Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

March 14, 2014

Council eyes tough budget decisions

Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — BROOKVILLE – To tax or not to tax? That was one question the Franklin County Council faced March 11 when realizing $1.32 million must be chopped from the 2014 budget’s General Fund after meeting with Indiana Department of Local Government Finance employees.

“I’ve got an option before we start the bloodshed,” said member Rebecca Oglesby, Brookville. “We do not have a local option income tax.” When she asked IDLGF officials about the possibility, “they frowned on it because they said we haven’t hit our (property tax circuit breaker) caps because our rate isn’t that high.” This year Franklin County’s tax rate is .3428 per $100 assessed valuation, comparable to Ripley County’s .3123, but much lower than Decatur County at .4417 and Rush County at .4842. All have similar populations.

Oglesby proposed filing a property tax appeal to IDLGF by Aug. 1 to raise the rate. In order for the appeal to be successful, the council would have to liquidate $750,000 in the Rainy Day Fund and $450,000 in the Contingency Fund. Placing those amounts in the General Fund means a more palatable $120,000 would be cut out of the budget.

Oglesby advised, “I would get an attorney in Indianapolis to … make sure we do this (appeal) right.”

Member Aaron Leffingwell, Brookville, asked, “How much revenue do you think this is going to raise?” She was unsure.

Then Leffingwell and Daryl Kramer, Brookville, presented version 27 of their plan to balance the budget. The first page detailed 15 proposed reductions totalling $404,860 in the County Adjusted Gross Income Tax (CAGIT) Fund. The largest was a $344,000 Contingency Fund. Other reductions included $31,000 to send juveniles to detention facilities, $11,000 for cemetery maintenance and $4,500 for the 4-H fair. The council voted 6-1, President Jeff Koch, Oldenburg, opposed, to advertise suggested CAGIT reductions.

With those extra dollars, plus $378,222 in 2013 unspent CAGIT funds and $58,594 not yet appropriated for 2014, some expenses typically paid by the General Fund totalling $532,999 could shift to the CAGIT Fund. That idea passed 5-2, Koch and Oglesby opposed.

Leffingwell noted they cut $36,000 from the health insurance fund because “that’s what was spent last year.” County Commissioner Tom Linkel, Batesville, said he was comfortable reducing that fund by $200,000-$250,000. Commissioners’ secretary Carol Westerman explained that the county’s insurance agent suggested that $1 million be kept in the reserve fund to cover emergencies. “We’ve got 1.2 million.”

Kramer said the Franklin County Redevelopment Commission applied for a Lawrenceburg Regional Economic Development Grant and the early word is the panel will receive $126,000 to be used to hire a director, pay attorney’s fees and other items. He doesn’t believe the county needs both redevelopment and economic development commissions and has talked to commissioners about re-appropriating $52,050 in Economic Development Income Tax dollars from the Franklin County Economic Development Commission to the General Fund.

According to FCEDC President Bill Schirmer, “I still say you have a (property) tax base issue … you don’t want to ax the hand that’s supposed to be lifting you up” by attracting more businesses and industries to the county.

Kramer recommended that the council send a letter to commissioners to redirect the $52,050 to the General Fund, which passed 4-3, Oglesby, Koch and Hollie Maxie, Bath, opposed.

For the second page of reductions, the duo asked department heads cut 19 percent from their budgets. “Three came up with 17 percent. None of the others came close,” according to Kramer. Three department heads said they couldn’t cut anything else and two, the circuit court and probation department, didn’t send proposals back.

Oglesby questioned, “Can I ask why you didn’t cut right across the board?” She felt the departments that didn’t respond were being rewarded with zero cuts.

Prosecutor Melvin Wilhelm, a little hot under the collar, said a few years ago his budget was $95,000 and this year it’s $89,364. “I’ve already been cut. Where am I supposed to cut after that? Years ago, I gave up my investigator,” a position most counties have. “To ask to cut across the board? I think you need to look at the budgets and understand them.”

All department heads recommended axing employees’ raises, which would save $114,000. In all, the council approved $302,504 in department head-suggested reductions 5-1-1, with Maxie abstaining because she works in the highway department and Oglesby opposed.

