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Council declines raises, OKs final budget

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A Bartholomew County Council member said he wanted to send a message that the local economy is still fragile and that many people are still financially hurting.

Ryan Lauer’s motion that the council members deny themselves raises in 2013, which was approved Tuesday night, was largely symbolic. It represents a total savings of $1,365 next year — $195 for each of the seven council members who will go without a raise.

However, a breaking story later delivered in the meeting by a fellow council member really drove Lauer’s message home.

Minutes after the final reading and unanimous approval of a $21.71 million general fund budget, Jorge Morales received a text message. The retired Cummins Inc. department manager learned that his former employer was planning to reduce its worldwide workforce by up to 1,500 employees by the end of the year.

The Columbus-based corporation also stated it was considering workweek reductions and plant shutdowns.

“We don’t know what the local impact will be at this time,” Morales said. “We may be talking about a lot of current wage earners that won’t be paying CEDIT (County Economic Development Income Tax) and are looking for other jobs. We need to be very cautious.”

After announcing the news to his colleagues, Morales immediately asked council attorney Rod McGillivray if next year’s general fund budget, which includes a 2.5 percent pay raise for county employees, might later be altered if the local economy goes bad.

McGillivray assured Morales that salary changes for non-elected employees could be made at any time. However, he added that wage changes for elected officials must be adjusted before the end of the year.

While the Cummins announcement reinforced Lauer’s concerns, the timing was not good for two Bartholomew County Commissioners. The news broke just one day after Paul Franke and Carl Lienhoop voiced support for a new building fund to finance a new county annex building.

If approved, the cumulative capital improvement fund would raise property taxes by 4 cents per $100 of assessed valuation the first year and up to 7 cents annually in subsequent years.

Morales said he had just learned that day that the commissioners can create the fund on their own.

“They don’t need any approval from the County Council, and that concerns me,” Morales said. “There are several cities that are putting the brakes on their cum cap fund because of how those monies can be dispersed.”

Both Morales and council president Bill Lentz stated they don’t believe the commissioners have fully examined all other alternatives to financing the bonds.

“When the bond goes away, it goes away. But it seems that with additional taxes, it’s forever,” Lentz said. “In light of the rough economy, I think the last thing I want to do is create a new tax.”

Morales noted that issuing bonds would involve paying a substantially higher interest rate than what the county now earns with its investments.

Lentz said he believes that renting an existing building to house current annex occupants remains a viable alternative, at least for the short term. He believes the cost of both bonds and rent should be compared before any final decision is made.

During the discussion, Lauer reminded his fellow council members that the 84-year-old current annex building at State and Pence streets is considered by many to be a health and safety hazard.

“Whatever the commissioners end up doing, I think it would be wise for the council to work with them in the interim on safety issues just to get us through,” Lauer said. “Because even if the commissioners move forward with something, we still have time in that building, and we need to make sure our employees and our residents are safe.”

Both council member Rob Kittle and County Auditor Barb Hackman strongly urged all council members to tour the former State Street School building.

“I think we need to discuss it from a position of knowledge and not just what we are being told by other folks,” Kittle said.

The total amount of the 2013 budget was $111,000 less than the preliminary budget approved in the fall of 2012.

A total of $19.72 million in non-general spending, as well as the Bartholomew County Solid Waste Management District’s budget of $3.6 million, also was approved Tuesday.

Besides the exclusion of council members from raises, one additional change was made to the preliminary 2013 general fund budget before its final adoption.

The council agreed to give second- and third-shift workers at both the 911 Emergency Operations Center and the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center an additional 25 cents an hour on top of the raises already included in the budget.

A similar consideration was approved for nighttime and overnight employees at the Sheriff’s Department earlier in the budget process.

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