By DANIEL SUDDEATH
FLOYD COUNTY —
The Floyd County Council accepted about $1 million in cuts Thursday, but without a majority consensus to raise taxes to account for the budget shortfall, some tough choices will likely have to be made by March.
Several cost-saving measures were approved by the council in an attempt to shore up an estimated $3.6 million gap for 2014, though next year’s budget won’t be voted on until next week.
The council voted to cut “selective services and supplies” expenses by 25 percent moving forward. Due to budget discussions that have been ongoing all week, Council President John Schellenberger said he couldn’t confirm the exact services or supplies that will be reduced.
However the cut should save the county between $500,000 and $700,000 next year, he said.
County Director of Operations Don Lopp announced the Floyd County Commissioners are requesting their 2014 budget be cut by more than $431,000. The reductions include the removal of some software, planning and traffic light expenses from the commissioners budget, as well as capital cuts in the Economic Development Income Tax fund.
The council also approved a hiring freeze covering basically any position that isn’t funded by grants, with the exception of seasonal employees. If an employee retires or quits, they won’t be replaced until the freeze is lifted. Any department head wishing to make a hire must come before the council, though Schellenberger warned of making special exceptions.
“When you start giving exceptions, you just blow the whole thing out of the water,” he said.
While hiring has been frozen — or at least the funding for new workers, as the council controls the budget but not employment — those currently employed by the county are safe at least for now.
However, Schellenberger warned that the county likely will be forced to further cut spending in February or March when the state approves the budget.
Near the end of the meeting, Schellenberger said the council could vote or at least be presented with information about an economic development income tax increase to help offset the shortfall and raise revenue next week. But he added he would not request administrative officials prepare a presentation if the council didn’t want to consider a tax hike.
A majority of the council, including members Tom Pickett, Steve Burks and Jim Wathen said they wouldn’t support a tax increase.
“I have a real hard time asking the taxpayers to give us more of their money when we’ve done a poor job managing what they’ve already given us,” Wathen said.
But without a tax increase, the council will likely pass a heavy budget Tuesday and “kick this can down the road” until the county has no choice but to make cuts in about five months, Schellenberger said.
If the county does lay off employees, Wathen said leaders have an obligation to notify workers well in advance so they have time to look for a new job.
According to Floyd County Auditor Scott Clark, the county had 350 employees as of 2010. The county now has 394 workers.
The number of those workers added to the payroll who are being funded by state or federal grants couldn’t be confirmed by the council or Clark during the meeting.
Lopp addressed the county council on behalf of the commissioners in part to notify the body of the cost reductions and also to discuss some of the issues raised recently about building purchases.
Some have questioned why the county spent $1.5 million to purchase the former Pineview Elementary School last year, as the building has been converted into a government center. But Lopp countered that the commissioners didn’t just purchase the property for county offices, but also so the Floyd County Youth Shelter could have a new home.
The shelter had been located at the North Annex off Grant Line Road before it was moved to Pineview. Lopp said the condition of the North Annex had declined too much for it to house the youth shelter.
“I wouldn’t put a dead dog at the North Annex, let alone have the most vulnerable youth placed out there,” he said.
Lopp added that federal funds are also being used to keep the bond costs for Pineview lower than they would have been if the county purchased it alone.
He added the commissioners — who control real estate owned by the county — are “willing to enter into discussions” with the council about selling some properties to help with the shortfall.
Lopp clarified that the commissioners willingness to consider the matter isn’t a sign that the body endorses selling any specific properties.
The North Annex, for example, has been discussed as a possible property the county could sell. Schellenberger named a council committee to work with the commissioners on property issues.
There’s one zoning change that could potentially save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it would require New Albany’s help.
The Pineview Government Center is located about 100 feet from the New Albany limits, according to Lopp.
By Indiana Constitution, offices such as county auditor, assessor and recorder must be located within the county seat. In Floyd County, the county seat is New Albany, and thus those offices have remained at the City-County Building.
Schellenberger said the county pays the Building Authority — the entity that manages the City-County Building — more than $950,000 annually for rent.
Most of those offices could be moved to Pineview if the city were to annex the property, but New Albany and the county have been at odds over various funding issues, and cooperation might not come easily.
New Albany City Councilman Dan Coffey offered the city administration’s assistance to the county to deal with the shortfall last week. He was asked Thursday by Schellenberger if he would sponsor an annexation ordinance for the city to consider.
Coffey didn’t decline to take the matter to the city council, but he added New Albany would have to consider what additional expenses it would incur if it annexed the property.
He questioned why the county purchased Pineview if annexation was an issue.
“We don’t purchase properties unless we know what we can use them for,” Coffey said.
After the meeting, Coffey said the county’s shortfall is a big issue to New Albany because the city makes up almost half of the county’s population. The city endured its own budget struggles just a few years ago, and had to account for a $4 million shortfall after the state cut New Albany’s revenue due to past deficits.
Coffey said the county may not be able to crawl out of the fiscal hole in a short period of time.
“We didn’t lay anybody off. We didn’t cut services. We didn’t raise taxes. But it took us about two years “ to balance the budget, he said.
The council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Pineview Government Center to vote on the 2014 budget.