County opts for smaller employee raises

With most members digging in their heels, the Bartholomew County Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a $57.5 million dollar budget for 2023.

Up only slightly from the $57.3 million passed for this year, the new spending plan was subjected to $2.6 million in spending cuts from departmental requests received last summer.

The total budget for next year includes a general fund of $29.3 million traditionally collected through property taxes. But additional revenue of $28.2 million is generated from what is called “home rule funds.” The term refers to local income tax (LIT) revenue, grants, fees and other miscellaneous forms of income.

Before formal budget discussions began Tuesday, council member Mark Gorbett made one more plea to his peers to approve a 5% raise for more than 400 county employees, rather than 3.5%. While Gorbett was backed up by fellow council member Jorge Morales, the majority of the council members didn’t budge from the positions they expressed in August. The vote was 5-2, with only Gorbett and Morales voting in favor of the larger increase.

As Gorbett informally polled individual members at the beginning of the meeting, retiring councilman Scott Bonnell said he would support the larger wage hike. But when the formal vote was made an hour later, Bonnell – a Columbus fire inspector – switched his position and voted for the smaller raises.

Providing higher wages is seen by Gorbett and Morales as a significant step toward stabilizing the county’s workforce, which has experienced a much higher than normal number of resignations. Morales says the 5% raises would be much less expensive than having to train a large influx of new workers.

While Morales described the all-Republican council as fiscal conservatives, he added there is also such a thing as being a fiscally irresponsible person.

“I believe this budget is fiscally irresponsible when it treats our employees this way while we have data from surrounding counties that they are getting more than 3.5%,” Morales said.

Other data used to justify a larger pay raise include a salary study presented in March that shows many county workers are underpaid when compared to their counterparts in some Indiana counties.

In addition, Bartholomew County has more than enough funds to provide a 5% raise, county Auditor Pia O’Conner said.

“We have a surplus in our general fund, $10 million in our rainy day fund, and projections … that the growth quotient will continue for at least the next six years,” O’Connor said. The property tax growth quotient refers to a formula used to calculate the annual growth in tax levies.

But council President Greg Duke rejected O’Connor’s assessment. Instead, he quoted an article indicating property tax circuit breakers and inflation will limit revenue for all levels of government in Indiana.

Duke also said that many county workers are retiring this year, rather than leaving for bigger paychecks.

Gorbett argued that the Columbus City Council is preparing to give their workers a 6% raise next year. However, city officials have only given first-reading approval to a 5% cost of living increase. While the city council has set aside additional money for merit raises, members stressed those funds doesn’t mean all workers will receive merit raises.

After Gorbett argued that Jackson County government is poised to provide their employees an 8% raise, council member Matt Miller maintained that Bartholomew County workers will still be receiving more money that those in Jackson County.

In September, the council gave their initial, first-reading approval to a $4.5 million budget for the Bartholomew County Solid Waste District. That amount was up from $3.98 million approved for this year.

The final vote and adoption of next year’s budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20. The council chambers are on the first floor of the Bartholomew County Governmental Office building at Third and Franklin streets.