County considers myriad of budget requests

Bartholomew County government will have more than enough money in 2023 to pay for all requested budget expenses, county officials determined during their annual budget hearings.

When all general fund revenue is added, the total is $32,114,352. That is $684,604 more than proposed expenditures, and more than enough to fund the 5% pay raises suggested by the three county commissioners. Proposed pay hikes are higher than normal because a salary study showed many Bartholomew County employees are significantly underpaid when compared to their counterparts in a number of other counties.

But by late Monday afternoon, what seemed like a smooth process suddenly turned sour as the council discovered the county may have a full-blown employee hiring and retention crisis on their hands.

Council member Mark Gorbett said it is extremely important to discover why more than 60 individuals have left county government since the first of the year.

One possible explanation brought up during the talks was that many of the former employees work in high stress areas including the Youth Services Center (down four to five employees), the county jail (down nine to 10 employees) and the 911 Emergency Services Center (down six employees). The loss numbers were all estimates given by Gorbett on Monday.

Bartholomew County Health Department Nursing Division Director Amanda Organist requested a minimum 5% salary increase for all staff, which includes several who worked 200 consecutive days after the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out.

Organist has asked the council for an additional registered nurse four separate times, she said. The public sector department cannot compete with higher salaries available in the private sector, which makes it difficult to maintain qualified staff, she said. Despite the health department’s increasing importance, Organist said her department has not hired additional staff for 23 years.

“The population has increased, the number of reportable diseases has increased, the need for vaccines has increased – but the staffing has remained the same,” Organist said.

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, which is the largest in county government, is asking for a total of $12,489,599. That represents a 6.35% increase when the law enforcement division, jail, court security and drug treatment programs under the sheriff’s umbrella are combined.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Maj. Chris Lane said the plan calls for raising the number of lieutenants from one to three, so there will be one commander for each shift. Currently, Lt. T.A. Smith has responsibility for all three shifts, although he usually just works second shift, Lane said. The lieutenants will be selected from two current sergeants, he added.

Lane, who is running unopposed for sheriff this fall, said the pandemic and supply-side problems prevented the department from purchasing any new vehicles last year, Lane said. New orders were not accepted, he told the council. For that reason, the sheriff’s office has plans to purchase eight new vehicles this year, Lane said.

But the largest concern for the sheriff’s department is hiring and retaining employees.

At no time in the last seven years has the sheriff’s department been fully staffed due to attrition, Lane said. While new hires have been made, it usually takes 14 months from the time a new deputy is hired until he or she is qualified to make road patrols.

In the past 24 months, the department has been down as many as five deputies, so Lane asked the council to be able to increase his department’s recruiting by two new deputies, so the process of boosting the number of merit deputies can be accelerated.

Concern was also expressed by Gorbett that a $189,000 federal grant to address substance abuse through the county’s judicial system is about to expire. However, some of that loss will be offset through the $3 million that Bartholomew County will received in a settlement with a major pharmaceutical firm over their role in the opioid crisis, O’Connor said.

Due to other circumstances, Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin is requesting that the drug court’s budget be increased from $113,523 this year to $248,193 next year. Her presentation to the council included non-financial data indicating the success of problem-solving courts.

Another substantial increase was requested by county Coroner Clayton Nolting, who asked that his 2022 allocation of $85,000 for professional services be raised to $95,000 next year.

“We are six overdoses ahead of where we were last year,” said Nolting regarding heroin and methamphetamine statistics. “Last year was a record year, but honestly, every year has been a record year.”

The cost of autopsies has already gone up in price, Nolting said. Toxicology testing will become more expensive as well, he said.

When the budget hearing began on Monday, the council decided to wait until the budget sessions conclude at the end of this week before discussing the level of pay raises.

County auditor Pia O’Connor says there will be an anticipated 2023 reserve fund (also known as “rainy day” fund) of about $10 million next year, but many on the council have established their own priorities.

After the highest budget in Bartholomew County history was adopted last October, the council voted to adopt a set of non-binding fiscally conservative policies with a goal of reducing taxes and minimizing government debt.

The ongoing impact of inflation is one reason county officials say they are being conservative as they approach salary increases. For example, Gordon Foods has told the jail their prices for food at the jail and Youth Services Center are up 16% from last year, council member Matt Miller said. Meanwhile, nobody is sure whether gasoline prices may go from now through next year, he added.

“We know what inflation is doing, and it’s out of control,” Miller said. “I want to be prepared and have money set aside, so we’re not digging into that ‘rainy day’ fund.

A suggestion that part of the reserve funds be set aside for capital improvements was made by councilman Jorge Morales.

There is also an effort among council members including Evelyn Pence to completely pay off the $25 million jail construction bond issued in 2008 to expand the Bartholomew County Jail. The earliest the bond can be paid off without incurring a financial penalty will be July 2023.

Some positive news for county employees came after O’Connor said medical premiums for the self-insured county are not expected to change next year.