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Tax caps forcing Vanderburgh County to ponder cuts

– A southwest Indiana county is considering layoffs, cheaper insurance programs and reorganizing or consolidating offices in an effort to close a $2 million budget shortfall before the end of the year.

Vanderburgh County officials have cut between $400,000 and $500,000 so far by not filling vacant positions and looking for money in other accounts, the Evansville Courier & Press reported. But time is running out, and County Council President Tom Shetler says, “We have to look deep.”

County leaders across Indiana say the state’s property tax caps are causing budget crises because local governments could collect fewer dollars than anticipated when they levy their annual property tax.

“It’s hit urban areas harder than rural areas,” said David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties. Now “there’s a finite amount of money going to pay property taxes. There’s only so much property tax pie.”

Vanderburgh County officials tried to plan for that scenario. Officials at the beginning of the year officials estimated that the tax caps would cut about $3 million from what they would otherwise collect.

The amount ended up being $5 million.

That means there’s less money to run local government, protect public safety, maintain roads and cover a broad array of services.

Bottorff said services could start to shrink as counties learn to operate with less money.

“Closing of parks departments are things we’re going to see early on: Parks departments and nonessentials that add to the quality of life in a community,” he said. “But public safety is going to take priority.”

Vanderburgh County has already cut several positions. But employee salaries and benefits comprise about 85 percent of the county’s operating costs, so meaningful budget cuts often come in the form of layoffs, said County Auditor Joe Gries.

The county might also look for savings by switching to a clinic system for health care that could save up to $1 million a year, Shetler said.

Other planned changes include consolidating the offices of the assessor, treasurer, auditor and recorder, Shetler said.