Annex plans falling apart?

Plans to build a new $3.25 million Bartholomew County Annex building likely will be abandoned, county officials say.

Larry Kleinhenz, chairman of the Bartholomew County Commissioners, predicted that will be the outcome when he and fellow commissioners Carl Lienhoop and Rick Flohr put the matter to a vote Tuesday.

During the past few weeks, the commissioners have pondered whether to abandon their plans or simply put them on hold as the country dealt with a projected 2016 budget deficit, Kleinhenz said.

“We have had the funding cut by the council, and therefore the project is dead,” Kleinhenz. “We will cease all efforts.”

The official step to end the building project is expected during the commissioners’ weekly 10 a.m. Tuesday meeting.

Such a decision also would be supported by Bartholomew County Council president Evelyn Pence.

“The consensus of the council is that (the annex project) needs to come to a halt at this time,” Pence said Wednesday. “We have no money.”

The county council has not yet scheduled a date when it will officially reverse a July 14 vote to free up $2.6 million for the annex, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman said.

For the past three weeks, the council has been struggling to reduce the 2016 submitted general fund budget by an unprecedented $4.7 million.

That includes an anticipated $3.9 million deficit, as well as an additional $800,000 to get the county back on solid fiscal ground, said Sandy Beatty, the county’s chief deputy auditor.

By the end of the second week of budget hearings, about $2.5 million had been reduced, Beatty said.

While Pence was careful not to claim the anticipated annex decision will solve the county’s financial problems, she expressed confidence the goal of reducing next year’s general fund to $16.35 million has now become more obtainable.

However, council efforts will continue to find further spending cuts in order to strengthen the county’s financial health, Pence said.

“Several people feel we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel in terms of cutting costs, but I think the insurance needs improving,” the council president said.

Pence is referring to medical bills paid out by the self-insured county that soared 137.5 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Despite a number of cost-cutting efforts made this year, such as raising employees’ out-of-pocket costs, the health trust funds don’t show signs of financial improvement, Hackman said.

In a new development, two outside consulting firms are now working with the county to reduce related costs.

An analysis of the county’s current health program will be made at 10 a.m. today by one of those firms, Governmental Consulting Services of Carmel, in the commissioners’ chambers.

Although the county is likely to hold open some jobs lost through attrition during the next few years, Pence anticipates the council will no longer openly discuss the subject of layoffs, she said.

While employee furloughs were brought up during this summer’s budget review as a way to emphasize the severity of the county’s fiscal crisis, actual layoffs were never seriously considered by the council, Pence said.

A decision on whether a free health clinic still will be built on the annex site, located near State and Mapleton streets, likely will be made later this fall after stakeholders examine all options, said Julie Abedian, Columbus Regional Health Foundation president.

Commissioners anticipate the county will have to pay back the Cummins Foundation, which agreed last year to pay architectural fees for a new annex, for all expenses to date.

The current and now- vacant annex building will still be demolished in October, Kleinhenz said.

What's next?

An analysis of the county’s current health insurance program during a special meeting of the Bartholomew County Commissioners at 10 a.m. today in the commissioners’ first-floor chambers at the county’s governmental office building, located near the intersection of Third and Franklin streets.

At the same time and location Tuesday, the commissioners are expected to vote to abandon their plans to build a new county annex building. While the commissioners normally meet on Mondays, next week’s regular weekly meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday due to Monday’s Labor Day holiday.

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