2 challenge 6-term Republican commissioner

Republican voters will decide May 3 whether county commissioner Larry Kleinhenz will have the opportunity to seek a seventh term or whether one of two party challengers — Jorge Morales or Susan Thayer Fye — will be their candidate during the November general election.

One of the biggest decisions facing county commissioners involves setback requirements regarding confined animal feeding operations.

Morales voted March 9 with the majority of Bartholomew County Plan Commission members in recommending the majority report issued by the Bartholomew County CFO/CAFO Study Committee, which calls for minimal changes in CFO setbacks from a variety of neighboring homes and institutions. Hundreds of residents have turned out for a series of public hearings on proposed changes.

“The majority report has adequate restrictions and regulations to the feeding operations for the neighbors not to be harmed,” Morales said.

While Thayer Fye also sides with the majority report, she also said that if a proposed farming operation meets all requirements, a hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals shouldn’t be necessary.

In contrast, Morales wants to keep CFOs a conditional land use to allow neighbors to address their concerns to the BZA before each final decision is made.

Kleinhenz, one of three incumbent commissioners expected to make the final decision sometime this year, was careful not to tip his hand on how he intends to vote.

But he did point out that with 400 new residential lots developed over the past 16 years, the commissioners must accept the challenge of providing new protections for residents while allowing farmers to farm.

“We can do both with wise and well-thought-out changes to the zoning ordinance, including increased setbacks,” Kleinhenz said.

Talking about TIFs

Candidates also shared their thoughts on the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) districts for economic development efforts.

Using examples from the city of Columbus and other Indiana counties, Kleinhenz said he has seen an unintended but disturbing erosion of the tax base due to TIFs, which capture increases in taxable assessed value and use that revenue to finance public improvements. It freezes the real property tax base.

“This erosion must be understood and corrected before we move any further with this new economic development tool,” Kleinhenz said.

While Morales agrees with Kleinhenz that there has been some misuse in other areas, he describes TIFs as a misunderstood tool to create jobs without having to raise taxes.

Morales, who currently serves as president of the Bartholomew County Redevelopment Commission, said the question should be whether bonds should be established with TIF districts.

He advocates doing a financial study on a case-by-case basis to determine if a proposed TIF district makes financial sense for the county.

Thayer Fye says TIFs encourage tremendous economic development and job growth, as well as providing long-term financial stability and an increased tax base, when used wisely and monitored carefully.

Funding healthcare

Last year, the biggest obstacle for the self-insured county was soaring health care costs for nearly 400 full-time employees. Many county government workers were angered after they were forced to pay higher premiums and deductibles at the beginning of this year.

County employees should feel free to communicate more with elected officials to exert more control over their health care plan, Thayer Fye said.

In order to further contain costs, “the county needs to be aggressive and open bids for plan administration and plan options,” she said, adding future cost increases should be shared by the county and employees.

Kleinhenz said aggressive changes to the health insurance program were necessary after dramatic reductions were made in budgeted dollars by the county council, of which Morales is a member.

While the current premiums and deductibles being paid are comparable with the private sector, Kleinhenz said county salaries are not keeping pace with non-government employers.

“At current salary levels, employees cannot afford any additional cost increases,” Kleinhenz said.

However, Morales said it was indecision by the commissioners that allowed health care costs to get out of hand, adding any future increases will need to be shared by all stakeholders.

Current measures supported by Morales include maintaining a variety of health plan options, as well as a close auditing of both claims and available funds.

But in order to keep the problem from resurfacing, Morales advocates keeping a minimum $1.2 million reserve fund, as well as establishing an experienced and knowledgeable insurance commission.

District 1 includes the townships of Flatrock, German, Harrison and Hawcreek — in northern and western Bartholomew County — as well as a section of northern Columbus.

No Democrat or independent candidates are seeking the District 1 commissioner’s seat in the primary election.

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