An almost 17 percent hike in funding for law enforcement — and a nearly 14 percent increase for jail operations — are the biggest spending increases expected in Bartholomew County government next year.

Compared to this year, nearly a million more dollars may be funneled into the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department mainly to fund new vehicles and personnel.

But it’s not a sure thing. For the first time in recent memory, the county’s budget process for a new year will still be going on when the new year begins.

On Oct. 10, the council approved a 2018 budget of $22,688,978 — a 9.2 percent increase from the $20,778,212 budget for 2017.

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But that vote was done to fulfill the county’s legal obligation to have all budgetary figures submitted to the state by Nov. 1, Bartholomew County Chief Deputy Auditor Sandy Beatty said.

“What we ‘want’ to do budget-wise is done,” Beatty said.

But what hasn’t been addressed is the $1.9 million gap between expenses and conventional revenue in the budget, county officials said.

On Oct. 10, the county council approved increasing the county’s portion of local income taxes taken out of local wages by a 4-3 vote.

“Now, the council will have to address where we are going to spend (the new tax revenue),” said Chris West, the county’s tax billing administrator.

By January, the council should know exactly how much new money to expect.

In October, the council was working with an estimate that the tax increase would generate about $4.8 million for the county next year.

But now, it appears that new revenue may be less than expected, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman said.

That’s one reason why additional reductions may be necessary, Beatty said.

If cuts need to be made, there are four areas of county government where spending is scheduled to be increased more than $100,000 next year.

Sheriff (up $535,153)

After originally asking for 11 new vehicles, the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department was granted nine new patrol cars in the 2018 budget.

All vehicles being replaced have more than 150,000 miles, which insurers say makes them more of a liability than an asset to public safety, Bartholomew County councilman and former two-term sheriff Mark Gorbett said earlier this year.

There is only one new deputy who will be hired in 2018. But in replacing officers who have either retired or resigned recently, the department has three recently-hired deputies who will still be undergoing costly field training for part of next year, Sheriff Matt Myers said.

A fourth replacement is attending the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, the sheriff said.

Jail (up $410,425)

More money is planned to be spent at the Bartholomew County Jail in the next few years than any other county department.

The budget calls for hiring five new corrections officers, which will bring the total to 35 next year. In addition, there will be two staff nurses, instead of just one.

Since the jail is frequently at capacity or over capacity, more money has also been allocated for inmate food purchases.

But the county ranks the jail second behind the sheriff’s law enforcement division because county taxpayers won’t be burdened with all the costs.

For example, a state-administered grant program called Recovery Works will provide financial vouchers for expenses related to treating inmates suffering from mental illness and/or addictions. County taxpayers have footed most of those costs so far.

Funding from another state grant program for jail operations that has been providing about $40,000 annually every September for a number of years has also been increased, Beatty said.

Courts (up $153,751)

Much of the increase in next year’s courts budget reflects what happened last spring, rather than year-to-year changes.

There are three main courts: Circuit, Superior 1 and Superior 2.

After the three judges warned last spring they were about to start losing overworked and underpaid staff members, the council provided Superior Court 2 with an additional full-time worker last spring, while part-time assistance was provided to the other two courts.

They were paid through an additional appropriation, which is not reflected in the 2017 budget figures.

But much of next year’s increase will be provided to attorneys. For only the second time in nearly 10 years, the council is increasing compensation to lawyers who work as public defenders, giving them a 3 percent increase.

Since the budget was approved, there’s already been a new personnel request from the courthouse. Prosecutor Bill Nash is asking for an additional paralegal because the office is dealing with so many more cases, Hackman said.

Both that request, as well as a proposal to start setting aside funds to start a new drug court in 2019, will come before the council after the first of the year, Hackman said.

Commissioners ($141,467)

On a line-item basis, the three largest increases in the commissioners’ budget are to meet federal mandates, pay additional expenses for mental health services and cover increased liability costs.

But some of the increase is also meant to begin restoring money controlled by the commissioners that they had earlier agreed to turn over to other departments.

For example, the commissioners agreed in August 2016 to provide $700,000 in allocations from the commissioners’ budget from income tax funds to help balance the county’s general fund.

Incomplete budget process

During her nearly 20 years in the auditor’s office, Beatty said this is the first time the county budget wasn’t completed by the second week of October.

“If we didn’t have the money, they (council members) would cut, slice and dice things until we got it down to what we knew we had,” Beatty said.

While the combination of spending cuts and shifting money worked for awhile, the council began running out of ways to reduce expenses a couple of years ago, Hackman said.

“They had already gotten rid of everything they could cut, except for personnel,’ West said. “Meanwhile, our expenses kept going up.”

For example, increases came from unfunded or underfunded mandates such as the state’s requirement that low-level felons serve their time in the county jail, instead of state corrections facilities.

Meanwhile, tax-relief efforts ranging from property tax circuit breakers, appeals, homestead credits and lower-than-expected assessed valuations all combined to reduce the overall revenue stream, Hackman said.

Allocating new money

Whatever new money is received, the council will have to divide it into a new public safety fund, the county’s general fund, or for “economic development,” which carries fewer restrictions than the name suggests, Hackman said.

Council members will then decide either how to pay for individual expenses already approved, or cut them due to insufficient funding, she said.

Another challenge facing the council is how to fund other necessary upcoming expenses not in the 2018 budget.

If the conversion of an older, unused section of the county jail into a drug rehabilitation center is approved, Recovery Works will pick up much of the tab through its state grant funding, county officials said.

But renovations that deal with overcrowding, rather than help inmates with mental health or addiction problems, won’t receive Recovery Works monies.

That is why the county and city are in financial discussions that may evolve into an interlocal spending agreement, Hackman said.

Because of its larger population, the city of Columbus will receive more money from the Oct. 10 income tax hike than county government.

City officials have expressed a willingness to use a portion of its new revenue stream to provide some degree of financial assistance for the jail, as well as other programs to address the community’s opioid crisis.

Necessary renovations at the county courthouse and the county highway garage will have to be financed solely by the council.

But with the passage of the tax hike, the council now has the option of bonding out large capital building projects and using a portion of the new revenue stream to pay for it, Hackman said.

Impact of LIT

When they raised the county’s portion of local income taxes in October, the Bartholomew County Council was working with an estimate that it would generate about $4.8 million for the county — and nearly $6.2 million for the city of Columbus.

If that were the case, individuals making $50,000 a year will see their local income tax go up by $4.80 a week or $250 a year, county auditor Barb Hackman said.

But Hackman emphasized the exact impact of the tax hike still can’t be calculated, because certified allocation figures have not been released by state budget agencies.

A need for context

Those who attempt to compare year-over-year budgets are often unaware of the complexities involved in county government financing, according to administrators with the Bartholomew County Auditor’s office.

The normal shifting of some expenses from one financial pocket to another is a key reason why year-to-year comparisons often are misleading, said Chris West, the county’s tax billing administrator.

For example, what might show up as an increase in spending next year may only be a restoration of normal funding after a temporary shift was approved the previous year, West said.

To add to the confusion, there are frequent regulatory or accounting changes ordered at the state level that make comparisons difficult or nearly impossible, Chief Deputy Auditor Sandy Beatty said.

“It’s sometimes more than trying to compare apples to oranges,” Beatty said. “Sometimes, the state will change an apple into an orange.”

While some residents say such complexities don’t matter because it’s all tax money, that conclusion isn’t completely true.

Bartholomew County government also receives monies from grants, user fees, telephone surcharges, fines,  and even a cable television franchise fee.

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