Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The All Important Budget Season Ready To Commence

By July 1, the County Assessor must report all real and personal property gross assessed values to the County Auditor.  This starts the budget season.  As Tom Carnegie used to say, "and, they're off" !

The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) publishes budget handbooks for the various governmental units.  I have pulled down some of the budget calendar dates to include in this blog entry, but you may want to look at a single unit's budget process as laid out by the DLGF.  I have to also mention, the DLGF is exceedingly helpful when you have a question. 

Setting a budget and setting tax rates are required to be open, public processes in Indiana.  Although some taxing units (in particular the School Districts) in Marion County, try to be as obtuse as possible, and some Superintendents even withhold information from elected Boards, the law requires that the public have access to the information and the ability to weigh in on the budget and the tax rates.

The public has, in my humble opinion, an obligation as well - to at least peek at some of the information and make sure that things haven't gotten wildly out of hand.  Not all of the information is easily digested.  Not all of the information is readily available.  But some is, and some is.  In particular, there is ample information that must be disclosed in the newspapers during the budget season that is worth having a lot of people look at.

Here are some of the important dates that relate to the public's ability to participate in the public process.  When the City-County Council is mentioned below, the date is what they have already specified.  When that body is not mentioned, it is the general deadline for action set by the DLGF.

August 15 - City-County Council meeting with Mayor Ballard's introduction of the budget.  The budget will be broken into segments and sent to the various Council committees for consideration and debate.  The committees open up for public comment after each piece is introduced.

September 2 - deadline - the first notice of a public hearing on the budget must be published in a local paper.  This must be at least 10 days before the public hearing and it must state the place and time of the hearing, as well as an estimate of the tax levy (amount of money to be raised through taxes) and the tax rate (rate at which the taxes will apply to property values).  Fair warning - these numbers are usually inflated at this point in time.  The taxing unit cannot exceed the tax rate that it publishes, but it is still working out all of the numbers and still getting solid numbers from the DLGF on expected tax revenues for all manner of taxes that are paid - wheel tax, income tax, cigarette tax, and on and on and on.  So, to protect themselves, the taxing units post higher than expected tax rates.

September 9 - deadline - the second notice of a public hearing on the budget must be published in a local paper.  This one must be at least 3 days before the public hearing.  It is identical to the first notice.

September 19 - City-County Council meeting that serves as the public hearing on the budget, tax levy, and tax rates.  The committees will continue to consider their segments of the budget, adopt any amendments and finally vote their segments out of committee.  It is not consistent whether public testimony will be taken during this set of committee meetings.  It is up to the Chair of each committee.

October 17 - City-County Council meeting to adopt the final budget and set property tax levy and property tax rate for 2012.

October 22 - deadline - last day for public hearing on the budget and tax rates.  This must be held at least 10 days prior to the meeting where the budget is adopted by the elected legislative body of the taxing unit (board or council).

October 29 - deadline - last day 10 or more taxpayers may object to the budget, tax levy, or tax rate of a city or town.  The objection must occur not more than 7 days after the public hearing.

November 1 - deadline - last day for all taxing units to adopt budgets, tax rates, and tax levies for 2012.

As I did last year, I will try to keep up with those public notices that I see in the Indy Star.  Should you notice one I have not mentioned, or see one in a smaller publication, please send me a note at  Budgets are dry and boring and not in the least bit sexy.  But, they are very important.   Besides setting the property tax rates for the coming year, they show exactly where each unit's priorities lay.  Politicians can say whatever they want.  The budget they create shows their priorities regardless of what their words say.  Those priorities should reflect the community's priorities.  But, unless the community pays attention and people show up and speak up, the budget may very well not reflect what is in the best interest of the people.

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