County officials face budget crunch

County department heads fear some employees might lose their jobs as Bartholomew County Council members hear 2016 budget proposals this week.

Council members are looking for a way to make up a projected $3.9 million budget shortfall from this year.

One of the first ideas has been to indefinitely delay the long-awaited construction of a new Bartholomew County Annex.

“I don’t know how we can build buildings if we don’t have a revenue stream to finance them,” said council member and former sheriff Mark Gorbett, as councilmen and commissioners sat down to discuss the budget Thursday.

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“Can’t we delay the annex a little bit?” councilman Bill Lentz asked the commissioners. “We’re looking out for employees when we say that.”

In response, Commissioners Chairman Larry Kleinhenz said he is willing to either drop the $3.25 million annex project or temporarily delay construction with council approval. Commissioner Rick Flohr said he agreed with Kleinhenz. However, any official action to delay the annex project would come outside the budget discussions.

In preparation for 2016 budget presentations, county department heads were asked to avoid any additional expenditures from this year’s spending plan, councilman Chris Ogle said.

While personnel reductions through retirements and attrition are being examined, Gorbett said, talks of widespread layoffs are only the result of earlier discussions being blown out of proportion.

“If you don’t have enough revenue to run a business, you start talking about layoffs and other creative ways to address the problem,” he said.

References to potential layoffs were nothing more than putting all options out on the table, in order to get all department heads and everybody else involved in the discussion, Lentz said.

But two other elected county officials — Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann and Sheriff Matt Myers — questioned that explanation.

“I’ve had two officeholders tell me you said it would take 88 employees to make up for the deficit,” Heimann told the council. “I’ve had employees who said they have already been told their job will be eliminated at the end of the year.”

Heimann said he was especially taken aback when council members discussed possibly closing the 10-bed juvenile shelter at the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center, which housed more than 100 minors from throughout the region last year.

“I’ve never even heard that considered before,” Heimann said. “How do you suppose that makes us feel? I am very upset that we’ve gotten to this point where these options are being tossed around.”

Founded in 1992, the center on Illinois Avenue also offers an 18-bed secure detention and a 10-slot day treatment program, in addition to the shelter. With nine employees, the center has an annual budget of $1.32 million.

Myers said he doesn’t buy that the council is simply putting all options out on the table when, at the same time, most council members already have ruled out any consideration of a tax increase.

“For the past 20 years, these employees have been asked to keep doing more with less every single year,” Myers said. “Every single department is now saying: ‘We can’t do it anymore.’”

The sheriff said he believes the refusal of most council members to consider tax increases will end up costing more money in the long run and doing more harm.

“OK, let’s not do a tax increase, run the county clear into the dirt, let crime get totally out of control — and then try to fix it,” Myers said. “This is serious. We’re in a crisis moment.”

But two council members — Gorbett and Jim Reed — have not ruled out a tax increase.

“They say (additional taxes) are not going to happen, but it’s got to happen,” Reed said.

A cumulative capital building fund with a separate tax rate needs to be seriously considered, he said.

Gorbett said he would propose a $1.9 million public safety tax, with most proceeds earmarked for county law enforcement efforts.

A significant problem hindering discussions of next year’s budget is a recent reshuffling of monies into different funds, which some council members say is confusing and complex.

For example, the $3.1 million from the county’s adjusted gross income tax is now being entirely spent for employee health insurance coverage after last year’s medical and related expenses soared more than 137 percent from the previous year.

Reshuffling funds and having different numbers being compared and quoted during budget discussions caused conversations to become heated.

“We’re sitting here pointing fingers, but you guys haven’t even resolved what the problem is,” Heimann said. “This is way, way, way too important.”

The judge described the medical expenses being paid out by the self-insured county as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

In order to provide a symbol of unity with the problems of county employees, Bartholomew County Treasurer Pia O’Connor suggested council members eliminate their own county-paid health insurance, which is something local school board members did in 2006 during a similar crisis.

Her suggestion drew no response from either the commissioners or the council.

Myers said he is optimistic the county’s two governing bodies can work out their differences — but only if they can manage to set aside ego and politics.

“County employees need to calm down, give them (council and commissioners) the benefit of the doubt, and let them work it out,” the sheriff said. “If all those workers just go about their jobs and serve the people, it will work out.”

Reasons for bullet tax

Bartholomew County Council member Mark Gorbett announced Thursday he plans to propose a $1.9 million public safety tax (sometimes called a “bullet tax”), with most proceeds going for county law enforcement efforts.

Matt Myers, who succeed Gorbett as sheriff on Jan. 1, listed several reasons why his department should not be expected to follow the council’s instructions to flatline next year’s budget.

According to Myers, those reason include:

  • Crime rates in almost every law enforcement category show an increase from last year’s levels.
  • Due to these increases, deputies now spend twice as much time on serious cases.   
  • The department has 40 full-time deputies while state-established population ratios indicate the department should have 66.5 officers.
  • While public complaints of speeders have increased, traffic stops have decreased due to manpower issues.
  • A reluctance of reserve deputies willing to go on road patrol, possibly stemming from a perceived nationwide distrust of police officers.
  • Arrest warrants are up 32 percent from last year.
  • Effective next year, those convicted of a Level 6 felony or lower will be housed in county jails rather than by the Indiana Department of Correction.

Budget schedule

The following is a schedule of upcoming meetings and activities regarding the 2016 Bartholomew County budget, which will be published in The Republic on Aug. 27 and Sept. 3.

Today

8:30 a.m. — Final day of departmental budget review.  

Wednesday

8:30 a.m. — Roundtable meeting with appointed and elected officials.

Sept. 1

School corporations to submit estimated tax rates and tax levies to the Bartholomew County Council for nonbinding review and recommendation. On the same day, civil units will submit proposed budgets, rates and levies to the council.

Sept. 8

6 p.m  — First reading and public hearing of county budget, including binding and nonbinding recommendations.

Oct. 13

6 p.m. — Second reading and adoption of the county budget, as well as the budgets for the Visitor Information and Promotion Commission and the Solid Waste Management District.

The Bartholomew County Council meets in their fourth-floor chambers at the county’s governmental office building, near the corner of Third and Franklin streets.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.