Bartholomew County officials have found themselves with quite a nest egg of cash on hand, but no overall agreement on how to spend it.
The idea of giving some of it back to taxpayers was brought up during an early fiscal overview given to Bartholomew County Council members this month.
At the end of last year, the balance in the county’s general fund was $21.3 million, said Bartholomew County Auditor Pia O’Connor said. In comparison, the county had $3.9 million available at the end of 2016, the auditor said.
It currently appears that Bartholomew County’s growth quotient, a formula used to calculate the annual growth in tax levies, will provide the county $850,000 more than last year’s $16.53 million property tax levy. However, O’Connor said that figure will likely change as more precise data becomes available.
For several months, 43-year council member Evelyn Pence has advocated paying off the jail bond that was issued for a 35,000-square-foot expansion of the county jail completed in 2008.
After being told the county will finally be able to pay off the bond without penalties after July 15, Bartholomew County Auditor Pia O’Connor told the council the $6.9 million payoff would wipe away an entire tax rate.
However, since the bond was obtained at an extremely low rate, there was also an argument made that available funds will gain more interest if invested wisely than they would save by paying off the bond early. At the end of the discussion, there did not appear to be any consensus whether the council wanted to pay the bond off early.
Besides the general fund, income also grew when Bartholomew County’s new local income tax (LIT) went into effect in January 2018, O’Connor said. Since the entire jail is now funded through local income tax funds, a huge burden has been lifted off the property tax-supported general fund, she said.
But while county government may be in great fiscal shape, it also has large expenses coming up. And the county’s ability to make long-term plans ranges from difficult to nearly impossible. That is due in no small part to changes made by state lawmakers who often don’t grasp how their actions at the statehouse impact local governments, former county auditor and current county Treasurer Barb Hackman said.
Although formal discussion of the county’s 2023 budget won’t begin for another three months, the seven-member council spent well over an hour recently going over revenue and expenses. The council learned their approved budget for this year was lower than available revenue by $2.9 million. Of that amount of money, $2 million has still not been appropriated, O’Connor said.
The auditor’s report seemed to come as a relief to council member Mark Gorbett, who has requested a report on tax-driven funds. Gorbett, a former two-term sheriff, said he felt uneasy because the county has been spending at historic high levels over the past few years.
While the county has strong financial resources, the government entity also has significant expenses on the horizon that include up to $3 million dollars for a variety of repairs and upgrades, council president Jorge Morales said.
One project Morales referred to is new heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements at the courthouse. The Bartholomew County Commissioners are scheduled to consider a six-figure contract with Strand and Associates simply to design the system during a 10 a.m. meeting today.
The county will also have to tend to long-postponed repairs to the upper exterior of the courthouse. In addition, the council will be asked to make large, ongoing investments into courthouse security and jail correctional staff.
Morales says the county’s biggest single expense is wages and benefits.
“In the past, the (county) commissioners have said to every department to program 5% for an increase in wages,” Morales said. “Whether we can meet that 5% or not, it has always been a negative situation. What I’m hoping for this year is that we have an idea of where we are financially, so we can give guidance and be proactive.”
A small committee was formed from the council members that will provide that guidance in the form of emails to be sent to the various county departments.
But Morales also said if the county keeps adding sizable wage increases and benefits for employees every year, they will create expenses that will never go away.
“How much longer can we sustain that without taking any negative actions toward our employees?” Morales said.
Council member Matt Miller expressed concern that some elected officials or department heads are unable to tell the difference between their department’s wants and needs.
Morales said only five of Indiana’s 92 counties provide the same number of services available at the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center.
“Why do we have to keep providing them?” Morales asked.
Council member Bill Lentz suggested cutting back on services provided by the Bartholomew County Health Department that are not available in all Indiana counties.
Gorbett advocated the development of a system to effectively evaluate an employee’s performance before a merit raise is considered.
O’Connor repeated what she told the council at the beginning of the discussion. “Again, we still have a $20 million balance in the General Fund,” O’Connor said.
But members continued to seek confirmed financial data from the auditor, who repeatedly said the final numbers won’t be available until later in the year.
However, O’Connor said later she understood the council’s frustrations. She expressed her own concerns that Indiana lawmakers and some state agencies are making too many unexpected changes that prevent local governments from developing long-term plans.
For example, she appeared unaware during the meeting that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently signed House Bill 1499 into law. According to council member Leah Buyer, that bill will decrease Bartholomew County’s property tax revenue by $679,000 in 2025, and by $1.276 million in 2026.
Last year, local deadlines were missed when financial data needed by the county from the state did not arrive on time, the auditor said.
When O’Connor called up the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance to express her concern, “they told me I needed to just calm down and do our budget later,” she said.
O’Connor’s frustrations with the Indiana General Assembly and state fiscal agencies is nothing new. They were confirmed as legitimate by Barb Hackman, the county’s current treasurer who served as county auditor form 2008 -2018. Hackman is also a vice-president with the Indiana Association of Counties.
Hackman said that when she was auditor, ongoing and unexpected changes from Indianapolis were preventing elected county officials from planning ahead for more than two years.
“A lot of times, it’s unfunded mandates,” Hackman said. “They put something into place and tell the city and counties they have to pay for it, even though you haven’t budgeted for those changes.”
What’s been spent
Items paid for by COVID-19 relief funds (The Coronavirus Aid,Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act ot 2020 and the American Rescue Plan of 2021.
- $150,000 for equipment needed for a mobile work force that allows some county employees to work from home.
- $110,000 for the adoption of teleconferencing solutions, as well as additional mobile internet used for vaccination clinics and COVID response related events.
- Remodeling of the Bartholomew County General Office Building at Third and Franklin streets
- Purchased a larger facility for the county health department’s nursing division. They also sold their former facility for $579,437.
- Premium pay to employees who put their lives on the line during the pandemic.
- Relief to not-for-profit organizations.
- Rural Fire Relief
- COVID-19 testing and vaccination support
- $800,000 for a 3% raise.
- $102,377 for requests made by the sheriff’s department