INDIANAPOLIS — The county’s plan to raise taxes to generate funding for the proposed new fairgrounds is on hold for at least another year — after legislation supporting such raises died for the second time.

State lawmakers rejected legislation that could have granted Hancock County permission to increase by 1 percent its food and beverage tax — charged to diners at local restaurants. Now, the soonest Hancock County would be able to raise the tax is 2018 after next year’s General Assembly.

Without the guarantee of the estimated $12 million the tax increase would have generated over 20 years, the fate of the proposed fairgrounds remains unclear.

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

Hancock County officials have identified that funding as a key source of support for the $18 million project. Before the county can hike the tax, though, officials must have permission from state lawmakers.

Local officials say they’re disappointed they won’t be able to start generating funding for the project — which is planned to be built on county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E — this year, but they admit they’re not surprised the law in their favor wasn’t passed.

They knew convincing lawmakers to agree to an increase — which local officials had hoped would take the county’s tax from one penny on the dollar to two — might be an uphill battle; they were prepared to have to ask for permission to hike the tax more than once, said Commissioner Marc Huber.

Supporters have argued the tax increase would secure a significant amount of funding without being burdensome to diners; a $50 dinner bill would be taxed an extra dollar instead of 50 cents, for example.

Debbie VanSickle, who’s been involved in 4-H programs for nearly 50 years and supports the effort to build a new facility, said the project would serve as more than a location for the county fair; it would also be an event center that would bring money into the community.

“It’s not just a fairgrounds, and it’s not just 4-H. This is something we have to look at as a community center,” she said.

Longtime 4-H leader Tarra Youngclaus said she’s in favor of the project but understands the community’s concerns over how it will be funded.

She’s been leading 4-H’ers for 16 years and thinks building a new fairgrounds would promote expansion of the youth program.

“How we’re going to get that accomplished, I don’t have the answers,” she said. “’Taxes’ is always a bad word, and if you put ‘raise’ in front of it, you’re going to get resistance immediately.”

Youngclaus suspects most people would support the new fairgrounds — which would benefit the whole community, not just 4-H’ers, she said — if they didn’t have to foot the bill.

This year, Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, decided against drafting legislation specific to Hancock County. Instead, he backed a lawmaker’s bill that would have given all municipalities permission to raise their food and beverage taxes so long as local officials agreed to the hike.

That bill, authored by Rep. Woody Burton, R-Greenwood, died in preliminary committee discussions, keeping it from advancing for consideration by the full Legislature.

Cherry, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, which reviewed the bill, said lawmakers this year focused their attention on other issues, like funding road improvement projects, which will likely come from a hike in the gasoline tax.

Cherry said he won’t abandon his effort to change state law to allow Hancock County to raise its tax for the project despite the setbacks the proposal has faced so far.

The fairgrounds project has been debated locally for more than a decade. Supporters of the county’s 4-H program have called for more modern facilities, while officials have noted the chance to generate revenue by expanding the fairgrounds to include space to house other events throughout the year. Opponents have challenged the size and scope of the project, calling proposed wedding barns and an event center unnecessary. Last year, amid the controversy, organizers scrapped a $40 million design in favor of a more affordable $18 million option.

Between the end of this year’s legislative session — slated to wrap up this month — and the beginning of next, Cherry will work with other lawmakers to draft legislation that would give all cities and counties the ability to raise their tax without permission from state lawmakers so long as local officials unanimously agree to the hike, he said

The food and beverage tax, first imposed in 2006, was initially created so counties surrounding Marion County could shoulder some of the cost of building Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Lawmakers advertised the tax as a way to generate funding for projects that promote tourism across the state.

The local fairgrounds project fits that bill, Cherry said.

“I’m going to be working between now and next session to get something for them,” he said.

Huber said the board of commissioners made a commitment to the local agricultural association to lobby for an increase, and members will continue to ask for the permission officials need.

An agreement between county officials and ag leaders calls for the association to raise a third of the funding needed to build the new facility — $6 million — by 2020. The county would then allocate roughly $12 million of food and beverage tax funds to go toward the project. County officials plan to borrow the $12 million upfront and make payments with funding generated annually by the tax increase.

“We knew this would probably take a few years,” Huber said. “We’re not going to call it quits.”

Hancock County Agricultural Association president Barb Pescitelli could not be reached for comment.

Editor Noelle Steele contributed to this report.

At a glance

State lawmakers didn’t approve a bill this year that would have allowed Hancock County to raise its food and beverage tax to generate funding for the proposed new fairgrounds project.

Now, county officials will have to wait until 2018 to see if legislators will give them permission to hike the tax, charged to diners at local restaurants.

Officials are relying on the tax hike — estimated to generate about $12 million — to help pay for the $18 million project.

Weigh in

Want to share your opinion on raising the food and beverage tax for the proposed new fairgrounds? Contact your legislator.

State Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield

Phone: 317- 232-9400 or 800-382-9467

Email: s28@in.gov

State Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield

Phone: 800-382-9841

Email: h53@in.gov

State Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis

Phone: 800-382-9841 or 317- 232-9677

Email: h88@in.gov

State Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville

Phone: 800-382-9811

Email: h57@in.gov

Author photo
Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.