County budget OK’d, but with warnings

Bartholomew County Council unanimously gave its final stamp of approval to a $20.8 million general fund budget for 2017.

It will allow 2 percent raises for county employees who went a year without a pay increase.

While the vote was unanimous, council members Mark Gorbett and Jorge Morales expressed warnings about the future.

“Next year, we’re going to be $1.2 million behind the eight ball,” said Morales, who approved the spending plan Tuesday after casting the only negative vote during a Sept. 13 initial vote of the budget.

The councilman was referring to the amount of money transferred from county savings to pay for next year’s operational expenses.

“We have not made the hard decisions of either raising revenue or reducing costs,” said Morales, who lost in his primary bid to seek a position on the Bartholomew County commissioners, but will continue serving on the council for at least another two years.

Since an identical amount was taken from savings last year for the 2016 budget, councilman Gorbett accused fellow council members of “kicking the can down the road.”

While Morales has expressed a strong preference for county government to become more efficient to address the problem, Gorbett agrees with county auditor Barb Hackman that most departments have been operating with bare-bones budgets for at least two years.

“There’s not much turkey left on those bones right now,” said Gorbett, who has maintained that additional taxes must be seriously considered by the council.

But council president Bill Lentz, who is one of the majority of council members who oppose new taxes, responded by saying it’s premature to attempt to evaluate the county’s financial health a year from now.

“It may be gloom and doom next year, but it may be good,” Lentz said.

In a year-over-year comparison, the approved 2017 general fund budget is about 21 percent higher than the $17.2 million budget approved last fall for 2016. But the amount is slightly less than what was approved for both 2012 and 2013.

What was expected to result in more cost cutting to the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department’s budget was set aside by Sheriff Matt Myers.

In his original proposal, Myers sought $555,000 for next year to cover about a fourth of the cost of replacing decade-old radios, as well as adding body cameras to deputies. This week, county officials announced a grant that would have helped pay for 800 megahertz radios for all emergency-response groups had been denied.

However, it turns out the department wasn’t ready to buy those big-ticket items right now anyway.

Due to technical glitches that developed during recent testing, Myers told the council he will table his request for new 800 megahertz radios and body cameras for his full-time deputies and corrections officers for another year.

The sheriff also agreed to further reduce his original request for new cars.

Myers had originally sought 13 new vehicles, but the approved budget — earmarking the county’s riverboat gambling proceeds rather than property taxes — provides for purchase of eight new cars.

Bartholomew County shares in proceeds from admission and wagering taxes levied at Indiana gambling establishments.

Positive news emerged Tuesday for about 440 county employees as the council confirmed those workers will not see their health insurance premiums go up next year. Additionally, they will receive a 2 percent pay increase.

That was made possible due to a number of developments, including an anticipated $135,500 savings through refinancing jail bonds, Hackman said.

The county also benefited from two financial breaks reflected in next year’s spending plan.

In June, a $6.7 million release of income tax revenue held in reserve by the state contained $621,372 for discretionary spending by county government. Most of the money went to roads and other taxing units.

In August, the Bartholomew County Highway Department announced it will receive almost $1 million through a matching grant program, freeing up other funds previously earmarked for roads.

When asked Tuesday whether the county can expect similar windfalls in 2017 from the state during a non-election year, Bartholomew County commissioners chairman Rick Flohr replied “probably not.”

A more immediate concern for Flohr and the other two commissioners is the mounting pressure from the council, as well as county departments, to approve one of the few new taxes they, rather than the council, can enact.

Due to a recent regulatory change, failure by the commissioners to enact a new cumulative capital development tax will result in a $680,000 drop in funding from the state next year.

With expensive renovations needed at the Bartholomew County Courthouse and the county highway garage, Hackman said the commissioners may be running out of options.

Both Flohr and Democratic opponent Brad Woodcock have indicated they are prepared to support enacting such a tax if necessary.

But no such support for the tax has been publicly voiced by commissioners Larry Kleinhenz and Carl Lienhoop, who are not facing competition in next month’s election.

Total budget overview

The 2017 general fund was one of four spending plans given final passage and adoption this week by the Bartholomew County Council.

  • General fund: $20,778,212
  • Other expenses not financed by property taxes: $13,452,752
  • Solid waste management: $3,615,941
  • Flat Rock Township: $81,700

When all county services and all available financial resources are considered, the grand total of all funds will be $37,928,605. That is $69,357, or 0.2 percent, more than allocated for 2016.

Source: Bartholomew County Auditor’s Office.

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