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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 30, 2019 1:00 am

Farmers hit bridge tax hike plan

Say increase may cost $20,000 more


It might cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $2 extra a month next year if the county ups property taxes to maintain and repair bridges in Allen County and some of its municipalities.

But to county farmers, a proposed property tax increase could cost thousands of dollars a year, several said this morning.

About a half-dozen farmers brought their concerns about the proposed tax increase to the Allen County commissioners Friday morning at what was supposed to be a public hearing on reinstituting the county's major bridge fund.

A publishing error led to the official public hearing needing to be rescheduled to April 12.

“As farmers, we have no way to pass that (tax increase) on – we're at the mercy of commodity (price) rates and weather,” said farmer Brian Roemke of Harlan. “We can't charge more for the product.”

The large acreage owned by farmers greatly magnifies the typical residential increase, Roemke said. 

Roger Hadley, president of the Allen County branch of the Indiana Farm Bureau, said that if the tax were raised to its maximum level, a farmer with 800 to 1,000 acres now paying about $13,000 in annual property taxes would pay up to $33,000 a year.

The commissioners most likely will not authorize that much of a hike, officials said after the meeting.

Farmers and residents mentioned as revenue sources the wheel tax, a license plate tax and an increased tax applicable to large trucks that deteriorate bridges.

Republican Nelson Peters, commissioners' president, said any comments made Friday will be added to the record of the April 12 public hearing. So will any correspondence received by commissioners, he said.

The April 12 hearing will begin at 10 a.m. in Room 35 of Citizens Square during the commissioners' weekly meeting.

Beth Lock, governmental affairs staff member for the commissioners, told attendees the bridge tax increase was proposed after existing intergovernmental agreements from 2009 expired in 2017.

Because of its landscape, the county has 396 bridges, if those in Fort Wayne are counted – the second highest in the state, she said. If levied at the maximum allowed by the state, the bridge tax would increase the property tax rate from 0.0129 for each $100 of assessed value to 0.0333 in 2020.

That means a home assessed at $75,000 would pay 98 cents a month in 2020 or $11.78  a year. In 2021, the amount would drop to 59 cents a month or $7.12 annually.

A home assessed at $150,000 would pay  $1.96 a month more, or $23.54 a year, in 2020. That number would drop to $1.18 a month more in 2021, or $14.21 annually.

The numbers would drop as current outstanding debt for the Allen County Juvenile Center and the Allen County Jail is paid off in 2020 and 2021 respectively, officials said.

The numbers also would be lower for individual homeowners subject to other county tax provisions, including circuit breakers and homestead deductions.

That makes the 0.0333 rate a worst-case scenario, county officials said.

The tax would continue at least until 2026, although amounts might change depending on need. 

Peters said in an interview with The Journal Gazette that he favors a so-called net-neutral approach that would result in a .0224 tax rate. 

He said he did not want to ask for more than county officials believe is needed just because the higher amount is allowed. 

He said any increase would apply countywide, although Fort Wayne officials have said they want to pursue their own bridge maintenance and repair for city bridges.

Other county municipalities – Grabill, Huntertown, Leo-Cedarville, New Haven, Monroeville, Woodburn and Zanesville – have formally said they want to join the county's bridge program.

The county estimates that, based on experience and bridge inspections, $31.3 million will be needed through 2026 for bridges in the included municipalities and unincorporated Allen County. If Fort Wayne bridges were to be included, the need is estimated at $54.25 million.

The cost estimates do not take into consideration increases the cost of labor and materials or inflation. Two farmers said those considerations should be examined prior to writing an ordinance. 

Farmers also brought up that those authorizing bridge improvements should be mindful of the increased width, poundage and design of today's farm equipment.

Farmers also said that, in prioritizing bridge repairs, officials should keep in mind that a farm could be cut off if those prioritizing bridge repairs look only at traffic levels.

The county plans to establish a Bridge Advisory Committee with participating municipalities to examine bridge spending priorities, Peters said. The group might meet twice a year or seasonally, he said.

Any ordinance would have to be passed by May 1 if it is to go into effect next year, he said. 

County officials said the bridge tax only coincidentally is connected to new federal law establishing different weight limits for bridges depending on the number of axles on vehicles, including semis and fire trucks.

However, those rules, discussed at a recent commissioners' meeting, might play into funding priorities, they said.