Time for county to act on new revenue stream

Bartholomew County has an important deadline coming up, with the second and final reading of next year’s budget scheduled for Oct. 13. However, another looming deadline is equally or more important. Decisions on new taxes to generate additional revenue for the county starting next year need to be made by Nov. 1.

Bartholomew County Council members need to seriously consider what will happen if they don’t act on the new tax opportunity in time. The county is likely to be in the same mess next year — and possibly beyond — as it is now.

Rising health care claims on the county’s self-insured fund and repairing and maintaining roads are two of the biggest financial challenges the county faces. Having sufficient funds for battling an increase in drug abuse and maintaining county facilities are among others.

County council members and county commissioners have worked to identify places to trim the budget, and reducing the forecast financial shortfall, but have done so at a cost.

After the county council gave initial approval Sept. 8 to a $19.6 million budget that still had a bewildering $2 million shortfall, the deficit was further reduced to about $700,000 when plans for a new county annex building were officially scuttled. That helps in the short term, but leaves the longer-term question of where to permanently house services that had been based in the old annex, such as the nursing health department and Purdue Extension.

The council also has been creative in shoring up its health insurance fund. Members voted to move $4.7 million from the general fund next year to the employee benefit health care trust to cover health care costs, and placed $1.2 million from the county’s adjusted gross income tax into an account designed to shore up the trust.

Those moves, however, could be described as robbing Peter to pay Paul. They put a temporary patch on health insurance concerns, but at the expense of other areas those funds were intended to address. That’s not a plan for long-term success.

Eliminating projects and making cuts within departments has created a bare-bones budget. While it’s nice to know county council members want a lean budget, certainly appreciated by taxpayers, a budget that can’t sustain its operations isn’t healthy. A reduction in the types or quality of services won’t be appreciated by taxpayers. Nobody likes driving on roads that are falling apart.

That’s why it is puzzling why a majority of county council members — Jorge Morales, Evelyn Pence, Laura DeDomenic and Bill Lentz — remain steadfast in opposition to implementing a new tax to generate an infusion of revenue to ensure the financial health of county operations.

A minority of council members — Mark Gorbett, Jim Reed and Chris Ogle — have suggested adopting one of the following:

•Local option income tax (for public safety)

•Local option highway vehicle tax (also known as a wheel tax and used for highways)

•Cumulative capital development tax (a property tax levied by most Indiana counties)

Adoption of one of these taxes by Nov. 1 would provide the county with important additional revenue next year for its services and operations. Without new revenue, the county is going to continue to struggle financially.

When those struggles affect the quality of services taxpayers expect, nobody benefits.