Been There, Done That, It’s Not Quite So Simple….

In a recent post to Inforefront.comChris Cotterill plows some well-tilled ground, essentially pooh-poohing the notion that cities and towns need more taxing authority in order to provide a decent level of municipal services.

We just need to do more with less. It’s a tired trope.

Some of his recommendations are reasonable–consolidated purchasing and maintenance operations, for example. Some aren’t: outsourcing or outright sale of city functions (the “holy grail” of those who believe that the private sector can provide services more efficiently no matter what the nature of the service–a belief not supported by the evidence); a hiring freeze (several city departments are already headed for “decimated” status), the exclusion of spouses from healthcare coverage (you think it’s hard to get good employees now?), and outsourcing operations of golf courses (because that worked so well during the Goldsmith Administration).

These recommendations have been around–and many of them implemented–since I served in the Hudnut Administration. The problem is, even if they all worked as Cotterill thinks they would, they wouldn’t begin to generate savings sufficient to address the problems we face.

Of course, there are some major improvements that might generate substantial savings–although they didn’t make Cotterill’s list. The Kernan-Shepard report identified the incredibly wasteful Trustee system; and I’ve argued before for consolidation of the eleven school districts in Marion County that collectively serve fewer students than IPS used to enroll. Unfortunately, we not only lack the political will to make those changes, our antiquated taxing system–with its dedicated funds–wouldn’t allow those savings to be used where they are most needed.

Should government services be delivered efficiently? Of course. Are some local government priorities misguided? Yep. Will addressing either of those issues solve the very real problems facing our underfunded local government units? In your dreams.

Mayor Ballard defended the recent deal with the Pacers by pointing out that the money going to the CIB can’t be used for other things, like police. That’s true–and it’s a far bigger problem than a lack of consolidated purchasing.

We need meaningful home rule, and the ability to allocate tax revenues to our most pressing problems. Giving local government actual authority over its own decisions would also improve transparency and allow citizens to hold local lawmakers accountable.

Of course, our arrogant overlords at the General Assembly are unlikely to agree.


  1. Thomas Kuhn explained that a prevailing paradigm will resist change so long as it reasonably explains the current reality. However, once the questions or problems at hand can no longer contribute to understanding the situation nor guide problem-solving, then new ideas will be welcomed. He said a paradigm shift might come slowly but , if the situation becomes dire enough, then the shift could come suddenly. In Indiana, a shift is at hand because new problems simply cannot be solved with old formulae. Stay tuned;” a change is gonna come.”

  2. The kicker is that we are not “getting less.” Indianapolis has more revenue than ever, it’s just that we’re giving away those dollars in the form of corporate welfare. I believe we have 20% of the property in Marion County now in TIF districts. Most of those TIF districts can’t be funded from the increment and eat into the base and general funds. It costs us property tax dollars.

    Ballard’s argument regarding the Pacers that “well that’s money in another pot and we can’t use it excuse” ignores that money is fungible. Even aside from the Pacers, many of his deals simply involve handing over property tax money (via TIFs) to politically connected developers. That’s less money we have for basic city services.

    Ballard has consistently supported raising taxes and fees during his administration. But that money hasn’t gone to basic city services. It’s gone to the aforementioned corporate welfare. Now he’s back asking for more tax increases, local income and property.

    If Cotterill said (I didn’t read the article) that local government doesn’t need more taxing authority, my response would be “Amen.” What happened when the State gave Indianapolis the authority to raise the car rental and hotel taxes? They maxed out the taxes and then just gave all the money to the CIB. Do we really want our local government to have expanded taxing authority? Absolutely not.

  3. Chris Cotterill avoids the Third Rail in his cost cutting article. That third rail is all the tax dollars diverted to the CIB, and the Crony-Capitalism and Corporate Welfare Programs, i.e., TIFs, etc. Cotterill avoids explaining why financing, building, maintaining and subsidizing the Colts, Pacers and constructing Cricket Stadiums has become a Government responsibility.

    I would take Chris Cotterill’s article more seriously if he addressed Corporate Welfare. If Private Industry is so efficient why do we tax payers have to subsidize the Colt’s and Pacers???

  4. It seems that we support the Colts and the Pacers because we really love balls and we find that the richest people on earth need our support. Not the poor and the hungry. Just the super rich.
    Here is a revenue idea: 25% Income Tax Rate for ALL Employees of the “Ball” Industry. Not a state tax. A CITY Tax. If the city supports their play pens, then we tax ALL the employees at a 25% city tax rate. Sounds fair.

  5. I totally agree about the CIB and corporate welfare–but our current structure severely limits the ability of any administration to allocate dollars. City operations are paid for out of separate funds that can only be used for certain functions. I’m sure the idea was to keep local lawmakers from using dollars intended for the dog pound, for example, to support street cleaning or city legal. But the result is that dollars earmarked for the CIB–or the dog pound–can’t be used elsewhere. If the budget was unrestricted–if we could apply any tax receipts to any proper government function–we could hold the Administration and Council accountable for their choices. Right now, if we are being intellectually honest, we can’t.

  6. A few days ago I sent E-mails to Mary Moriarty-Adams and the City County Council regarding the public safety budget. I have not heard from any of them but did receive a response from a Ms. Flannery in the Mayor’s Office. Does anyone else find this questionable?

  7. TIF districts that are created definitely divert property tax dollars to corporate welfare. They don’t have to be created and they can be ended. These are not just two separate pots of money. It’s the same pot – property taxes. Property tax revenues have also being funneled through DevelopIndy to the CIB to the Pacers. Regardless, it’s a zero sum game. When you hit people with 2% food and beverage tax, some of the highest car rental and hotel taxes in the country, that means there is less money to raise tax revenue in other areas.

  8. Paul, that’s true, but it wasn’t what I was referring to. Indianapolis has some 42 separate taxing districts (NOT including TIFS) and 90+ rates. Not only does this complicated system make it difficult to challenge spending decisions, the limitations on the money–what can be spent for what–distorts the budget process and makes it difficult or impossible to direct money to high-priority needs (like police). If all tax receipts were put in a pot and allocated to city services, a lot of the pressure would be off, AND it would be harder to justify $ for the Pacers rather than for Public Safety, for example. Given the current system, even if the dollars didn’t go to the Pacers, they wouldn’t be available for public safety. The TIFs exacerbate the problem, but its the system that’s the problem.

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