Cass County braces for more budget cuts in 2004; blames multiple factors

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS -- With a $13 million general fund, if costs increase 5 percent, that's a $650,000 problem for Cass County budget balancers.
Revenue estimates have been completed for 2004. Departments' expenditure requests have been turned in and "we are loading up our computers with those," Proctor said. "Once those are tallied and totaled, we will report back to you as to exactly what the gap is. But just based on where we are today, you can see we're going to have serious budget pressures between now and Jan. 1.
Proctor said the decline in jail rental revenue can be attributed not only to prosecuting more offenders, "But it's also because the state has been following a policy to reduce the number of people going off to state prison and increase the number who are staying in county jails to do their time. We are caught in that policy. All of those factors that are out of our control leave us having a revenue estimate for 2004 for the general fund that is level with this year. That's a lot better than having a revenue estimate that's actually down for the general fund for next year, but even level it's a large problem with providing the services our citizens would like to have in 2004.
Revenue sharing represents Cass County's second-largest general fund source. In round numbers it usually amounts to $1 million, although as Proctor pointed out, "It's now below $1 million this year for the first time. How bad can it get? All of it can be phased out over time. I know politically they couldn't just completely decimate it in one year," but it could be accomplished gradually in the way income and single business taxes were reduced over time.
Chairman Johnie Rodebush, D-Howard Township, said in his home county in Arkansas, it levied one mill, of which half went to the Road Commission to build roads, 25 percent went for senior programs and 25 percent was dedicated to volunteer fire departments.
Commissioner Alan Northrop said "it scared me to death" when Gov. Jennifer Granholm mentioned she wanted to "tweak the property tax situation." He fears the uncapping of Proposal A's property tax homestead exemption.
Proctor replied, "Actually, it could be done by a vote of the Legislature, but my own personal view is that is very popular. People are pleased that their property taxes can't go up more than 5 percent a year, irregardless of the value of their property. That was voted by an initiative petition that the people voted in, so I can't imagine the Legislature tinkering with that to do away with it."
Commissioner David Taylor, D-Edwardsburg, detects "some audit issues" in the mix. "As you know, when property changes hands, it becomes uncapped. I suspect there's an awful lot of property out there that has changed hands that maybe hasn't changed hands in an obvious way. It should become uncapped, but maybe it hasn't been. Don't change the law because it's an audit situation. Just find the people where the grandson is living in the house. There are situations of people living in Chicago, Illinois and all over the place who have homestead exemptions, but the state has never" pursued a remedy.

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