ILNews

Chief Justice on panel to study tax assessing, local government

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard will co-chair a commission designed to find long-term solutions to the state's property tax crisis, the governor announced today.

Along with former Gov. Joe Kernan, the chief justice will lead the Commission on Local Government Reform beginning in early August. One of the questions the commission will look at is whether the township form of government should be abolished.

Specifically, questions before the commission will be:

- What local government offices might be eliminated to achieve efficiencies and cost savings for Hoosier taxpayers? Specifically, should township/county property tax assessors be abolished in favor of a uniform process managed by the state?

- What local units of government - including schools and libraries - might be successfully consolidated to reduce overhead and administrative expenses?

- What services or functions of local government might be reduced, eliminated, or provided in new ways to achieve savings for Hoosier taxpayers?

- Is a Constitutional Convention necessary or desirable as a means to achieve significant reforms in the structure and organization of Indiana state government?

In late December, the commission will publish a report with recommendations on how local governments can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations to lower taxpayer costs. Their ideas will be available for the Indiana General Assembly to discuss during its next session beginning in January 2008.

Additional members will be appointed to the commission soon, according to the governor's office. The commission will operate under the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University, which will provide staff support and facilities for the examination.

Daniels has pointed to layers of government as a prime reason for skyrocketing tax rates and said he'd asked Kernan - his predecessor as governor - and Chief Justice Shepard last month about participating in the commission. The chief justice, an Evansville native and former Vanderburgh Superior Court judge, said he's interested in the property tax issues affecting local government.

As a part of the commission, the chief justice will study a reassessment that he laid the groundwork for almost a decade ago. In December 1998, the Indiana Supreme Court found the state's tax assessment system unconstitutional and held that property needed to be assessed under a taxing system incorporating an objective reality. Lawmakers eventually passed and ordered that reassessment for 2002, and now the system is under fire again.

Overall, property taxes are expected to increase an average 24 percent across the state - the jump is much higher in Marion County, where some have doubled or tripled and the average is about 35 percent, while some commercial properties saw no increase.

Daniels and state lawmakers are also discussing the possibility of a special session, but a decision hasn't been made. The governor is ordering a full reassessment in Marion County and freezing tax bills at the 2006 amounts.

Unclear is how that will impact an ongoing legal battle over the central Indiana county's taxes. A group of homeowners filed a class action lawsuit July 10 requesting a reassessment, among other things. Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver has set an emergency hearing in the suit for Tuesday morning.
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