Tag Archives: Indianapolis budget

Politics, Budgets and Taxes

The other day, an advocate for the homeless asked me why the needs of the most vulnerable citizens always seem to take a back seat to the demands of sports teams, developers, and bright shiny objects like cricket fields. He attributed this state of affairs to animus against the needy, but–as I told him–I don’t think that’s it. It’s just that politicians respond to pressure from people who show up–people who contact them, who vote and especially people who donate.

The problem we face when allocating public resources is that very few of us who benefit from inequities that unfairly burden others are willing to graciously concede those advantages. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that we are entitled to them.

When the Indiana Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that the system that had yielded grossly unequal property tax assessments for years had to be fixed,  the homeowners who had benefitted from artificially low assessments–and whose taxes had accordingly been  lower than those of folks with far less valuable properties–screamed bloody murder. Rather than sheepishly acknowledging that they’d made out like bandits for years, and that perhaps it was time to pay their fair shares, they saw themselves as victims of a rapacious government and took their revenge by ousting a hapless Mayor who’d had nothing to do with that particular decision.

Fast forward to Mayor Ballard’s proposed budget.

I’ve not been a fan of this Mayor, but his proposed equalization of the tax rate for IMPD is both fair and overdue. For decades, center city folks were taxed to support both the sheriff’s department (which has county-wide jurisdiction) and IPD (which patrolled only the old city limits). When the two departments were combined into IMPD, apparently the tax rates were not adjusted accordingly. As a result, those residing within the old city limits continued to pay more for police protection than those living outside those limits. As I understand it, Ballard’s proposal would equalize the tax and end what has effectively been an unfair subsidy of some citizens by others–and those who’ve benefitted are (predictably) whining about having to pay their fair share.

Since this post is likely to make me even more unpopular than I already am, I will add that I also support the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate the homestead credit in order to pay for the addition of desperately needed police.

Would I prefer that we shift funds from cricket fields and sports teams and too-generous subsidies to the Mayor’s developer buddies instead? Of course.  Is that likely to happen? Not in my lifetime.  Let’s recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and address our public safety deficit before crime rates that approach Detroit’s undermine every other thing we are trying to do in our city.

Speaking of homestead credits, we really should invest in efforts to ameliorate the plight of the people who don’t have a homestead. There are steps we could take now that would actually save tax dollars in the long run.

But we probably won’t because they don’t scream and vote, and they aren’t in a position to make campaign contributions. And because, to our politicians, the “long run” is the next election.


Ballard Catches Mourdock-itis

The generally-held impression of Mayor Greg Ballard has been that he’s a nice guy who’s just in over his head–way over in many respects. Lately, however, he’s been doing things to change that impression–he’s evidently learning fast how not to be a nice guy. Some of this newly-found petulance and partisanship has emerged since Ryan Vaughn–he of the parking meter fiasco–became Chief of Staff, but the buck–as Harry Truman used to say–stops at the Mayor’s own desk.

When the Democrats won control of the Council, new Council President Maggie Lewis was quick to reach out and invite co-operation. When Councilor Brian Mahern held up the Mayor’s TIF proposal, Democrats Vop Osili and Joe Simpson worked to end the impasse. Given the parties’ inevitable differences in priorities, these early signs of conciliation pointed to emergence of an occasionally tense but generally workable accommodation.

Then came the budget. As the Indianapolis Star reported

Facing a deadline to approve or veto the nearly $1.1 billion city/county budget for 2013, Ballard signed it. But his changes, without further negotiations and a quick agreement with the council, would withhold nearly $32 million in income-tax money from Marion County offices and agencies.

That money helps pay to run the courts, keep the jails open, run elections, prosecute or defend criminals, process crime scenes, investigate deaths and provide other public services such as surveying land and collecting property taxes.

The common denominator of the cuts: they affected only the agencies held by Democrats. The Mayor’s own operation, the city offices that he controls, weren’t cut.

The Mayor justified his use of the line-item veto to cripple Democratic offices with language about fiscal responsibility. But genuine fiscal responsibility would involve shared sacrifices across public agencies. (Sort of reminds me of a husband who tells his wife “we can’t afford that new coat you need because my cable TV bill has to be paid.”) He also voiced disagreement with a proposed assessment of the CIB. If he had a genuine problem with that assessment, however, he could have negotiated an equitable resolution with the Council.

Instead, Ballard presented the Council with a fait accompli. He waited until the last minute to deliver a budget that will cripple a number of critical services–for no reason other than those services are being delivered by the opposing party. In Ballard’s cynical budget, public safety takes a back seat to partisanship. It’s his way or the highway.

Shades of Richard Mourdock.