send out tax bills,’ Randy Gilmore, chairman of the commissioners, said. ‘I also challenge the state to give us operating money to run on until this is settled.
‘ … why didn’t this come out a long time ago? And if the county has made a mistake in this, why does the state cut off our income until it is taken care of?’ he asked. ‘We’ve already had to lay people off, and if we didn’t have (gaming) money, we’d have to borrow money and pay interest, and next year we’d have to operate on borrowed money. In the highway department, we’ve cut all the labor. We only have some temporary help. We haven’t had full-time laborers for four years. And last year, we cut $700,000 from the budget. We needed $1.8 million, but got only $1.1 million. We barely have enough money to operate on, and there certainly isn’t any waste.’
Jerry Brewer, president of the Crawford County council, agreed.
‘Our budget was cut this year,’ he said, ‘but the state’s budget almost doubled. I’d like to know where their fiscal responsibility is. And just look at what some of the programs, like the Division of Family and Children, are costing us. That bill alone is about $2.8 or $2.9 million this year. That’s more than the highway department gets. What they do is good, and it’s needed, but why do we have to foot the bill instead of the state?
‘We’ve cut about everything we can cut,’ he said. ‘We’ve cut cleaning supplies, … office supplies … But overspending is not the problem. Let’s face it, this is not your grandpa’s Crawford County. Running a county is bigger business these days.’
Harrison County officials are also experiencing difficulties getting tax bills sent out. According to the assessor’s office, the state is still holding up the county’s tax rates, demanding more and more information, then demanding that corrections be made to that information. The process has stopped the county’s tax system in its tracks, holding up billing and completely frustrating officials who have worked for months to give the state what it wants.
‘I’d like to know the reason for all the confusion,’ said Harrison County Auditor Pat Wolfe. ‘This system has worked for 200 years. I wonder if the state has any idea how much distress this is causing. It has completely disrupted county finances.’
The county still has no idea when the tax bills can be sent out.
‘We check our e-mail hourly,’ said one of the workers in the assessor’s office. ‘We’re getting calls from people constantly, wanting to know when things will be straightened out, and we still have no answers.’
Crawford County officials say they have gone through the same issues with the state, trying to furnish what the state requires, only to discover that something is missing, or that there’s a new requirement.
But the state is quick to point its finger back at the county.
‘I was confused when I read the story about the action of the commissioners, laying people off,’ DLGF Commissioner Cheryl Musgrave said Friday during a telephone interview. ‘They had told us in advance that should we get them their budget, all would be well. My department worked hard with local officials to make sure they got compliance in time. We were surprised after all of that, they went ahead and laid people off. My conclusion was that there was more going wrong with county finances than a few weeks’ delay.’
When asked about why the state approved the reassessment that was done in 2002 (pay 2003), only to turn around and recommend doing another one in 2007, Musgrave again pointed a finger at the county.
‘What I am being told is that for 2002 (pay 2003), it was supposed to be a full reassessment,’ she said. ‘But for some reason, Crawford County, instead of reassessing all their property, multiplied all their residential property by a 0.78 factor, and what that did was, they lowered all their residential property 22 percent. That caused them to be less than where they needed to be in 2002 (pay 2003). So, those values stayed on the books until 2006-2007, where we are now.
‘I was told that (Crawford County Community School Corp.) Dennie Stroud … ‘ and I’ve seen the letter, too ‘ and the school corporation put together an agreement that was supported by Sen. (Richard) Young and Rep. (Dennie) Oxley, whereby, instead of trending for 2006 (pay 2007), they would take that 0.78 factor off and put a 1 down for residential, then they would be where they were supposed to have been in 2002. Then, they also agreed to do a full reassessment for 2006 (pay 2007). The agreement didn’t reference commercial and industrial property, and I believe that everyone assumed that commercial and industrial would be appropriately trended, as well. What we are seeing is that they were not subjected to the trending.’
However, Young took issue with Musgrave’s statements and countered that many of the problems lie within the DLGF itself.
‘Any plan that was approved was approved by the DLGF,’ Young said. ‘It had nothing to do with Dennie (Oxley) and me. Her (Musgrave’s) predecessors were there, and all the final decisions were based on what the DLGF said.
‘The DLGF has run amuck for years. They certainly lack professionalism. There’s a lot of confusion caused by state actions. You can’t do A until B and C are done. And one of the real problems counties have is trying to communicate with them. They certainly don’t understand local difficulties. There’s 1,008 taxing units out there. It’s up to the DLGF to oversee them, and they have failed,’ he said. ‘They don’t have enough people and not enough qualified, or higher trained people, to make it work. The local people are doing the best they can under bad conditions. The blame goes to the top. They have the ultimate authority.’
However, Musgrave insists that Crawford County has caused many of its own problems.
‘What they’re doing now should have been done in 2002-03,’ she said. ‘It’s my understanding that record keeping in Crawford County is so bad that they don’t have the basics needed to plat property. They don’t have plat maps for property under five acres, which is required by law. They’ve fallen behind in record keeping; it’s a terrible state of affairs. Brown County is the only county that is as bad off as Crawford, and they’ve been that way for years. And it’s their own doing. They haven’t met deadlines. They shouldn’t be pointing fingers at the state. We never agreed that they could ignore commercial and industrial properties.’
Dan Crecelius, vice chair of the Crawford County Council, said he believes there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye.
‘We need to get this over with, that’s for sure,’ he said. ‘But we’re already paying too much in property taxes. Property isn’t worth what it’s assessed for in Crawford County. And people here are struggling. Something has to be done. We have over $700,000 in delinquent taxes, and we’ll have to put that property in a tax sale. The state is going to tax people out of business. What the state sends us is what we have to do, but there’s a lot of changes, and it’s confusing. The average guy (doesn’t) know what’s going on.
‘We have one-fourth to one-third of the county that is state owned. We get a little timber sales money from it, but not much. And how can you trend a county when property is just not moving?’ he asked. ‘There’s a lot of people here who are right on the edge, and these taxes hurt them. The county now has to pay for welfare and it’s going up. And when defaults go up, so does welfare.
‘We’re in a heck of a shape here,’ Crecelius said. ‘No one is overpaid. As a matter of fact, the people in the sheriff’s department and the ambulance people are all underpaid. They could go to almost any other county and make a better living, but they’re committed. This is their home, and I hope we don’t lose any of them. There should be a little flexibility from the state. I think while they’re playing politics, we’re suffering.’
‘I know, the state knows and the people knows where the problem is,’ Gilmore said. ‘I’d like to make a deal with the state. They can come and look at our record keeping if we can come to Indianapolis and look at theirs.’