State funding measure passes

A bill that could alleviate much of Bartholomew County government’s financial problems has been approved by both houses of the Indiana General Assembly.

A supplemental distribution measure, which first emerged as House Bill 1110, is expected to restore up to $6 million in state funds to Bartholomew County in June.

The proposal from the House was unanimously approved on third reading by the Indiana Senate on Tuesday. A Senate version, known as Senate Bill 67, was approved unanimously by the House on Thursday.

Since both chambers added amendments, the legislation has gone to conference committees where attempts are being made to hammer out differences in the two measures.

Bartholomew County Council president Bill Lentz said he believes it is likely the supplemental distribution measure will be ready to be signed into law by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence before the General Assembly adjourns no later than March 14.

“It’s still alive and well, and on the front burner,” Lentz said. “If it’s approved, that will free up a lot of money.”

The measure, co-authored by Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, would reduce the amount of local option income tax revenues the state could withhold for reserves from 50 percent to 15 percent, Smith said during a recent Third House session in Columbus.

Smith consulted with Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman before he began working with other legislators to shape the original bill, Lentz said.

The proposals are a significant reason why county officials have stopped attempting to reduce the county’s workforce by 10 positions this year through attrition — at least until discussions on the 2017 county budget get underway late this summer, the council president said.

“For now, we’ll let the department heads do what they want about filling positions,” Lentz said. “We don’t want our employees worried about their jobs — and it seems like the right thing to do.”

If approved, the extra $6 million coming to Columbus from Indianapolis won’t arrive a minute too soon for many involved in county government.

Under a state-required financial plan approved Monday, the Bartholomew County Commissioners said only $200,000 in economic development income tax funds will be spent for public safety next year.

As the bulk of the funds is returned for its original purpose of road repair in 2017, county government may have to deal with a minimum $1.2 million deficit when budget hearings convene in August.

The road money that was shifted into public safety for this year’s budget allowed the county to reduce funds earmarked for the same purpose from its $17.2 million general fund.

While the county council has directed all departments to hold the line on spending this year, unexpected expenses have made that easier said than done.

For example, the county council is feeling increasing pressure from both judicial and law enforcement administrators to fund the Women Recovering with A Purpose program if needed.

While the program is a nationally recognized success in helping local female jail inmates conquer drug addition, federal funding for WRAP has been cut almost in half this year. Local funding may be required if money cannot be acquired through state sources.

There’s also an unfunded federal mandate that requires an inventory of non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act for all county facilities.

Fulfilling that obligation will exhaust all the money set aside by the Bartholomew County Commissioners for 2016 consulting fees, commissioner Carl Lienhoop said.

But if the county doesn’t spend the required $39,000, it will risk losing between $500,000 and $3 million in federal funding for projects such as road and bridge projects, commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said.

“I don’t like the unfunded mandate, but it’s nothing compared to the 800-pound gorilla we’ve been facing for two years: health insurance,” Lentz said.

Since the supplemental distribution measure in the General Assembly is not yet a done deal, the council president said he can only afford to be cautiously optimistic.

“I realize we may be real lucky when budget time rolls around,” Lentz said. “But I also realize we might not be so lucky — and find ourselves making some tough decisions this summer.”

But it is not just the possibility of receiving $6 million from the state that’s making Lentz “a lot more upbeat” about the county’s finances, he said.

Recent changes in health insurance coverage by the self-insured county have so far managed to keep costs noticeably lower than year, the council president said.

He also anticipate further savings by having most or all department undergo evaluations with the aim of reducing costs and improving quality, Lentz said.

In the next few months, the council will begin long-range planning involving discussions with administrators and employees to determine their future needs for budgeting purposes, he said.

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