Bartholomew County Council and Commissioners are facing a number of bad options to bridge a nearly $4 million gap in the county’s 2016 budget, ranging from hiring freezes and whittling down the county’s workforce to slowing or halting the construction of a new State Street annex building and increasing the costs of employee healthcare.
While a decision on the State Street Annex is ultimately up to the county commissioners, the county council and other county officials raised concerns about spending money for that project while considering cuts to employee benefits or leaving some positions unfilled.
Commissioners said they need to know within 30 days whether council is asking them to stop the project. And even if it does stop, the county still needs to tear down the former annex building and pay the rent for county offices that have been relocated.
The biggest budget problem is the climbing cost of employee health care. The county is self-insured. County officials say they need to put $5.7 million dollars into the employee health care trust fund next year to cover the costs of employee claims.
Commissioners President Larry Kleinhenz reminded the other county officials that for years, the county underfunded the health care trust fund, but as county employees age, the number of claims continue to go up and to be more expensive.
Barb Hackman, the county auditor, said the county now has about 30 employees over the age of 65.
The council and commissioners tossed around ideas on how to make ends meet in the healthcare area, including offering retirement incentives to older employees, and nearly doubling the employees’ health care premiums while moving to a high-deductible plan.
Kleinhenz said part of the problem is the increase in the number of county employees. He said the county had about 320 employees 20 years ago, but now has more than 380.
The council discussed ways to reduce that number, from seeking voluntary retirements or buyouts to simply not filling open positions. Council President Evelyn Pence suggested that each department with open positions undergo a Six Sigma program to identify whether positions are actually needed before they are refilled.
The council told county maintenance supervisor Rick Trimpe not to fill a vacant position he has open, due to concerns over next year’s budget problems. Trimpe asked whether the hiring freeze would also apply to open positions in the sheriff’s department.
Sheriff Matt Myers, who was in the audience, took exception to the question, saying that his employees are directly responsible for public safety and deal with criminals every day. He said employee shortages in the sheriff’s department put people’s lives at risk.
Myers is not asking for new employees this year, but does want to make a part-time position into a full-time jail worker, because of increasing requirements that the jail fill out a 35-page Medicaid application for each inmate who stays for more than 30 days.
But, Myers warned the council that in upcoming years he plans to seek more deputies to provide the services he says are needed for public safety. And if the county will not approve the positions, he plans to begin cutting extraneous operations occupying deputies time, such as the DARE program or overseeing county jail inmates who are providing free lawn mowing services for the county.
Some county officials say the county needs more revenue.
Councilman Mark Gorbett, the former county sheriff, said he would propose a new public safety tax rate, which would be added to local income taxes. The tax would generate about $1.9 million a year for law enforcement by increasing the county income tax from 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent, council members said.
Councilman Jim Reed also urged the county commissioners to consider instituting a cumulative capital development fund to pay for building projects. The increase to property taxes would allow an account to be set up that could carry over from year to year and in four years, the county would have enough cash to pay for a county annex building. But Commissioners President Kleinhenz said he would not support any attempt to raise property taxes.
The council will reconvene this morning to consider its options.