Stone-throwing in county government’s glass house

Budget-adoption item, meeting minutes, Indiana County Board of Commissioners, Dec. 16, 2020

An opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA — If you blink, you might miss a momentous item in the minutes of the Dec. 16 meeting of the Indiana County commissioners — the item about adoption of the county’s 2021 general-fund budget.

It reads, “The real estate tax will increase by .46 mill. This will allow a real-estate tax rate of 4.905 mills.” 

Translated, the dry budget-ese – with its reference to millage rates — is announcing a 10.3 percent hike in the county’s property tax rate. Or, as The Indiana Gazette reported, the tax hike “will cost property owners an average of about $49 per tax bill.”

The double-digit increase is a fairly consequential distinction among local governing bodies and taxing authorities. A search of The Gazette’s online news archive for other recent local tax hikes (search terms: “budget tax 2021”) found next to none.

A similar Google search for neighboring counties found all five kept their property tax rates unchanged for the 2021 budget year.

The last time Indiana County commissioners raised the property tax was in 2013 — eight years ago. For a governing body controlled by Republicans since the 1990s, that’s politically noteworthy for going against the party’s no-tax grain.

And who can forget 2015, when county commissioners were forced to conduct a real-estate reassessment for tax purposes after kicking that can down the pike for nearly five decades? The searing public reaction was rated that year’s top news story by The Gazette.

 

Sherene Hess, member, Indiana County Board of Commissioners. Photos: County commissioners website

MAYBE THAT HISTORY was on the minds of Republican county commissioners Mike Keith and Robin Gorman when they trolled their colleague, Democrat Sherene Hess, during their next regular hybrid meeting on Jan. 13.

Their objections? That she persisted. 

When the budget-adoption item was speed-read into the record near the end of the commissioners’ hybrid Dec. 16 meeting, the chairman briskly moved for a vote without the customary call for discussion, in Ms. Hess’ retelling in a Jan. 18 phone interview. She seconded the motion and made unanimous the vote to adopt the 2021 budget and tax hike.

This budget-adoption item appears in the meeting minutes as eight lines near the end of a nine-page document. No discussion is reported. An audio recording of the meeting, helpfully re-posted to the commissioners’ website at Ms. Gorman’s behest, corroborates the minutes. (Mr. Keith did not respond to a Jan. 16 email.)

The audio also records Ms. Hess promptly after the vote saying that “some of the feed was a little garbled” and that she was uncertain about what had just happened. (A screen freeze on her Zoom feed, as she later described it.) Ms. Gorman summarized, Ms. Hess said thanks, and the meeting moved on to adjournment a few minutes later.

Ms. Hess said she had prepared a statement to read into the December meeting record, but she sensed during the meeting that comments were not welcome.  So she deferred her discussion and issued a public statement after adjournment, addressing concerns of average citizens and taxpayers. Here is what her statement said:

“While there is no good time for a tax increase, this is just about the worst possible time for one given the state of affairs for the business community, nonprofits, health care, schools and families, especially those who have lost their jobs and or income as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “I am pledging to examine every proposed expense that is not budgeted, and I will not approve unless there is a compelling reason, such as it is needed to sustain life, or if there is evidence that a return on the investment will be realized.”

 

Robin Gorman, member, Indiana County Board of Commissioners

A MONTH LATER, during their Jan. 13 meeting, commissioners Gorman and Keith vented. Ms. Gorman said Ms. Hess’ December statement  “insulted” and “blindsided” her. Ms. Gorman elaborated for 900 words, Mr. Keith added another 450 in the same vein  – altogether an immoderate tag-team show of shaming, blaming, motive-questioning, defensiveness, passive-aggressiveness and self-congratulation. 

To be sure, critics might fault Ms. Hess for appearing to cast a key vote without a clear understanding of the parliamentary procedure. And critics might fault her for failing to follow a local p.r. culture akin to the code of omerta.

True, government-speech doctrine provides First Amendment protection to government bodies that assert official positions without acknowledging contrary views.

But that gives no license to seek to silence a public official with a different take, especially a speaker whose ostensibly offensive view is as moderate as Ms. Hess’. Enforced groupthink is never a good idea in government.

 

WHAT ARE TAKEAWAYS for county commissioners facing a full and daunting public agenda in the new year?

Mike Keith, chairman, Indiana County Board of Commissioners

— Resolve to emphasize transparency and diversity, including a willingness to invite and engage a willing citizenry. Expand and promote meetings on Zoom. (Note: Why meet face-to-face in the second-floor conference room of the courthouse when the courthouse is closed for Covid-19?)

— Resolve to cultivate trust in local public policymaking by building consensus and explaining policy, including honest disagreements. This may come in handy when property tax bills come due. (At least Mr. Keith included in his Jan. 13 statement some informative details about county government budgeting struggles amid a surging pandemic, including dollar amounts of spending cuts, budget deficits and lost revenues. Alas, he provided those details only when he felt provoked by Ms. Hess’ Dec. 16 statement.)

— Resolve to seek federal assistance for gasping local governments. “Every local and state government is sucking air,” said Ms. Hess. “But we’re hopeful about Biden’s plan for continuation of the CARES Act.” Indeed, such federal assistance might mitigate the county’s need for a double-digit tax hike.

 

MS. HESS REPORTED that she and her commissioner colleagues have spoken about county business since their discordant Jan. 13 meeting. As the board’s most senior member, she expressed hope for more expansive cooperation, despite evident differences.

“Collegiality is what teamwork is,” she said. “And we need to work harder to bring the public into the process from the beginning.”

—————————

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.

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