Kramer said, “Guys, that was the easy part. Now we have some tough decisions.” Leffingwell flipped the third page of figures onto the wall screen. The proposal suggested eliminating 11 full-time and four part-time jobs.

With $124,286 still needing to be slashed from the budget, Koch urged that before firing employees, he would prefer lowering the health insurance reserve. “That would take care of it.” Kramer said, “This issue of the health care fund is so important, I want to have proof” that decreasing it would not harm employees’ coverage. “Underfunding health care could be devastating later on.” The issue will be researched.

Leffingwell noted using around $200,000 from the insurance fund this year instead of making job cuts is a stopgap measure. “We won’t have unspent CAGIT money next year like this year” on which to rely.

Oglesby said county employees “work their rear ends off. I’m opposed to this. I think it should be set aside and done at a later date if we would need it. You are cutting the throat of this county.” Exclamations of agreement came from some of 40 attendees, a handful of whom were on the reductions list.

Her motion to set the proposal aside was shot down 3-4 with Kramer, Leffingwell, Joe Sizemore, Metamora, and Dean McQueen, West Harrison, wanting to go ahead with the eliminations. Oglesby labeled the vote “absolutely stupid” amid growing murmurs from the crowd. Yet then the council voted 3-4 not to advertise this portion, with Sizemore going from wanting cuts to not wanting to advertise them. That move was met with applause.

Well into the contentious three-and-a-half-hour meeting, one at a time, elected officials came up to the podium to beg to keep their employees. Treasurer Veronica Voelker insisted her deputy remain. Linkel wanted the commissioners’ secretary to stay, but then he bargained, saying two part-time positions in maintenance and animal control could be gone. He balked at getting rid of one of two custodians for the courthouse, government center and grounds. “We can’t do it with one. There’s no way.”

Auditor Steve Brack maintained, “I need that deputy.” Another worker in his office will retire later this year and he pledged not to fill that position. According to Sheriff Ken Murphy, “I cannot afford to give up an employee at the jail. We are understaffed.”

Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service educator Angie Riffle, on the verge of tears, said deleting $14,000 “completely eliminates our part-time help. We might as well close our office for the last three months of the year .... I don’t know how we’re going to continue to operate.”

Franklin County 4-H Association President David Cook, Brookville, contended, “There’s not an office that serves the county that can do with less people.” He suggested meeting one on one with each office holder to determine where cuts can be made. “You’re trying to bite the bullet tonight, but I don’t think you’re doing it the right way.”

Leffingwell made a motion to advertise all employee reductions. Then the council could decide whether to fire workers or lower the health insurance fund. Sizemore admitted, “This is scary. I don’t want to worry people for a month.” Kramer and McQueen sided with Leffingwell, but the other four did not.

Then Oglesby proposed advertising fewer job reductions, the consensus being to save full-time employees in the auditor, clerk, commissioners and treasurer’s offices. (The assessor offered to pay one of her workers out of the Reassessment Fund instead of the General Fund.) That idea passed 5-2, Koch and Maxie against.

Other possible reductions floated at the meeting included cutting employees’ longevity pay ($55,600); doing away with at least two holidays to save holiday pay ($5,000); axing council members’ salaries; and eliminating council health insurance ($25,335), but those either were defeated or not voted on.

To some, a tax hike of some sort began to look more appealing. Jeff Batchler, Cedar Grove, there to support Purdue Extension, urged, “Let’s spend some of that time and effort to find ways to bring some money in.” Roy Hall, West Harrison, suggested merging the Oglesby and Kramer-Leffingwell proposals. Leffingwell previously had suggested a public safety income tax.

Health department supervisor Diane Turney accused members of delaying action to stave off a budget shortfall. “You saw it coming. Why in the name of God didn’t you do something about it then? You should have raised taxes.”

For the third time, Oglesby suggested starting the property tax appeal process, but once again she was ignored.

The council will meet April 1, after the public has time to digest legal advertisements, to make final decisions.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.

Why budget approval was rescinded • The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance certified Franklin County's 2014 budget order Jan. 31. Initially, IDLGF officials told the county auditor $3.2 million that had been deposited in an investment ledger could be used to balance the budget, but in mid-February they changed their minds.