KEVIN LEININGER: Did Allen County skirt the law on bridge-tax hike? If so, maybe the law should be changed

Did the county vote to increase bridge taxes violate a state law requiring public notice in the newspaper? (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Nelson Peters
Chris Cloud
Kevin Leininger

According to a new Rueters report, many news organizations are in decline, financially and otherwise, because the business models that served them so well for so long have been rendered obsolete by the abundance of “free” information on the internet. And even among consumers under 45 willing to buy an on-line subscription, just 7 percent said they would pay for news.

Thirty-seven percent would opt for online video, though, and 15 percent for online music.

This explains, at least in part, why the Indiana newspaper industry has been working so hard to thwart any proposed law that would eliminate or reduce governments’ statutory obligation to inform the public of various activities and proposals through the publication of legal notices — those fine-print ads that on an almost daily basis contain useful information about the sale of tax-delinquent properties, upcoming meeting agendas and various other issues big and small.

But whether you think the ads are necessary for the preservation of a well-informed electorate or an antiquated waste of tax dollars in our everybody-has-access-to-a-computer age, a state memo questioning Allen County’s compliance with the notification law in connection with a proposed bridge-tax increase should puzzle you.

At the very least.

As I first reported last month, the Neighborhoods United Group has filed petitions containing the signatures of about 300 people opposed to the county Commissioners’ April vote to increase the bridge tax by $.0095 per $100 in a property’s assessed value. The county says the increase is needed to pay for $54.2 million in bridge needs over the next eight years.

“We’re not against maintaining bridges,” the group’s John Modezjewski said last month. “But we have these conservative Republican, fiscally responsible people not looking at how much money is just sitting there (in county accounts). We’re either overtaxed or underserved.” The county has a balance of about $114 million in various funds.

The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance will schedule a hearing on the case, but in a June 5 email to the three commissioners and County Auditor Nick Jordan, DLGF Deputy General Counsel Nick Marusarz indicated the tax proposal could be in jeopardy for an entirely different reason.

“It came to our attention that there are at least three newspapers that publish in Allen County: the Journal Gazette, Northwest News and Monroeville News. The submission (of Allen County’s county’s compliance with the notification law) only contained notices published in the Journal Gazette . . . Hence, we do not believe the county has complied” with the statute.

Does that mean the bridge tax was passed illegally and will be voided, requiring the process to start from scratch? Not necessarily. The county is crafting a response, and DLGF spokeswoman Jenny Banks said in a statement her office “is working with county officials to both determine if proper notice procedures were followed and to schedule a hearing based on a taxpayer petition.”

But as Commissioner Nelson Peters noted, the list of Allen County newspapers is much longer than the DLGF included in its letter. He mentioned the St. Joe Times, Aboite and About and the Waynedale News, but there are others.

“We were sort of like, ‘What?’ ” Commissioners Chief of Staff Chris Cloud said of the reaction to the DLGF’s letter. “How is the county supposed to know (about every paper)?”

That’s a good question, because the law in effect requires just that. Counties must place notices in two newspapers, as Allen County did before the News-Sentinel had not ceased publication in 2017. But the law also states that if a county has only one newspaper, that is sufficient.

The state also defines what a “newspaper” is, including a requirement of regular publication and circulation of at least 200. Do those smaller publications the DLGF mentioned qualify? Or would they be considered “locality newspapers” or “qualified publications,” which for legal ad purposes have their own definitions under state law?

So far as I can tell, the county has diligently worked to follow the notification law, even holding a second public hearing on the tax increase when notice of the first hearing was not published on time. For the state to void the county’s action because it did not advertise in the Monroeville News would be worse than silly: It would be a waste of time and, because another round of paid notices would be required, taxpayer money.

“Is it really more transparent to have an ad in a paper with a circulation of 200 than on the county’s Facebook page (seen by 3,000 people) or Twitter account (seen by 4,000)?” Cloud asked.

Finally, consider this: In another letter to the county, the DLGF noted it would have to notify the county auditor and the first 10 objecting taxpayers by mail of any hearing at least five days in advance and also post a notice at the meeting site under the Indiana Open Door Law.

It made no mention of placing a legal ad — in any sort of publication.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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