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KEVIN LEININGER: Happy New Year! State says county bridge taxes can go up in 2020

The Maplecrest Road extension between Lake Avenue and Indiana 930 has been a transportation success but has failed to generate the expected economic growth -- one reason county officials want to increase bridge taxes. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Nelson Peters
Russ Jehl
Kevin Leininger

The new year will ring in a tax increase for Allen County residents – at least for those whose properties have not yet reached the state-imposed caps.

That’s because the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance has denied an appeal filed in May by the Neighborhoods United group, clearing the way for an increase in the county’s bridge tax from $0.0129 for every $100 of assessed value to $0.0224. The tax will generate about $4 million per year, which the County Commissioners have said will pay for the $54.2 million in repairs that will be needed over the next eight years.

“I’m not surprised,” said Commissioner Nelson Peters. “It’s the outcome we had sought (when the Commissioners voted for the increase in April).”

The county’s “need” for more money, of course, was precisely the point questioned by the neighborhood group, which argued that the county should use some of its $114 million cash reserves on bridges instead of raising taxes – a position echoed by County Auditor Nick Jordan.

In its 18-page ruling, the DLGF stated that it normally “does not inject itself into local affairs… and the department does not see a sufficient reason to depart from this practice.” In other words, the state deferred to the Commissioners’ statutory obligation to maintain bridges and their authority to collect taxes accordingly. But lurking in that dryly logical separation-of-powers conclusion lurks a story of how intergovernmental rivalries and overly rosy scenarios contributed to the problem.

As the DLGF noted, the county dissolved its cumulative bridge fund in 2002 so it could afford two projects ordered by judges: construction of a new juvenile detention facility and expansion of the jail. Now the bonds for those projects are coming off the books, which means the county’s overall tax rate will actually drop slightly in 2020 despite the higher bridge tax.

But the increase might not be needed at all had the city of Fort Wayne not decided to assume responsibility for its own bridges in 2017, ending an eight-year agreement under which the county had maintained bridges within the city limits in exchange for a portion of the city’s wheel tax revenues. The city went on its own after the county suggested the city increase its annual payment from $1.35 million to $2.7 million – an amount the county insisted reflected real costs but the city claimed was excessive.

“The move to increase taxes appears to have been caused, at least in part, by Fort Wayne’s decision to manage bridge maintenance by itself,” the DLGF wrote. “This resulted in a funding gap of almost $23 million over eight years, which the county has to make up in order to meet its own statutory obligations.”

And, as I reported in May, officials’ overly optimistic expectation for the job-creating potential of the $25 million Maplecrest Road extension also exacerbated the county’s need for bridge cash. The project, approved by County Council in 2008, was largely funded through bonds to be repaid through taxes generated by growth along the corridor. But the project, which extended Maplecrest south across the Maumee River to Adams Center Road, has so far failed to attract the hoped-for investment and tax revenues.

As a result, Jordan said, about $1.8 million of the increased bridge tax will be needed to make bond payments next year.

Because of a quirk in the state tax caps law, taxpayers would not have necessarily paid less even if the county had used some of its cash on bridges in lieu of a tax increase, Peters said. Any reduction in county taxes simply could have been claimed by another governmental unit. That doesn’t mean the county’s proposed use is better or worse than the alternatives, but it does at least help explain the decision by the Commissioners, who say they have several major projects looming that could cost millions of dollars.

More pro-life resolutions coming?

New Haven has already done it, and Huntertown and Woodburn did it Monday night. So why haven’t Fort Wayne and Allen County yet considered resolutions declaring themselves “pro-life” communities?

Stay tuned, said Peters and City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd.

“I’ll support such an ordinance if I have the opportunity. I can’t wait,” Jehl said, noting Allen County Right to Life’s effort to pass a bill in Fort Wayne has not yet been addressed because of the November election and new terms beginning in January, which will reduce the GOP’s edge from 7-2 to 5-4, with six votes needed to overturn a mayoral veto. Peters, meanwhile, said the Commissioners could vote on a resolution “in the next couple of meetings.”

Although the resolutions are non-binding and have no impact on existing or future laws, “We’re letting the world know we speak for the unborn,” Jehl said.

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.