Rollback on millages receives mixed reactions

LAKE COUNTY — The Lake County Commissioners' decision to approve a tax reduction plan — which will save taxpayers more than $1 million a year by rolling back on taxes from surplus accrued on four millages — was met with mixed reactions from area residents.

During the commissioner's meeting on Sept. 14, board members unanimously approved a reduction of 1.7807 mills on December tax bills on the following millages: road patrol, with a reduction of .4907 mills; dispatch, .4945 mills; ambulance, .6469 mills and senior citizens at .1486 mills. A $120,000 home with a taxable value of $60,000 will see a reduction of nearly $107 annually in their property tax bills.

According to County Administrator Tobi Lake, the reduction plan and tax cuts will not mean reduction in services, due to being a surplus revenues built up in operating budgets coupled with excess fund balances.

County Commissioner Karl Walls was glad to vote in favor of the reduction.

"We have been working on this plan since the first of the year because we noticed extra money in the fund balance," he said. "We believe we can spend the fund balance as needed and not cut services. We have been working with the sheriff, ambulance and seniors to increase those services and provide relief to taxpayers. It should be a win-win for everyone. We hope to satisfy all groups involved."

Sheriff Rich Martin likes the idea of taxes being rolled back, but is concerned about too much roll back. He attended the Elk Township and Webber Township meetings to discuss the reduction plan with township officials and residents.

"After me and other county officials took office this year, we noticed the fund balance was large in comparison to the operating balance," Martin said. "This balance should be at 20 to 30 percent, but it was at 139 percent, which is way over. As I agree with the administration to reduce the millages and give money back to the taxpayers for services they aren't getting, my question is, are the people getting all the services needed? Does the money they are saving compare to services they could be getting? We are spread thin with officers having to work overtime. If there are more cops on the road, we will be able to respond more effectively. Road patrol has $250,000 in a fund to spend in three years. If the millage rolls back too much, will we be able to sustain the officers we have after the fund is gone?"

Martin also mentioned part of the surplus is going toward compensating Lake County employees retirement.

"The county never saved for health benefits for retirees, and retirement was only funded by 74 percent. They have taken money out of this surplus to go toward OPEBS, other post-employment benefits," he said.

Anthony Gagliardo, who retired this summer from his position as Lake County Building Inspector, is happy the commissioners are taking care of retirees, but has concerns.

"When I pay for a millage, I expect the money to go toward what was voted in. I am happy the commissioners are taking care of retirement for employees, but I would rather see it come from another source than millages we voted in for services and protection," he said.

Howard Lodholtz, commissioner chair, said the constituents he talked to in Chase and Yates townships are pleased with the rollback.

"I received positive feedback from people in my district," he said. "Everyone seems to love it. Some people will complain, but to save the whole county $1 million a year is a great thing. I hope we can do this year after year. An extra $100 is nice to have at Christmas time. If we get a surplus next year, let's keep it down. Why charge taxpayers with extra money which isn't being used. How often do you hear of government cutting taxes and not reducing services?"

Sid Woods, a cattle farmer in Pinora Township, is happy to have his tax burden relieved.

"I am really happy with the decision to give back taxes," he said. "I have 160 acres, so I should be able to save about twice the money. I want to congratulate my commissioner Betty Dermyer for approving the roll back."

Terra Dickson, clerk for the Village of Baldwin, likes the plan and said if she can cut costs where she can, her family is better off.

Some residents and township officials are unhappy with the decision.

Elk Township Supervisor Lou Fitz said the surplus money should be used to expand and improve services.

"People didn't vote in the millages to be rolled back," he said. "Commissioners need to use the money approved at the ballot box to improve services. At the Elk Township meeting, people were not happy with the rollback. They wanted to see services expanded on. We will get about $105 back in property taxes, but people don't want money back, they want better services. It takes 20 minutes to get an ambulance to Elk Township. If we can improve the response time even by just five minutes and add an extra ambulance on the road, we will be much better off. The county could also use another road patrol officer or two.

"These are safety and human needs. The county has had ample time and money to improve these services, but are failing to do their job to provide first-rate services to the residents. I am trying to protect the citizens of my township. If the commissioners don't enhance services which are lacking, are they really saving residents money?"

During the Webber Township meeting, supervisor Ernie Wogatzke expressed concern.

"The people of Lake County voted in a full millage, not half of a millage. If it is about saving money, people wouldn't have voted for the millage in the first place," he said. "We don't want our services cut. We want to get the full amount of protection we voted to pay for. The commissioners voted on this rollback quickly, failing to get the input of townships and voters with such a big decision."