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State weighs whether Fishers followed law in proposing tax hike for trail

December 5, 2018
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The Nickel Plate Trail would run from East 96th Street in Fishers to Pleasant Street in Noblesville. (Rendering courtesy of city of Fishers)

More than a dozen residents have expressed formal opposition to the city of Fishers' 2019 budget because of a tax increase related to the proposed Nickel Plate Trail, sparking a public hearing Tuesday in front of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. 

The hearing was scheduled after residents filed a petition Sept. 24 against the then-proposed 2019 budget, which Fishers adopted in October. The budget includes a property tax increase to help fund the city's portion of the Nickel Plate Trail.

The petition states that residents object to the proposed tax increase intended to fund the Nickel Plate Trail because the city “failed to comply with the public hearing provisions of Indiana Code 36-9-6.1-8.” The petition requested that the budget be amended to exclude any funding for the Nickel Plate Trail.

Under the budget adopted by Fishers City Council, the property tax rate will increase about 4 cents, to about 69 cents per $100 of assessed value. About 1.5 cents of the increase is expected to go toward the trail project, city officials previously told IBJ.

A lawsuit is pending in Hamilton County that accuses Fishers of failing to comply with Indiana’s public access laws relating to meetings held in 2017 and 2018 regarding the Nickel Plate Trail project.

The petition filed with the DLGF states: “Until it can be proven that the city of Fishers did comply with these laws, [it] should be prohibited from raising taxes for the Nickel Plate Trail Project.”

Tuesday, most of the testimony at the hearing focused on preserving the rail and opposition to the tax increase. Many said they’re opposed to the tax hike because there has been no comprehensive budget released for the project.

Logan Day, a spokesperson for Save the Nickel Plate, which filed the pending lawsuit against Fishers and other Hamilton County communities, said he finds it troubling and irresponsible that there has been no budget for the project, even though Fishers is planning a tax hike.

“We don’t have any type of budget,” he said. “If you speak with city councilors or the mayor … there’s not any type of clear, defined budget for what we’ll spend.”

Officials originally said the entire project (from 96th Street in Fishers to Pleasant Street in Noblesville) would cost about cost $9.3 million, but that figure has grown, Day said.

He asked the DLGF to step in to make sure residents aren’t paying for a project with an open checkbook.

Bill Brown, who said he’s lived in Fishers for 41 years, echoed much of what Day said. He’s concerned with how much construction will be involved where the trail intersects with major roads. Improvements to keep those intersections safe will be costly, he said.

David Marusarz, deputy general counsel for the DLGF, told residents they have until end of the day Friday to submit supplemental information to the department proving Fishers violated public hearing provisions during the budget process. The department will take those submissions and testimony into consideration when issuing a determination about whether the city followed state procedures for adopting the tax rate and its budget, he said. 

He expects the DLGF will issue a determination in the next few weeks, as the city's budget must be certified by Dec. 31. 

After the meeting, Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness told IBJ there’s a “tremendous amount of excitement” for the trail project.

He said the petition filed by residents isn’t unusual when residents don’t feel they’ve been able to influence decision makers, but the city followed procedures in giving residents plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the tax increase. 

“I understand what they’re doing,” he said of the protesters. “I understand that is a tactic that people will take. Does it waste time and resources of our staff? Yes. Our democratic structure is such that it allows for a lot of opportunities for these types of appeals.”

He said the city will be transparent and professional when responding to the DLGF about the appeal.

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