Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Tax levies jam county's budget plan


Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
A philosopher in bib overalls once observed, "Pigs get fat - hogs get slaughtered." And that pretty much describes the debate by county commissioners Monday: Is Drake Hospital just another loveable pig at the special levy trough, or is it a hog that's ripe to be tripe?

Todd Portune accused Phil Heimlich of trying to butcher Drake with a "reckless and irresponsible" proposal to give the county-funded hospital nothing, nada, zippo.

Heimlich said Portune was giving a silk parachute to an overfed sow. "The only way we will see any change in Drake is if the voters do on Nov. 2 what this commission has failed to do today," he said. "What I think is reckless and irresponsible is this county has allowed taxes and spending to go up for the last 10 years at three times the rate of inflation."

John Dowlin wryly grinned and threw up his hands while the two commissioners who have ganged up on him went after each other.

It was wrecking-bar politics, but it did pry open a hole in the fence to give voters a glimpse of how Hamilton County has sold the farm to special levies.

In the end, Dowlin and Portune voted to put on the Nov. 2 ballot a Drake levy of $80 million over five years. Drake wanted a 40 percent increase to $99 million. Instead, after non-Drake spending is subtracted, it will get $2 million less than it gets now.

That's reasonable. But it may still be too much.

Added to a $338 million, five-year levy for MRDD, it's a $60 million tax increase, Heimlich said. "That's still $30 million over inflation, and it clearly breaks our pledge" not to exceed 2.1 percent inflation, he said.

Portune angrily disagreed, and demanded an apology for Heimlich's accusation of "fudged numbers." He said the levy is $23 million under the budget for inflation for all levies over five years.

But there's the rat in the corncrib. If voters approve Drake and MRDD levies, 75 percent of the county's $83 million inflation budget for the next five years will be eaten up - and other pigs at the trough will go hungry.

Portune is right: The levies are less than inflation if you break the piggy bank shared by all levies. But Heimlich is right, too: Drake is eating the seed corn.

The numbers swarmed back and forth like flies in a barnyard as they argued over inflation, millages and excessive spending by Drake. Just when I had it all figured out, the whole thing would dissolve like one of those Magic Eye pictures of pink flamingos.

But I figured out this much.

Special levies are like a charming but unemployed brother-in-law who is mooching his way through the taxpayers' refrigerator. He came to stay for a few days, and then he moved in his whole famn damly, until we have a whole houseful of levy "guests" that the county won't support because they know voters are too kindhearted to throw them out in the street.

The Levys even brought along their pets for us to feed: Many special levies are padded with all kinds of ad-on spending that has nothing to do with the purpose we vote on.

About the only thing the commissioners agreed on is that property taxes already go up more than twice as fast as inflation. Then here comes the Levy family to ask for an increase in their allowance, too. It's inflation on top of inflation until taxes swell like a prize-winning hog.

Farmers know what happens to hogs. I just wonder when voters will start to sharpen an ax.

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E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.




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