Board hits budget target: Control of county funds in dispute

The Bartholomew County Council has reached its target of a $19.34 million general fund budget in 2017, but not without ruffling feathers of other elected officials in the room.

When the council began the latest in its recent series of budget talks Tuesday, proposed spending for next year was $900,000 above the general fund target. After discussing and voting on various budget-balancing options, the council eventually agreed 5-2 on a motion by council president Bill Lentz to:

Reduce the number of new cars provided to the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department from 11 to 9, resulting in a $70,000 reduction. Sheriff Matt Myers had initially requested 13 new cars.

Drop the level of employee raises from a proposed 3 percent to 2 percent, resulting in a further reduction of $170,000. County government employees did not receive raises this year due to spending constraints a year ago.

And in a surprise act, the council moved $700,000 that has been traditionally controlled by the Bartholomew County Commissioners into the county’s general fund.

New state-level regulatory changes give the county council control of not only appropriating local income tax monies but allocating its uses and setting income tax rates as well, said councilwoman Laura DeDomenic, who picked up that information during a Monday conference sponsored by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

It was on DeDomenic’s assurances that the council approved taking the $700,000 in income tax revenue from control of the commissioners, with Mark Gorbett and Chris Ogle voting no.

The council met just one day after the commissioners spurned the council’s budget request for $1 million from local income tax funds for general fund purposes.

“If the commissioners say they aren’t going to give us any money, what’s to stop us from taking it?” Gorbett asked.

“Nothing,” DeDomenic said. “We’re in charge of the money.”

But the commissioners in the audience disagreed.

Commissioners chairman Rick Flohr said he was told by State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, that oversight of those monies has not changed.

When DeDomenic presented a letter from a state official to justify her position, commissioner Larry Kleinhenz disagreed with the interpretation. Kleinhenz pointed out a sentence in that letter stating “requirements for this plan have not changed at all.”

Although auditor Barb Hackman did not dispute DeDomenic’s interpretation, she did say the council and commissioners must still work together in revenue matters.

Due to personal conflict, council attorney Chris Monroe was unavailable to provide an immediate legal opinion.

More clarification may be provided when the council meets again at 5 p.m. today to review expense cuts and consider adjustments.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the commissioners told the council they were willing to provide $200,000 in income tax funds as well as a one-time payment of $111,000 from their telecommunications fund toward the purchase of new radios and body cameras for the sheriff’s department.

However, the commissioners did not concede to the council’s request to create a new cumulative capital development tax. Due to another recent regulatory change, the commissioners’ refusal is now costing the county $680,000, DeDomenic said.

But at the same time, the majority of the council is also refusing to pass any new taxes. As they have done for several years, the council reached their target budget through spending cuts, rather than increasing revenues.

Several administrators and officials, including Bartholomew Superior Court 2 Judge Kathleen “Kitty” Tighe Coriden, strongly maintain new revenue must be generated to keep skilled employees, maintain public buildings and provide an acceptable level of service.

“It doesn’t make any sense to keep nickeling and diming things,” Coriden said. “At some point, you won’t be able to do it any more.”

What's next?

The Bartholomew County Council will meet at 5 p.m. today to further refine its 2017 budget decisions.

The first reading of the 2017 county budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 8, while the final reading and adoption is set for Oct. 13.

All meetings take place in the council’s fourth floor chambers at the Bartholomew County Government Office Building, 440 Third St., Columbus.

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