Balanced county budget passes

Local anti-tax sentiment got the attention of county government as the Bartholomew County Council voted 5-2 to defeat a proposal to create a new tax.

For more than an hour, the council heard pleas supporting a motion by council member Mark Gorbett to enact a local option income tax in 2016.

Support for the so-called public safety tax came from some of the county’s highest ranking law enforcement and judicial officials.

Nevertheless, only councilman Chris Ogle voted with Gorbett in support of the tax. Like Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman and county financial adviser Dan Eggermann, Ogle maintained that the county has a revenue problem.

“I don’t believe we can cut our way out of this situation,” Ogle said.

But one council member who earlier supported the new tax voted against it Tuesday.

Jim Reed said he changed his mind mainly because the $17.2 million general fund budget adopted Tuesday will keep the county more than $500,000 in the black next year. That is in contrast to a projected $3.9 million budget shortfall for 2016 when the council began its annual budget process in August.

“We have a balanced budget today,” Reed said. “We didn’t have one when I was supporting the tax.”

While Gorbett earlier predicted the tax would not be approved, the former two-term sheriff still expressed his discontent by casting the only vote against the adopted budget.

“The bottom line is that without a new revenue stream, we’re either going to have to cut services or cut employees next year,” said Gorbett, who emphasized there will be at least $1.3 million less for the 2017 budget without new revenue.

That same conclusion was expressed later during the meeting by Larry Kleinhenz, chairman of the Bartholomew County Commissioners.

Both Gorbett and Kleinhenz referred to money originally earmarked for roads next year that county commissioners moved into the general fund to help address the projected deficit. Both said those funds won’t be made available a year from now.

Seven of the nine people who addressed the council voiced either full or limited support of the tax.

Lisa Denton said she was willing to support the tax to ensure quality public safety — but only if the council developed long-term plans to make sure another tax would not be requested within a few years.

“(County government) is always reacting, always stealing from Peter to pay Paul,” Denton said in regard to the extensive shuffling of funds that was necessary to reach a balanced budget. “We need real responsible endeavors and planning.”

Denton echoed a sentiment expressed earlier by Gorbett, who frequently has chided fellow council members for not engaging in long-term planning.

In contrast, Tom Heller told council members that they should not create additional taxes until there is a “groundswell of support” for it.

Support for

fundingA lack of public support for new taxes was brought up by Sheriff Matt Myers during a Friday interview with The Republic.Most people have little or no regard for public safety until their house is burning, they need emergency medical care or someone they care for is victimized by crime, Myers said.

“Then, they don’t have a problem paying a little extra,” Myers said. “It’s easy to say you are against something if you don’t know what’s going on.”

Prior to the meeting, Myers cited statistics showing significant increases in both crime and population over the past 10 years, while staff and financial support have stayed the same or dropped slightly.

Calls to the Bartholomew County 911 Emergency Operations Center went from 84,280 just 10 years ago to 145,328 last year, a 72.4 percent increase, center director Ed Reuter told the council Tuesday.

Despite the increase in emergency 911 calls, Reuter said, his operation has not increased its manpower since 2005.

During his presentation to the council on behalf of the local option income tax, Reuter provided a reminder that it would only cost a $35,000 wage earner about $1.68 every week.

“I don’t like taxes. You don’t like taxes,” Reuter said. “But I’m willing to give up two Polar Pops a week for (public safety).”

Search for efficiency

Council member Jorge Morales, who advocates further study of dwindling finances, called for more financial efficiency from county departments.“Where will these efficiencies come from, Jorge?” Bartholomew Superior Court 2 Judge Kathleen Coriden asked. “You deal with (revenue losses) year after year with cut after cut. You don’t need further study. It’s time to do something, and I’m through hearing it.”Bartholomew Circuit Judge Steve Heimann defended the work ethic of his employees.

He also told the council that low salaries for county jobs have prevented him from finding qualified staff necessary to fill three openings during the past two years.

“Those (former staff members) also said they were glad to leave a courtroom environment full of people who are unhappy, complaining and — at times — even a bit threatening,” Heimann said.

Ann Heimann, the judge’s wife, mentioned that revenue to local units of government has been reduced annually at the state level, which largely controls city and county spending.

When comparing last year’s total revenue with the average amount received from 2009 to 2012, Bartholomew County government lost $6 million in income, a 25.6 percent drop.

Morales said state officials told him that they reduced funding in order to push cities and counties out of their comfort zones, get them to start thinking outside the box and become more efficient.

Ogle, however, said the practice of gaining political points at the state level by cutting taxes — and then forcing local units of government to bear the political or financial consequences — was most evident during the administration of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Besides revenue cuts enacted at the state level, other significant drains on the county’s finances cited by local officials include extraordinarily high medical costs, a growing number of successful property tax appeals, and a large number of tax-increment financing districts in the city of Columbus.

Total budget overview

After facing projected deficits of $3.9 million in August, the Bartholomew County Council passed a 2016 general fund budget that members say will result in about a $500,000 surplus.

It was one of three spending plans for next year that were given final passage and adoption this week by the council. None of the three funds provides additional money in 2016, compared with this year.  

  • General fund: $17,185,013
  • Solid waste management: $3,780,971
  • Flat Rock Township: $81,652

When all county services and all available financial resources are considered, the grand total of all funds will be $37,858,648.  

Source: Bartholomew County Auditor’s Office.    

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