[UPDATE: A follow-up Gary Death Countdown post is here.]
It’s much more likely not to happen than to happen but the clock is ticking for the death of Gary, Indiana. State law imposes property tax caps on all local governments far below the level Gary has grown accustomed to. Gary finances 80% of its $80M+ general fund operations through the use of property taxes. A vote on including the tax caps in Indiana’s Constitution is widely expected in 2010.
Gary has appealed and gotten special exemptions at a level unique in the state to maintain higher taxes while undergoing adjustments to bring government down to a size that can survive on anticipated revenue. Absent that relief, Gary’s 2010 property tax receipts would drop from a projected 62.9M to 28.1M.
As a condition of the transitional relief, a financial monitor was required for Gary and its related municipal districts (sanitary, storm water, public transport corp, and airport authority). The transition ends in 2012. If Gary has not adjusted sufficiently that it can handle somewhere between 20-30M less in revenue by that time, the 5th largest city in Indiana will be forced to declare bankruptcy.
Complicating matters are at least $34M in outstanding debts on top of its impending structural deficit. The term at least is used advisedly because unlike most cities, and most private organizations of its size and complexity, Gary uses a cash based accounting system. Future obligations that have not been presented for payment are not accounted for at all in a cash based system. The city government literally doesn’t have the capacity to accurately know what it owes. Because of the lack of information the financial monitor is forced to guess at some basic information.
The current Gary financial monitor’s report makes for frightening reading. Property tax revenue is scheduled to drop 50%+. There is no likelihood of a local income tax and Indiana does not share its sales tax revenue with local government. One of two casinos operating in Gary has entered bankruptcy and even before then a dispute with the casino operators disrupted payments to Gary. The bad news keeps on rolling for 265 pages.