Legislative scorecard: With changes in place, county ready to OK jail tax

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GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council will soon vote to raise income taxes to pay for a bigger county jail, the council president says.

The county is moving forward now that the Indiana General Assembly has changed how long counties can tax residents for correctional facilities. The change was part of a wide-ranging bill about government matters during the final days of the legislative session last week.

The amendment to House Bill 1427, filed by Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, will give counties two extra years to pay off the construction and operations of correctional facilities. Counties can now collect up to 0.2 percent from residents’ paychecks to pay for a new jail or treatment facility for 22 years, instead of 20. That gives counties a few years to collect money to finance projects before construction, Cherry said.

Counties are also limited to use just 20 percent of the no more than 0.2 percent tax increase for operating expenses, such as employee salaries, if they adopt the tax rate after June 30, 2019.

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Hancock County’s financial consultant, Greg Guerrettaz, had been lobbying lawmakers to earmark half of the 0.2 percent tax on operations and make it so that portion of the tax would be permanent and not sunset after 20 or 22 years. That didn’t happen. Cherry said 20 percent of the increase is enough for counties to set aside for operations. He would prefer most of the tax money be used for construction.

Bill Bolander, president of the Hancock County Council, said the council plans to vote on the tax increase on May 8. But county officials first will confer with consultants at a budget committee meeting today, he said. The county plans to build a 440-bed jail that could cost upwards of $43 million.

The income tax provisions are among several measures affecting Hancock County in the recent session of the Indiana General Assembly. Here is a summary of some others:

Mental health

Two school-related bills written by Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, significantly changed in the last few days of the session.

Senate Bill 325 would’ve established a student safety awareness fund to award grants to schools for student-produced service announcements, but that language was stripped in favor of a school-based mental health bill that was derived from part of another one of Crider’s bills based around mental health.

Crider’s mental health-related legislation, Senate Bill 266, planned to expand the Indiana Secured School Fund by incorporating mental health services through the grant program. But it wasn’t heard in the House following a narrow and contentious trip through the Senate in February, Crider said.

Instead, lawmakers chose to take part of S.B. 266 — which included language from five separate bills — and rewrite S.B. 325 to establish the student and parent support services grant program. Schools — public, accredited nonpublic and charter schools — beginning after June 30, 2020 can apply for matching grants through the secured school fund for “plans to support parents caring for at-risk students.”

S.B. 266 addressed school-based mental health and emotional wellness services, while S.B. 325 doesn’t mention mental health services specifically in its language. The bill also says a legislative interim study committee will study schools within and outside of Indiana that have implemented “trauma informed approaches” and worked with community partners to “provide systems of care for students.”

During the 2017-18 school year, the state awarded $14.2 million through the secured school fund for safety proposals, such as security equipment and school resource officers.

The Indiana Department of Education will administer the grant program in coordination with the the Division of Mental Health and Addiction.

Crider called the bill “a major win” for schools.

“I’m pleased that we ended up with a program that will help us address student mental health needs,” he said. “It gets us substantially down the road with that grant program.”

Tax exemptions for veterans

House Bill 1010, which increases the income tax deduction for military retirement or survivors benefits, passed both the House and Senate in the final week of the session. The bill, written by Cherry, will phase in the income tax deduction from $6,250 to a full exemption over the next four years, starting with the 2019 tax year. Cherry said Indiana would join 23 other states that don’t tax military retirement pay.

Exemptions for military pensions was part of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2019 agenda.

Originally, H.B. 1010 also included a higher assessed property value tax cap for disabled veterans and seniors 65 years of age or older. That part of the bill moved to Senate Bill 280, Cherry said.

It standardizes the assessed value cap for tax deduction from $160,000 to $200,000 beginning with taxes due in 2021. If the value of a home shifts higher than the $200,000 limit, the disabled veteran or senior won’t lose out on the exemption unless they make additional improvements to the house, Cherry said. Surviving spouses of military members killed in the line of duty can also receive the same tax deduction.

Diverting Level 6 felons

The legislature also passed two bills attempting to lessen the strain of low-level felons on county jails — House Bill 1078 and House Bill 1065.

H.B. 1078 says county judges can send convicted Level 6 felons to state prisons if the person is a violent offender or has two prior unrelated felony convictions.

H.B. 1065 would allow sheriffs to transfer offenders to a regional holding center operated by the Department of Correction if the county’s jail is overcrowded. It also tasks the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute to identify federal, state or local grants that can be spent on funding and operating future regional facilities.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart has previously said both bills won’t make much of a difference in making the county jail less overcrowded.