Editorial: $21 million county surplus is not a badge of honor

If you read Mark Webber’s story on Bartholomew County’s jaw-dropping cash surplus in last Sunday’s Republic headlined “County debates spending strategy”, you might have wound up scratching your head.

Bartholomew County has a staggering surplus of our money — $21.3 million at the end of last year, Webber reported — with “no overall agreement on how to spend it.”

This embarrassment of riches may be just an embarrassment. Because it’s indefensible that county leaders are hoarding such a vast surplus with apparently no idea why. This excess cash works out to just over $250 for every man, woman and child living in the county.

Don’t be mistaken, we’re all for government operating at a surplus. But scale matters. And there seems to be a disconnect between our elected officials and the taxpayers they represent. We at The Republic hear from homeowners who range from puzzled to irate about their property tax bills. In some cases, the bills haven’t just gone through the roof, they’re flirting with the stratosphere.

All of this makes it downright dumbfounding when headlines also read: “Fewer county roads to be repaved”.

That also was our Mark Webber reporting earlier this month that Bartholomew County Commissioners will only pave about 16.5 miles of rural roads this year, not the 20 to 25 miles county highway engineer Danny Hollander had hoped for.

Labor and asphalt prices have more than doubled in about six years, Hollander said. Sure, that’s rough — but so are some of these roads out here.

Despite inflation, the county can easily afford to repave those roads. Just as the cost of everything has risen, so have the county’s fortunes: Its cash surplus is six times what it was a few years ago. The county could get those extra miles paved for less than $1 million of its cash reverses, still leaving $20 million in the bank. And they should. At least that way we’d see they’re doing something with our money.

Why are our county’s leaders sitting on riches instead of using our money for roads and other services? We understand that some of this $21 million has restrictions on its uses, especially the COVID-related funding the county received from the federal government. And there are plenty of Republicans in Congress itching to take back federal COVID relief money that localities have not yet appropriated. That tallies millions locally.

However, that’s not the full picture. And even flush with cash, some council members are still looking for things to cut.

At least councilwoman Evelyn Pence has an idea for some of this cash bonanza. She proposes paying off the jail bond early at a cost of $6.9 million. It’s worth studying whether the county would come out ahead, considering interest rates and other factors. Credit her for thinking of taxpayers, because her idea would wipe out an entire tax levy.

We have ideas, too. How about using this massive surplus to freeze future property tax increases? Giving taxpayers at least some predictability would be well received, and it’s not like the county can’t afford it.

Or how about this: County leaders could refund at least half of this surplus and still have millions more than they need. After all, if they can’t figure out what to do with all this cash laying around, we expect taxpayers could find some use for it.