By MATT KOESTERS
After failure of the Clark County Council and commissioners to broker a deal to close a $2.5 million budget gap in the sheriff’s department at a joint workshop Monday, it appears that significant mandated tax rates are inevitable.
“Unfortunately, I think that we’re looking at tax increases that could have been much, much lower had we had cooperation [from the commissioners] with [cumulative capital fund] dollars and [cumulative] bridge dollars that have been voluntarily used in the past to help with the county budget,” said County Council Vice President Brian Lenfert.
As it has in the past with the commissioners’ blessing, the council aims to use the two funds — both under the commissioners’ control — and County Economic Development Income Tax, or CEDIT, funds to help pay salaries in the county jail that are currently unfunded. The council hopes that the sheriff’s department’s sale of equipment obtained through a federal surplus program will add about $450,000, but about $1.5 million would have to come from the commissioners.
But the commissioners are not prepared to use the money in those funds, citing Indiana code and State Board of Accounts requirements.
“Are you asking us to break the law?” Commissioner Rick Stephenson asked the council.
The commissioners said that in previous SBOA audits, the county had been written up for using the cumulative capital fund — which is supposed to be used only for capital improvements and purchases — as a second general fund.
“You want us to break Indiana code,” Stephenson said. “We have been cited in 2005, 2007, the commissioners in 2010 on State Board of Accounts [audits] for the same thing over and over and over. And you’re asking us now to break code.
“We’re not here to be breaking rules. We’re supposed to be upholding the rules. And now you’re asking us to throw the rulebook out.”
Stephenson accused the council of wanting to pass the county’s fiscal woes into the next year, deriding the reallocation of funds as a “Ponzi scheme.”
“We need to have real fixes, not Band-Aid fixes as we’ve done in the past, and keep getting written up and keep becoming the laughing stock of Indiana,” Stephenson said.
Lenfert and Council President Barbara Hollis said that a write-up in a SBOA audit would be preferable to the tax increases that would come with a mandate from the sheriff’s department.
“I think flexibility is a must to avoid or to minimize any potential tax increase going forward,” Lenfert said.
The commissioners estimated that at least $1 million will be spent from the bridge fund this year. The commissioners raised the rate on the bridge fund from $0.008 to 5 cents at a July 2012 meeting, which means the bridge fund now accumulates about $1.9 million annually.
Commissioners President Jack Coffman said he expects more to be spent from the fund before the year is over, and would prefer to have a cash balance on hand at the beginning of 2014.
Sheriff Danny Rodden left at the conclusion of the meeting and was not immediately available for comment. However, Lenfert warned that Rodden probably took enough from the meeting to decide that a lawsuit against the county is inevitable.
“I’m assuming based on the commissioners’ refusal to lower [cumulative] bridge or use any [cumulative] capital funds or use any CEDIT funds to help out the gap in the jail payroll funding, that he understands that it’s unavoidable,” Lenfert said.
COUNCIL DENIES SEVERAL COMMISSIONERS’ REQUESTS
The county council voted against several additional appropriations requested by the commissioners at its regular meeting, which followed the workshop.
The council denied a request for $4,700 out of cumulative capital for the construction of a barrier in the county’s probation department, a $1,000 request for supplies from the county general fund and a total of $1.36 million out of cumulative capital for road projects.
The road-project request included $651,303 for work on Salem-Noble Road, $54,675 for work on Bethany Road, $10,000 for St. John Road and $650,000 for Star Hill Road.
The vote on the road project was 4-3 in favor, but it takes five votes for an additional appropriation to be approved by the county council. Council Members Steve Doherty, Kelly Khuri and Danny Yost voted against the road expenditures.
The vote came after Coffman explained that the majority of the money for the road projects would be reimbursed to the county, as the road projects are all federally funded.
“I really don’t understand why they didn’t [approve the appropriations],” Coffman said. “It wasn’t taxpayer money. This is money that we have set aside in our relinquishment fund, and these are roads that we’ve already spent money on for engineering costs. If we don’t appropriate the money for it, I guess we’ll have to look at some other type of means, but we’ve got to continue on with these projects so we can get our federal funding later on down the road.”
LANDFILL BOND APPROVED
The council unanimously approved ordinances authorizing the sale of $9 million in bonds for second-phase improvements at the Clark-Floyd Landfill.
The bond will pay for the completion of a slurry wall along the western boundary of the landfill.
Lenfert said that the commissioners and council will each be receiving quarterly updates on host fees and closure fund dollars at the landfill.