News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 10, 2013

Education, property tax hot issues at Crackerbarrel

TERRE HAUTE — Taxpayers expressed anger at higher property assessments and educators requested more funding and remediation from Indiana legislators attending Saturday’s Crackerbarrel session.

Legislators attending were State Reps. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, Alan Morrison, R-Terre Haute, Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute, Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, and State Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute.

A show of hands revealed that most of the public filling the room at the Vigo County Public Library were concerned about the doubling or tripling of their land values, and the lack of what they called a valid reason for the increase.

Jerry Peacock, president of the Dobbs Glen Homeowners Association, said that his lot value went from a value of $19,400 last year to $97,000 this year — and that does not include his house.

“We can’t figure out what prompted these values,” Peacock said. “It’s ridiculous. Simply ridiculous.”

Others in the Dobbs Glen neighborhood have experienced the same increase, and many have gone to county officials to ask for explanations, Peacock said.

Mike Poinsett, a resident of the Woodgate, said the property owners in his neighborhood have experienced similar issues. He said he talked to a contractor hired to do the county assessments, but he received no reasonable explanation other than that the fair market value of property has been refigured.

Poinsett disputed that fact, stating that he recently bought a half-acre lot for $25,000, so that should represent the current market value of property in his neighborhood. Yet, he said his property tax increased on his land value from $29,000 to $58,000.

“I either got a good deal or I paid fair market value,” Poinsett said of the new lot he purchased.

Even Rep. Clyde Kersey joined the discussion to say that he has filed an appeal for his own property, which went from a value of $25,000 to $85,000.

Kersey said he had a real estate flier for his neighborhood, which advertised a lot price of $25,000 for land. He said he sent a copy of that advertisement to county officials to back up his appeal.

“I understand your frustration,” Kersey said to the property owners. “I am with you. I am going through the same thing.”

Poinsett and others asked for some review of the reassessment process, and questioned whether anyone at the Statehouse or the Department of Local Government Finance has any ability to review and question such drastic changes in property values.

“There just isn’t any consistency,” Poinsett told the legislators, noting that property owners want to pay their fair share of taxes, but they don’t want to pay someone else’s share.

Rep. Heaton said he will look into the issue.

Meanwhile, education was the other hot issue brought before the legislators.

Brenda Christianson of the Vigo County Teachers Association said that legislators have allowed citizens to choose the types of schools where their children attend, through the voucher program, but legislators are trying to restrict teachers who belong to a union from having their dues taken from their paychecks.

She also questioned the state’s supposed surplus of $2 billion, questioning whether the teacher’s retirement fund is fully funded. And in a third issue, she noted that legislation has been proposed to curb absenteeism in schools. The Vigo County schools have presented many incentives to get students into the classroom, but she suggested that the parents of absent students probably have the same problem of going to work regularly.  Punishing a school for a student’s absence does not address the problem, she said.

Rep. Kersey said the teachers retirement fund has a $7 billion liability, which is not included in the state’s $2 billion “surplus.” The state also owes the federal government $1.3 billion in unemployment funds, he said.

Rep. Morrison stated that the law about the union dues was intended to stop school districts from being a pass-through agency to send money to the teacher’s union. Since the union uses most of its money for political action, he said it is not correct for a government entity to be a go-between for the union and its members.

“I wish it was that simple,” countered Rep. Battles, a long-time educator. He said that a provision in House Bill 1334 to prohibit a school employer from deducting “any amount that is a contribution or payment for political activities” is a bad thing. It sets up state government to intervene in a local issue, he said.

The legislators also heard from Danny Tanoos, superintendent of the Vigo County School Corporation.

“I stand here battered and bruised from the last eight years of treatment from [former State Superintendent of Schools] Tony Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels,” Tanoos said.

The $600 million cut from public education during the past two years have only contributed to school’s difficulties in educating students for the workforce, he said.

“Isn’t it time you give us the money back and let us do our jobs in public education?” he asked.

Vigo County Schools has a graduation rate above the state average, he said, and has the highest graduation rate of any urban school district in the state.

Students who are not college-bound are still students who need skills to help them get jobs in industry, he pointed out. He invited legislators to attend an upcoming public session to see how Vigo County schools do to educate the students before criticizing what goes on in schools.

Chris Williams, a choir instructor at West Vigo Middle School, also scolded the legislators for acknowledging that there is a “skills gap” in Indiana’s workforce, but for doing nothing to educate students who will leave high school and go directly into the workforce, rather than college.

“Don’t remove money from skills classes. Don’t remove money from arts programs,” Williams said.

The state directs too much funding toward testing of student achievement, too little to remediation for students who don’t meet the standards, and no money for technology, business, art, music or physical education.

“How can an average student who wants to run his family’s construction business in the future be expected to take industrial education if he has to take remediation classes instead,” Williams said. “Give us money to remediate students after hours and during summer break so students can, during the school day, take classes that will educate them for their future jobs.”

He said that local communities know the local needs for its own workforce and quality of life, and the local school districts should be able to direct funding to whatever is right for that community — whether its arts or industrial education or math and science.

“The local community has the right to decide, and you’ve taken that away from us,” he said.

Another legislative update will be conducted at the library in April, due to the long session of the legislature this spring.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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