LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Fairfield Township Trustee Taletha Coles did not attend public hearing on her proposed 2023 budget at the township offices on Thursday. Instead, she listened on a speaker phone attached to a wall in the conference room.
Deputy Trustee Cheryl Watkins said at the start of Thursday's meeting that Coles was sick and was listening from the phone mounted on the wall of the conference room.
Coles' proposed budget would slash the township's tax levy by 97%.
Benjamin W. Roeger, a CPA working with Coles, said, “Instead of property taxes, cash reserves are going to be used to fund the annual budget.”
Roeger said that the general fund for several years has underspent the budgeted appropriation.
“You’re taking surplus revenue from last year, and we’re using that to fund the budget … in place of property taxes,” Roeger explained.
Coles provided each board member with an email explaining her proposed budget, although she did not comment about it during the public hearing.
"The General Fund budget for next year is fully funded," Coles wrote. "However, instead of property taxes, a primary funding course will be cash reserves.
"These cash reserves have resulted in part from portions of the annual Township budget being unspent in recent years," Coles wrote.
"... In addition to cash reserves, a secondary funding source will be the Township's share of the Countywide local income tax distribution," Coles wrote.
"Please note the reduction in tax levy will result in a reduction to the Township rate paid by taxpayers next year," she wrote. "The Township tax rate accounts for 1% of the overall City rate."
Coles noted that the incoming trustee and the new board will have the option to restore the levy to 2022 levels next year for 2024's budget.
Board President Perry Schnarr expressed concerns about how the township might financially weather a crisis with a dramatic cut, and Roeger assured Schnarr that the township's cash reserves exceeding $1 million.
Coles is one step away from being ousted from office after the board, the county commissioners and county council all adopted resolutions for her removal for failing to do her job.
She is under investigation by the Indiana State Police and the Indiana State Board of Accounts for her spending while she's been trustee, starting in 2019.
Only one citizen, April O'Brien — the Republican candidate for Fairfield Township trustee in November's election — attended the public hearing.
“When Taletha came in, she maxed out the tax levy," O'Brien said. "Now that she’s heading out, she’s decreasing it to affect the budget next year.”
Watkins said, “Once you guys take over — whoever wins — you can put that back in there. There won’t be a penalty.”
Roeger confirmed that the next board can restore the current tax levy for the 2024 budget.
O'Brien said, “It doesn’t make sense at all, and it’s concerning because the next trustee will be opening up the doors, and people will be coming in to get assistance. It’s kind of like a slap in the face.”
Monica Casanova, the Democratic candidate for Fairfield Township trustee and a current board member, said she's never seen a government entity drastically reduce its tax levy. She asked Roeger if this was a common practice.
Roeger said he's seen it before.
"It’s an intentional slap in the face … to hurt the township for the following year,” O'Brien said. “Yes, we can make it through. We can move some funds. I get that. … But to come into an office and max out the levy and then to leave the office and decrease it by 97 percent."
The board and Coles find themselves in uncharted waters.
Coles is one court hearing away from being removed from office in the next 20 days, but the budget approval meeting is scheduled for Oct. 11.
Roeger said the deadline to have the budget completed and approved is Nov. 1.
The catch is that Coles' advertised the budget. That means the board can only reduce the proposed budgeted amounts, Roeger said.
What if Coles it removed? Can the new interim trustee present a new budget that overrides Coles proposal, the Journal & Courier asked Roeger. He did not know, noting this is uncharted waters.
Board President Perry Schnarr was asked if the board has contingency budget plans if Coles is removed.
“Yes. There is a game plan,” Schnarr said without elaborating.
Early Thursday afternoon, Tippecanoe County Attorney Doug Masson filed the county council's recently approved resolution for Coles' removal with Tippecanoe Circuit Court.
The court set a hearing Tuesday afternoon to hear arguments about whether Coles should be removed from office.
Reach Ron Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @RonWilkins2.
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Journal & Courier: Lafayette trustee phones in her appearance at budget hearing