‘To the Point’ for 4/14/05

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THE STATE LEGISLATURE continues to try and find ways to take funds from counties with riverboat casinos, and even with some minor victories over the past week, there is still a major war looming on the horizon. It’s a situation that must be addressed, and some tough issues must be faced.

This isn’t a “feel good” column. In fact, by the end of it, some in this community might not be very happy, but it’s something that this community must begin thinking about. To use a gambling analogy — “We have to play the cards that we’ve been dealt.”

The truth of the matter is simple: eventually the state is going to take the money. It may not be this year; or next year — but each and every time that the state legislature meets, someone is going to make a proposal to filter off some riverboat profits and redirect them to another place.

It may be to other counties. It may be to the Colts’ new stadium. It may be to help the state government recover its financial footing.

It may just be because they can.

But it’s going to happen.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news; but the truth is that after Mike Jones and Bob Bischoff and others who are now fighting so hard to keep those funds here in Switzerland County, they aren’t going to get much of a rest, because it’s always going to come up.

Every year legislators look around in hope of finding a “money tree”. Riverboats are now the Sequoias of money trees.

Bring your bushel basket and pick yourself a peck of cash.

And once they find it, it’s only a matter of time before they figure out a way to harvest it.

What happens at the state level will have devastating effects on Switzerland County and other riverboat counties and cities that have created long range plans based on those riverboat funds. Not only will the cash stream get smaller coming from Indianapolis — but the stream of tax dollars coming out of your pocket and mine is going to get bigger.

Remember what happened in Hanover when Marble Hill closed down? Hanover residents were hit with outrageous property taxes because the assessed valuation stayed high, but all of the workers and others were gone.

I had a friend who was looking for a home in the Hanover area at that time, and house prices were rock bottom — they had to be to make them attractive to buyers because the taxes were so high.

Here in Vevay, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the light at the end of our tunnel may be a train.

Many of you have spoken with me over the past couple of weeks about your fears concerning how the county will pay for and then operate our new jail and courthouse expansion with drastically reduced riverboat revenues.

When ground was broken, it was proclaimed that no tax dollars would be used to fund the construction. Faced with our dilemma at the state level, local lawmakers may not be able to keep that promise.

It’s not their fault. Once the state capped the county’s revenues, our county officials had to take tough looks at different elements of county operations. No one could argue that a new jail wasn’t needed as we watched hundreds of thousands of dollars go out to other counties to house our criminals.

Walk through the courthouse and see lines of filing cabinets in the hallways. We were simply out of room, and something needed to be done.

County officials worked hard to find plans and contractors who could meet our needs without putting the touch on taxpayers, and they were successful. What they could not have envisioned was that the state would get greedy — and rest assured that it will stay greedy until it has siphoned as much cash from here as possible.

So what should we do? My answer isn’t pleasant, but it may soon become a reality.

Stop writing checks.

If this county is going to survive for the long term, it is important that the county get the jail and courthouse expansion paid off as soon as it possibly can. It’s already started, so it’s got to be finished.

In what won’t be popular with agencies, I believe that — faced with the hand we’ve been dealt — the county needs to suspend its revenue sharing plan for 2006. Tell entities right now that they won’t receive money for a year beginning on January 1st, 2006; and that they need to plan for this cut.

Then, with all of the money possible in the hands of county government, do two things:

— Pay the debt service for the school corporation in order to continue to ease that burden on the taxpayer.

— Take every other cent and pay off the jail and the courthouse. Don’t do anything else until those two projects are paid off.

Once both buildings are free and clear of debt, then restore the revenue sharing formula as it has been running.

It isn’t a popular idea, granted, but I believe that this county has little choice but to make sure we have as little debt as possible as quickly as possible. The state legislature may not be successful in getting funds from riverboat communities this year, but it will be back to try again next year — and it future years to come.

Until some long term formula is established, this county has little choice but to adopt a policy of “we don’t buy anything we can’t immediately pay for”.

Our county officials have worked hard on behalf of local citizens, and they continue to work hard in trying to protect our interests, both in Indianapolis and with the new development agreement being negotiated with Belterra.

Sometimes when you hold an elected office you are faced with having to make a hard decision. Sometimes those hard decisions mean that people aren’t very happy in the short term.

What we need to focus on is the long term. This county cannot and must not enter into long term projects that commit funds that come from riverboat revenue sharing funds.

As long as the state is looking for its money tree, riverboat communities are going to be a target.

It’s a tough time, and tough decisions may have to be made.