Sheriff Matt Myers pitched his plan to beef up public safety last week, requesting $4.4 million for general Sheriff’s Department operations from the county’s general fund and another $3 million for jail operations.
The additional $1.8 million for sheriff’s department operations represents a 70.5 percent increase. It would go to pay the salaries of three new deputies, new radio equipment, new squad cars for deputies and body-worn cameras for field officers.
The additional $481,287 for jail operations — an 18.6 percent increase — would be spent on inmate medical expenses, maintenance, shift differential pay and hourly salaries.
Next year’s proposed increase for the sheriff’s department and jail of $2,335,736 combined represents a 45.2 percent jump.
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After Myers’ two-hour presentation Thursday morning, no one among the seven- member, all-Republican Bartholomew County Council appeared willing to budge on their prior stands on a potential funding mechanism — a new public safety tax.
Councilmen Mark Gorbett and Chris Ogle have said they are willing to consider enacting a Local Option Income Tax to fund increases in public safety.
Council members Evelyn Pence, Bill Lentz, Laura DeDomenic and Jorge Morales have been in opposition to a new tax.
And while the seventh council member, Jim Reed, has been seen as flexible on the issue, recent remarks made by the retiring councilman indicate a strong reluctance at this juncture to consider new taxes.
Already levied by 19 of Indiana’s 92 counties, the so-called public safety tax would mean people who work in Bartholomew County and earn $35,000 a year would see an additional $1.68 every week taken from their paychecks, based on last year’s figures.
About half of the 40 audience members during the sheriff’s presentation were off-duty deputies, who sat quietly behind their boss during his council presentation.
The year-to-year increases in the two funds — sheriff’s department and jail — doesn’t reflect all new spending, county auditor Barb Hackman said.
About $1.2 million of what looks like new money for 2017 was paid this year from County Economic Development Income Tax funds, rather than the general fund, the auditor said.
Until next year’s CEDIT funding is determined early this fall, that amount will remain in the general fund budget.
In his request, Myers is seeking $2,392,344 in salaries for law enforcement — about $219,000 more than what was approved for this year. Myers wants to hire three new deputies next year to compensate for officers reassigned in 2015 to the Bartholomew County Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team.
Since deputies respond to nearly 1,400 calls a year — about 3.5 times more than just four years ago — Myers also wants to hire two retired officers to do civil process work at a cost of about $37,000.
“Matt’s request is not out of line,” Gorbett, who served eight years as sheriff before Myers took office, told his fellow council members. “But I don’t know where the money is coming from.”
The sheriff is also seeking $459,732 mostly for vehicle maintenance, as well as $555,029 for radio equipment, for 2017.
That would allow Myers to replace 13 vehicles exceeding the 150,000-mile replacement guideline, and replace decade-old radios and purchase officer-worn body cameras.
When council president Bill Lentz asked Myers to prioritize his wish list Thursday, Myers replied everything he’s asking for “are the things we need — not want.”
“It’s a big request,” Lentz replied. “All the agencies we’ve worked with had to give and take a little bit.”
“There was a lot of give-and-take prior to me taking office,” the sheriff said. “There’s not a whole lot we can take from anymore. “
Myers’ comment mirrors sentiments expressed earlier in the week by Gorbett, who did not raise a single line-item in his budget during his two terms as sheriff.
“Every year, all we talk about is cutting and cutting,” Gorbett said. “I listened to it for eight years as sheriff. If we keep cutting and depleting, I see us in serious trouble three years from now unless we change the way we’re doing business.”
Nevertheless, both Morales and DeDomenic said they believe it’s the council’s responsibility to bring the size of government under control to live within its current means.
Besides the sheriff’s department, four other county departments are seeking considerable increases for personnel, DeDomenic said.
There was no debate on whether the outdated radios need to be replaced, with most council members favoring a 5-year payment plan at no interest offered by the Motorola Corp.
However, councilman Jorge Morales questioned whether body cameras are necessary when the local crime rate may not justify the expense.
In response, jail commander Maj. Gary Myers said Columbus’ reputation as a “bedroom community” is misleading.
“Go to the jail and look at all the out-of-town people and the (drug and theft) crimes they are charged with,” the jail commander said. “The big crimes are going on here, but it’s not always your neighbors. Much is being done by out-of-towners.”
Despite widespread denial, there are also documented gang members locked up in the Bartholomew County Jail, Gary Myers said.
After Hackman read an email from a local resident voicing support for Myers’ budget, DeDomenic brought up constituent reaction she received after an Aug. 7 article regarding Myers’ proposal appeared in The Republic.
“I had 10 phone calls from residents saying ‘Do not raise my taxes,’ “ DeDomenic said.
Budget and revenue
The Bartholomew County Council is working toward establishing a $19.34 million general fund budget for next year, an increase from the $17.19 million for this year.
In order to reach that mark, members began cutting about $4 million from requested allocations Tuesday morning. After two full days of negotiations, they still had $2.3 million left to cut, Hackman said.
However, the council decided after their meeting with Myers to stop making additional cuts until they meet with a new financial advisor on Thursday, the auditor said.
The best-case revenue scenario would provide $24.3 million for next year, based on preliminary state estimates. That suggests there might be funds available to accommodate most or all of Myers’ requests.
But that estimate assumes every Bartholomew County property tax owner pays their taxes — which never happens, council officials said.
County Auditor Barb Hackman said it also doesn’t take into account other realities such as:
Substantial revenue losses from the average 673 property tax appeals filed annually in Bartholomew County, largely from commercial property owners.
Properties that lost assessed value over the past two years, which the latest revenue estimates do not reflect.
Funds substantially reduced during last year’s budget crisis that need to be replenished.
In fact, the county could be in financial trouble again a few years down the road, Hackman said.
She said one significant sign of trouble brewing can be found in the county’s end-of-year revenue, which is used to pay bills the first half of the following year until money is received from the state in June.
That revenue, which had been as high as $5 million, has gradually declined to only about $1 million for the first half of 2017, Hackman said.
In recent years, the council has taken money from its Rainy Day fund to make up the difference. But since that fund has no steady stream of money, it will be depleted a few years from now, Hackman said.
“Your budget is shrinking,” Hackman told the council last week. “You have lowered your operating balance to almost bare-bones.”
Without additional revenue, reserves will shrink even faster if the council provides such things as new cars and employee raises, Hackman said.
A first reading of the 2017 county budget is scheduled for Sept. 8, while final adoption will be considered Oct. 13.
The Bartholomew County Council will reconvene its annual budget review Thursday.
Members decided late last week to not hold further hearings until after they receive a briefing from a representative of the Seymour-based Reedy Financial Group at 8 a.m. Thursday, when Reedy is expected to make a presentation on raising revenue.
Budget deliberations will continue after the briefing, as well as all day Friday, beginning at 8 a.m.