The overriding message from all four Republicans seeking nominations to run for the Bartholomew County Council: No new taxes.
Since the council took criticism in 2009 by enacting an economic development income tax during a recession, the all-Republican council has refused to enact any new taxes.
When local voters in November 2014 defeated a second attempt in two years by the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. to raise property taxes to fund prekindergarten, several county council members said the vote indicated that local anti-tax attitudes remain strong.
During lengthy budget-management discussions last year within Bartholomew County government, a majority of county council members resisted suggestions by other county officials to debate whether the county was experiencing a spending problem or revenue problem.
After Indiana lawmakers enacted a permanent property tax cap in 2010, the amount of money available to units of local government began to drop significantly.
But with passage of Senate Bill 67 during this year’s Indiana General Assembly, many county council members believe the current fiscal crisis may soon be behind them.
The measure will provide a one-time allocation of more than $6.7 million of withheld local income taxes to units of local government in Bartholomew County by June 1, said Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, a sponsor of the bill.
But since most of that money will go to incorporated cities such as Columbus and towns such as Hope, as well as other taxing entities, only about a third of the funds will actually end up in the county’s coffers.
In addition, the Indiana General Assembly requires that 75 percent of the allocation be spent on roads and bridges. There are no indications that another such windfall will come after this election year. For that reason, all four Republicans seeking three at-large council positions in the May primary said they advocate keeping the financial reins tight for the foreseeable future.
Council candidate Evelyn Pence said she believes further cost reductions can still be found by seeking technology options that could reduce the number of county employees through attrition, as well as keeping a close eye on insurance costs.
Utilizing attrition, rather than layoffs, also is a measure supported by Jim Reed, another incumbent council member seeking re-election, who also advocates scrutinizing every budget item.
Bill Lentz, the third council incumbent seeking re-election, said the act of continuing to provide services without raising taxes may be a challenge. However, the current council president said more can still be achieved by recognizing opportunities and skillfully exploiting them, he said.
While Republican challenger Matt Miller said he doesn’t disagree, he is critical of the current council for not engaging in long-term financial planning.
The political newcomer also finds fault in the council’s initial decision to use cash reserves to pay for a new county annex building. That decision was withdrawn after the fiscal crisis came to light last summer.
Instead, Miller said he believes inter-department and inter-government cooperation, as well as increased economic development, are the keys to future fiscal health.
One critical issue facing government is treating heroin and methamphetamine addicts, which experts say requires long-term residential treatment rather than outpatient therapy.
While residential treatment for female offenders is available through the Women Recovering with a Purpose program, federal officials who financed the program now expect local officials to start paying for the program, Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann said. That is something the council has refused to do with any grant-funded local program, he said.
A similar and successful program in Clarksville for men closed in 2012 when state funding was pulled, the judge said.
Although Miller said he is willing to provide funding for drug-addiction programs with a proven record of success, the three incumbents said they are less willing to make such a commitment.
County officials are actively meeting with federal, state and city officials to seek answers, adding current county health care providers also are being recruited to assist, Lentz said.
While Reed supports obtaining more outside grants, the council can only commit what available funds it has at budget time — if any — for addiction services, he said.
Noting that most county money already is being spent on crime-related issues, Pence said the addiction problem is being addressed by local agencies and law enforcement departments.
While they play a significant role, illegal drugs are only a part of local crime.
Since taking office 15 months ago, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers has been critical of the county council’s unwillingness to increase funds to implement proactive crime-fighting programs.
In addition, increased calls for service and unanticipated jail expenses have strained Myers’ budget, the sheriff said.
While admitting the sheriff is facing huge challenges, Pence said the county is attempting to work with existing staff to assist the department. She also said the council did provide Myers with an additional part-time clerical worker.
After pointing out that additional money is usually provided for some form of public safety program annually, Lentz emphasized it’s the council’s main responsibility to create a budget that does not burden taxpayers.
Although Reed said he will continue to support Myers as the council’s liaison to the sheriff’s merit board, he again emphasized extra dollars for law enforcement can only be determined during the late summer budget talks.
And although Miller said public safety is one of county government’s first obligations, the challenger feels the need to draw the line.
“Bigger budgets don’t necessarily mean lower crime rates,” Miller said. “As a council member, I will insist on concrete proposals with realistic goals from every department.”
Since there are three at-large seats on the council, only one of the GOP candidates will be eliminated from consideration during the primary. They will be challenged by Democrats Pam Clark, Gaby Cheek and Lynne Fleming during the November general election.