By Ann Marie Shambaugh
Boone County officials are considering the implementation of a new tax to support public safety, which many local leaders say has been underfunded for years.
A new state law allows counties to pass a local income tax to be used for public safety, economic development, certified shares or property tax relief. In Boone County, Sheriff Mike Nielsen is leading the charge to implement the LIT to support hiring more law enforcement personnel for his department and elsewhere.
“We’re working with staffing levels that are the same that they were in 2004,” Nielsen said of the Boone County Sheriff’s Office. “I can’t go home and sleep at night knowing that I’m putting the inmates at risk, I’m putting the staff at risk, and we’re putting the citizens of the county at risk.”
Nielsen said he’d like to see the LIT rate at .5 to .75 percent of adjusted gross income. At .5 percent, someone with a $100,000 income would be paying about $400 a year, he said. He believes that tax rate is sufficient to fund his five-year strategic plan to staff and improve county public safety services, which he’s been working on since taking office in January 2015.
If implemented, each municipality in the county would receive a percentage of the tax revenue based on its property tax levy as a percentage of the total property taxes levied in the county. In Zionsville, a .5 percent LIT would lead to an estimated $3.9 million annually in revenue for public safety. For the Boone County taxing unit, that amount would be approximately $4.5 million per year.
Zionsville officials said the town is also understaffed in its public safety departments.
“We have needs that we have not been able to fulfill. We’re down staff in police and fire,” Deputy Mayor Ed Mitro said. “Looking at a public safety standpoint, to give service to the community that it deserves and wants, between tax caps and everything else that we have (limiting us), it’s just extremely difficult to do that. We keep falling further and further behind.”
The Zionsville Police Dept. is understaffed by six people, and the Zionsville Fire Dept. is understaffed by 12 employees, Mayor Tim Haak said. The town – and others in Boone County and the state – has been using funds to boost public safety efforts that ideally would have gone toward infrastructure, parks or other town services, he added.
Mitro said that state tax caps, which restrict property owners from paying more than 1 percent of gross assessed value on a homestead and 2 or 3 percent on other properties, are one of the main reasons Zionsville and other municipalities are struggling to fully fund public safety.
“You can’t save your way out of it. It’s to a point where if you want to keep services at a level or help increase them, with the tax caps in place and with Zionsville in particular pretty much at the cap, there’s no way to budget for that without sucking all of the air out of the room,” Mitro said. “What you end up having to do then is start stealing from streets, stealing from parks. What do you do? Do you have the other services suffer to prop up public safety?”
In order for the LIT to go into effect, elected governing bodies representing more than half of the county’s population must approve it. That means only two of the county’s three councils representing the largest population groups – the Boone County, Lebanon City and Zionsville Town councils – must approve it for it to be implemented countywide.
Nielsen, however, plans to present his proposal to all county governing bodies and give them a chance to vote.
If approved by Oct. 31, the new tax rate would go into effect Jan. 1, 2017. Zionsville officials said it would likely be mid- to late-2017 before they collect enough revenue to begin hiring for understaffed departments.
The Zionsville Town Council will discuss the proposal at its council meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 1.