County Council not willing to commit to new Public Safety Income Tax

The Dubois County Council agreed they did not want to consider a public safety tax to support the sheriff’s request for increased pay and additional deputies, at least for now.

The issue has been an ongoing discussion since Sheriff Tom Kleinhelter approached the council earlier this year with a request to add nine new deputies and increase salaries for all of the officers in the department. He asked the council to consider implementing a public safety tax to support not only his departmental needs but the other emergency response services in the county.

The tax would mean an increase in the local option income tax, and state law allows for up to 0.25 percent for the public safety tax.

In 2019, the county added a 0.2 percent increase through the Correctional and Rehabilitative Facilities Local Income Tax to fund the expansion and updates to the jail and community corrections. Whereas the Correctional and Rehabilitative Tax (C&R Tax) was passed specifically to support the new jail and community corrections complex, the public safety local income tax will benefit all police departments, fire and volunteer fire departments, and ambulance services in the county. That tax will be in place until 2039.

At the regular council meeting held Monday afternoon, all seven members discussed their hesitancy to increase income taxes.

Council President Mike Kluesner opened the discussion by stating he would like the council to let the cities and towns know where they stand regarding the new tax.

Unlike the C&R Tax, since the Public Safety Tax will benefit all the county’s public safety departments, it can be passed by the cities and towns that hold a majority vote cumulatively over the county council.

In regards to the vote, the 2020 census determines each unit’s weight in the decision. Currently, Dubois County holds 39.82 percent of the vote weight; Jasper has 38.28 percent; Huntingburg has 14.58 percent; Ferdinand is 4.94 percent; Holland 1.42 percent and Birdseye 0.96 percent. For the new tax to pass, the pro-vote among the units would have to be 50.1 percent; an amount that could be achieved if Jasper and Huntingburg councils approved it, for example.

“They could get together and pass this without us,” Kluesner said.

He said he was not in favor of enacting another tax. “I’d like to see how we can pull our budget together and use the tax dollars that we already got after the bonds are paid,” he added.

Rather than using the Public Safety Tax, Kluesner stated he preferred to consider increasing the Local Option Income Tax so that it could benefit the county as a whole rather than one specific area. “Then we would have control over it. We can put it where we need it, not necessarily in one department,” he said.

Councilman Ryan Craig agreed with Kluesner and said he would also like to see how the C&R Tax plays out.

“I’m in favor of finding ways to support the new deputies the sheriff is asking for, but not in favor of instituting another tax,” said Councilwoman Meredith Voegerl.

Councilwoman Sonya Haas said she was not in favor of raising taxes in light of the amount of inflation the economy is undergoing.

“There are so many variables out there. Until we get the jail finished, we don’t really know where we stand,” Councilman Daryl Schmitt said.

Councilman Doug Uebelhor also said the jail project was weighing on his decision regarding a new tax. He said it would be unfair to pass the tax to complete the jail and then further burden the taxpayers with another new tax. He added that he felt the council had been taking action to support the sheriff’s office and other public safety departments.

Councilman Alex Hohl said he could potentially support the new tax but that he wasn’t ready to commit to it yet. “I do value safety and security,” he said. “A hundred dollars a year, I assume, is about the tax on a $40,000 wage earner, so it’s not going to be the end of the world scenario for the typical resident.”

He said that he felt it would likely be up to the cities and towns on whether the tax is passed.

To that, Voegerl stated that it was important to note that the tax would benefit all the police departments, fire departments and ambulance services in the county.

In other actions:

The County Council approved the tax abatement for Wabash Valley Foods.

*We corrected Councilman Craig’s name after we accidentally inverted it in the original story.