The opioid crisis and jail overcrowding will be the most dominant issues facing county government this year.

That’s according to the three Bartholomew County commissioners, who outlined their upcoming plans during a recent interview.

But while problems may be clear, there still are more questions than answers on many of the coming year’s biggest issues, the commissioners said.

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Opioid crisis

A large looming question is what level of financial support will be provided by county government for the opioid crisis, incoming commissioners chairman Larry Kleinhenz said.

Both Columbus City Council and Bartholomew County Council members will spend time this winter determining how new revenue generated by an increase in the local income tax should be spent.

During recent meetings, council council president Laura DeDomenic said she expects about a third of the county’s new revenue will go to public safety, a third to buildings and maintenance and a third to combat the opioid crisis.

About $2.38 million in additional monies has been earmarked for public safety by the county, while the city of Columbus is expected to receive an additional $3.09 million for the same purpose, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman said.

Since the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) in Bartholomew County outlined broad conceptual proposals in October, local residents have inquired how much the battle against addiction might cost taxpayers.

However, alliance representatives have said they would be reluctant to release cost estimates until specific projects are formally proposed later this year.

“The sad part is that there really aren’t any figures right now,” said commissioner Carl Lienhoop, who serves with Columbus Regional Health CEO Jim Bickel and Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop as the major sponsors of ASAP.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how all of this plays out,” Kleinhenz said.

Initiatives that ASAP hopes for this year through a variety of funding sources include:

Opening of at least one new residential treatment center.

Launching a program that provides nurse coaches to expectant new mothers, including possible addicts.

Establishing a family recovery court dealing exclusively in cases involving parental rights that arise out of substance abuse.

But according to a Dec. 12 ASAP presentation, county taxpayers will likely be asked to support upgrades at the Bartholomew County Jail. That could include an initiative to establish in-house addictions treatment for inmates in the jail’s older, currently unused section.

Jail

Jail overcrowding and the opioid crisis must be addressed as two separate legislative and budgetary issues, said Sheriff Matt Myers and commissioner Rick Flohr.

“People like to tie those two issues together,” Flohr said. “But if we didn’t have an opioid problem, we’d still have (jail) overcrowding.”

If an unused section of the jail capable of holding up to 100 individuals isn’t upgraded to handle overcrowding, inmates cannot be properly classified for proper housing, Myers said.

That creates potentially dangerous situations for both inmates and jail staff, as well as liability issues, the sheriff said.

But Flohr admits tackling the overcrowding issue will be costly in terms of both staff and equipment.

For example, the cost of installing essential video surveillance equipment in the old portion of the jail is expected to exceed $100,000, Chief Deputy Sheriff Maj. Chris Lane said.

Although additional jail staff will be added next year, new personnel won’t be enough to allow the county open up new cells in the older part of the jail, Myers said.

Jail-related expenses that aren’t related to the opioid crisis will likely have to come from the new income tax revenue, Flohr said.

Buildings

There are a number of upcoming developments on the commissioners’ 2018 calendar that include:

This month’s reopening of the bridge over the Fall Fork of Clifty Creek, along County Road 300 North, that’s been closed since May 2015.

A decision on whether the Bartholomew County Soil and Water Conservation office will move into the new county extension office on South Marr Road.

Extensive interior remodeling at the Bartholomew County Veterans Office.

A new roof on the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building.

But expensive projects that address courthouse deterioration and structural problems at the Bartholomew County highway garage likely won’t be tackled this year.

Instead, the county council has asked the commissioners to manage a $1.7 million fund, Kleinhenz said. Besides using that money to pay for all 2018 repairs and maintenance, the commissioners have been asked to develop a five-year plan to address problems with county-owned buildings.

The council wants to avoid issuing building bonds, instead using cash whenever possible, Carl Lienhoop said.

“I’ve always been against it, too, because it’s debt,” Kleinhenz said. “But I’ve realized that doing building projects in a piecemeal fashion has a lot of inefficiencies.”

If the county council waits several months before deciding bonding is necessary, it will likely find higher interest rates, Lienhoop said.

Although the courthouse is undoubtedly a higher-profile building than the highway garage on State Street, Kleinhenz said he doesn’t know how the staff tolerates working in the deteriorating 66-year-old garage, which he describes as dingy.

While not politically popular, it may be in the county’s best interest to move the garage project up on the priority list, Flohr said.

“Maybe we need an open house there next spring,” Lienhoop said. “Many on the council have still not seen inside the garage.”

Roads/bridges

Although state and city road crews will be busy this year, no major county road or bridge projects are expected in 2018.

“Just the typical stuff,” Bartholomew County Highway Superintendent Dwight Smith said. “The plan calls for about 30 miles of (new blacktop) and about 80 miles of chip-and-seal (gravel/asphalt mixture) on county roads.”

There are no bridges under the department’s jurisdiction in urgent need of repair, county highway engineer Danny Hollander said.

“Even the worse ones still have 10 years of life in them,” Hollander said.

When city and state officials decided to put a State Road 46/State Road 11 overpass on the fast track, with overpass construction expected to start in late 2019 instead of 2022, county highway crews acted quickly to ensure westside motorists would have a safe alternate route to get in and out of the city.

That occurred by improving both County Road 325 West and Lowell Road to handle a greater volume of vehicles, able to safely travel at higher speeds.

With $200,000 to work with, the county highway department did all of the work in-house to widen a two-mile stretch of Lowell Road and improve both conditions and speeds along what had been two dangerous curves.

The only part of that project that will be addressed in 2018 will the widening of a small, half-mile section of 325W near the Lowell Bridge, Kleinhenz said.

“That will kind of complete it for the time-being,” Kleinhenz said.

Other improvements to Lowell Road, including either replacing or renovating the Lowell Bridge, remain several years from getting underway, Hollander said.

The department also will complete the installation of sidewalks along Carr Hill Road, just east of the Interstate 65, during the year.

The commissioners have expressed approval of proposed improvements to Anderson Falls Park that will be considered later this year.

Unfunded mandates

Unfunded mandates, which allow state or federal lawmakers to approve laws or regulations — and then require city and county governments to pay for them — are always a concern, the commissioners said.

The most well-known example of an unfunded mandate was the federal 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which called for local units of government to make expensive accessibility improvements with little to no additional federal funding.

A more recent example emerged in January 2016, when the Indiana General Assembly began requiring low-level felons to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

But it wasn’t until jail overcrowding became a constant issue in 2017 that the consequences were felt locally, Flohr said.

It also was the state that demanded all Indiana courts switch to a new software system for record-keeping in 2017. It forced Bartholomew County officials to hire up to four new court employees to carry out that requirement, Tucker said.

When the state required the Bartholomew County Auditor’s office to implement new internal record-keeping controls, it cost the county $50,000, Kleinhenz said. That was on top of a regular, state-mandated audit that costs about $45,000.

2017 accomplishments

Here are some of the top accomplishments 2017, as listed by the Bartholomew County commissioners:

  • Finding permanent homes for the Purdue Extension office and nursing division of the county health department.
  • Completing reorganization of the county’s information technology department, which lost all of its employees in 2016.
  • Finishing several interior renovations to county buildings with a five-member, in-house maintenance staff, instead of using contractors.
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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.