Bartholomew County leaders predict there likely will be less money available for county government in 2017.
That’s likely to put additional pressure on the Bartholomew County Council to raise taxes, said the county commissioners. But that’s something the council hasn’t done since 2009, which also happened to be a non-election year.
“Some of the council has talked a little bit about enacting a wheel tax,” commissioner chairman Rick Flohr said. “But I’m sure they aren’t all on board on that.”
Flohr’s remarks were part of a one-hour interview with all three commissioners, as well as county highway superintendent Dwight Smith and county highway engineer Danny Hollander, about the anticipated highlights and challenges of the coming new year.
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Taxes and finances
All 92 Indiana counties are under increasing pressure from the Indiana General Assembly to enact new taxes, instead of obtaining additional funding through the state, Bartholomew County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said.
History indicates non-election years are when state lawmakers tend to cut back on funding to local units of government, Kleinhenz said.
“Politically speaking, 2017 would be the safest year to enact new revenue,” said Commissioner Carl Lienhoop.
Lienhoop is referring to a pattern that shows city or county councils are more apt to approve a new tax during a year when there is no election, although Kleinhenz said the county council has only done it once over the past quarter-century.
The approval of the county economic development income tax during the non-election year of 2009 was still widely blamed for the defeat of three incumbent GOP council members — Keith Sells, Phyllis Apple and Sue Paris — during the 2010 primary.
But with revenues available through state channels continuing to decline each year — and an average of three to four unfunded mandates being handed down annually to county government from the state or federal level — the council may be reaching a point where they have no alternative but to raise taxes, Kleinhenz said.
The self-insured county was also hit hard financially from 2012 to 2014 with extraordinarily high health insurance expenses from covering more than 400 county employees.
But due to fewer severe illnesses, as well as significant adjustments to employee premiums and deductibles, health care costs were kept well under control this year, Lienhoop said.
But there is no way to predict whether expenses will again begin to outweigh revenue for health care, Lienhoop said.
“We can handle two or three (severe, long-term illnesses) a year, but when it gets up to seven to 10, it wrecks us,” Lienhoop said.
Widening and improving large sections of Lowell Road, between Jonathan Moore Pike on Columbus’ west side and U.S. 31, will be the top priority for the county highway department in 2017, Smith said.
Improvements will include making the curves between the Interstate 65 overpass and the Flatrock River less sharp to allow faster-moving traffic, the highway superintendent said.
Lowell has become a priority because an increasing number of drivers are using it as an alternative to the heavily-congested Jonathan Moore Pike, Kleinhenz said.
“If they are going to the north side of town, they can save 10 minutes,” Kleinhenz said. “You’ll save 20 minutes if there’s a train.”
The county wants to complete the Lowell Road in one year as the city of Columbus has told them that about double the number of freight trains will begin crossing the Jonathan Moore Pike/State Road 11 intersection beginning in 2018. And the intersection leading into Columbus is already overloaded with traffic counts the intersection was never designed to handle, city officials said.
Smith and the commissioners also anticipate between 20 to 25 miles of county roads will get a new blacktop as part of the 2017 overlay project.
While that’s down from 32 miles approved for this year, it’s substantially higher than 10.5 miles approved in 2015. Much of the overlay funding was diverted two years ago toward completing the final phase of improvements along County Road 600N between Clifford and Hope.
Other noticeable improvements expected in 2017 include the widening of White Horse Road, as well as the extension of curbs and sidewalks along Carr Hill Road to Mutz Drive, just east of the Interstate 65 overpass, Hollander said.
Extensive renovations are needed at the Bartholomew County Courthouse and the county highway garage, but the commissioners said it’s doubtful that either project will begin in 2017.
In September, county maintenance director Rick Trimpe said significant erosion to the limestone foundation and brickwork on the 142-year-old courthouse must be addressed quickly.
A life-cycle cost analysis for the courthouse approved in November is expected to be presented to the commissioners in January.
But citing a small piece of copper roofing that cost $40,000 to replace almost 20 years ago, Kleinhenz anticipates the exterior renovation of the historic courthouse will be both complicated and expensive.
With few funding options available, the commissioners will only be able to set a timeline to eventually address the problems this year, Kleinhenz said.
However, the building remains structurally sound, immediate steps have been taken to prevent further erosion, and most problems appear to be cosmetic, Kleinhenz said.
Although the 64-year-old highway garage has a much lower profile in the community than the courthouse, the structure at 2452 State St. was built when the entire county had a population of 36,000 — less than half of what it is today, Hollander said.
That was also an era when farmers were hired as contractors, and each township employed their own person to handle road repairs, Smith said.
“Our equipment has outgrown the building,” Hollander said.
Since state law allows road money to be used to fund renovations at the county highway garage, the commissioners say that gives them more financial options than with the courthouse.
But the complete garage renovation will be more expensive, and all three commissioners said they were reluctant to tap into road funds to pay for the work.
“You probably need $3 million to $4 million to do it right and get it all done in a year,” Kleinhenz said.
“We cannot do it all in one whack,” Lienhoop said.
The county has already invested nearly $400,000 into a new salt barn at the State Street location and Lienhoop is hopeful a garage expansion and renovation can also be done at the location.