What to cut? County council begins work on 2023 budget, adoption scheduled later this fall

When the Brown County Council sat down for the first night of budget request hearings earlier this month, they were tasked with cutting more than $700,000 to make sure the amount of tax revenue expected next year can cover all department expenses.

After hearing requests for additional funding from each department this month, the council is expected to make cuts in September so the Department of Local Government Finance approves what is submitted later this fall.

Most department budget requests — with the exception of large requests from Brown County Commissioners and Brown County Highway Department — were only a 3% raise for employees.

Heading into the budget request hearings, the county council knew it would have to make cuts to cover additional money needed in next year’s budget after approving pay increases for part-time employees and three employees in the Brown County Circuit Court office.

In June, the council voted to approve moving two court reporters up five pay grades and an administrative assistant up four pay grades. All pay grade increase requests from departments were due to the county council in June. The three employees had not received a pay grade increase since 2008, according to a proposal Judge Mary Wertz presented in June.

“Since that time, the onset of e-filing and statewide case management systems has added not only to the volume of work, but also the importance and complexity of the work” the proposal states.

The county also saved $25,000 annually when the court switched case management systems to the state-funded Odyssey system in 2020. Court staff also began picking up tasks using the new management system that were previously done by the clerk’s staff, resulting in the county council eliminating a position in that office last year. On Aug. 17, Clerk Kathy Smith requested an additional $33,941.78 in her budget for next year to fill that eliminated position again.

Funding for a new position was also requested in the probation department’s budget following news that a grant that paid the department’s pretrial services officer is set to expire next month. Probation did not fill an open office manager job and instead used that money to fund the pretrial services officer for the remainder of this year and next. The position was created in 2020 and was based a new, mandatory Indiana Supreme Court rule, Criminal Rule of Procedure 26, which governs how courts make pretrial release determinations. The pretrial services office is tasked with assessing people who have been arrested before they can be released on a bond or on their own recognizance.

Ahead of budget request hearings, the county council also approved an amendment to the county’s salary ordinance to increase pay for all part-time county employees from a minimum of $9 to a$16.50 in May. Those part-time pay increases were also included in requests this year.

Next year’s estimated general fund budget is set at $8.6 million. Each year, Jaqcue Clements, an adviser with the Association of Indiana Counties, helps make sure the council does not submit a budget that cannot be funded with the projected tax revenue.

At the start of budget request hearings on Aug. 16, Clements told council members that the proposed budget being over the tax levy by $734,000 was “not as bad as it sounds” because the advertised budget is always bigger and the $750,000 the county currently has in the cash operating for the general fund helps offset how much is needed to help the budget be approved.

But Clements encouraged the council to continue to build the cash operating balance in the general fund moving forward to help cover unexpected health insurance costs with the goal being 15% of the county’s total budget leftover at the end of each year to cover additional appropriations.

This year’s budget was approved with $140,000 in cash operating balance, but by the time the budget was formally accepted, additional appropriations the council approved caused that balance to go down to $75,000 at the start of this year.

If additional appropriations are approved by the county council this year that can also affect how much money the county has left in its general fund by the end of this year and at the start of next.

In September, the county council will be asked to approve additional money for the sheriff’s department’s budget and the election board. The sheriff’s department is requesting an additional $20,000 to cover the rising cost of inmate food and $2,000 for jail staff overtime.

The Brown County Election Board has also requested an additional $27,133.53 to cover remaining election costs this year including paying absentee voting and poll workers more, covering meals, mileage and printing ballots, along with the cost of moving voting machines and renting trucks.

Both additional appropriation requests will be put to vote during the Sept. 12 Brown County Council meeting.

Ahead of hearing requests, Vice President Dave Redding suggested the county council fund all of its priorities — paying for employee health insurance; giving 3% raises to all employees; and funding a 15% cash balance in the county’s general fund — then see what is leftover in tax revenue before granting or denying any other requests from department leaders.

“All of that is set aside so now we’re dealing with the other expense lines in their budget where they are feeling pressure of having to do something such as copiers, increased fuel or transportation costs,” Redding said.

He continued that the county council also needs to look at other funding pools available to them — $2.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding and a $3 million capital improvement loan — when trying to close funding gaps. Money from both ARPA and the capital improvement has been allocated already. At the beginning of this year, around $1.6 million was left of the capital improvement loan.

In April the county council approved spending $1,440,000 of ARPA funding with a vote of 4-1 — council member Scott Rudd voted against while Darren Byrd and Judy Swift-Powdrill abstained.

Of that money, $640,000 went to the expansion project the Brown County Regional and Helmsburg Regional sewer districts are currently working on to bring sewer service to the Bean Blossom and Lake Lemon areas. The move would also provide relief to current Helmsburg sewer customers who are paying $92.50 a month for service by adding more customers onto the current plant in Helmsburg, which would most likely have to be upgraded to take on the additional flow.

Another $350,000 went to help finish a stormwater project in Helmsburg. An additional $100,000 went to designing of a flood control project at State Road 45 and Helmsburg School Road.

Rounding out the $1.4 million allocation was $350,000 for premium pay to certain county employees including jailers, dispatchers and office administrators at the Brown County Law Enforcement Center, IT and maintenance employees, Brown County Health Department and Brown County Emergency Management Association employees and the county human resource coordinator. Those employees will not receive a 3% raise.

The county is also set to receive a portion of a $507 million settlement between the Indiana attorney general and drug companies to help those struggling with the opioid epidemic. Auditor Julia Reeves said 15% of that funding can be spent on anything the county council sees fit, but the rest most go towards funding a local response to the opioid epidemic.

At the start of budget hearings, Rudd suggested working with the county’s financial advising firm Baker Tilly to determine which requests could be funded with ARPA, the capital improvement loan and the opioid settlement.

Other requests

Most of the requests the county council heard earlier this month would be funded out of the county’s general fund, including an additional $8,500 for autopsy fees in the coroner’s budget next year. The council approved an $8,500 additional appropriation for the coroner’s budget this year due to the increasing number of autopsies.

The Brown County Highway Department is also requesting more money next year to help cover the cost of fuel. An additional $40,000 was requested for gas, oil and lube in the motor vehicle highway preservation fund. The Brown County Commissioners also requested an additional $150,000 for the county gas tanks — which are used by the sheriff’s, highway and other county departments.

An additional $50,000 was also requested by the commissioners in the economic development fund to cover utility costs and $20,000 was requested in the commissioners’ courthouse fund for utilities there. Also in that fund the commissioners requested $100,000 to purchase two highway department dump trucks and a new budget line of $125,000 was also requested for maintenance.

Covering part of the cost of the construction of a new coroner’s office is also budgeted in the county’s cumulative capital development fund next year at $50,000.

The commissioners also requested more than $220,000 in the local income tax public safety fund to cover leases for new sheriff’s vehicle and equipment for them. Local income tax is expected to bring in an additional $900,000 next year, according to the 2023 local income tax distributions from the DLGF.

“Our income tax dollars are up this year, which is helping us and is why we’re not $1 million over (levy) like we usually are,” said Clements, the council’s adviser.

Year after year health insurance costs continue to be an area of concern when it comes to the county’s budget. During night one of the budget request hearing, Clements suggested the council also work with Baker Tilly to see if a portion of ARPA funding could be used to help fund group medical costs.

“Maybe that’s what we do and get out of the hole for onetime then stay on top of it,” Clements said.

The county has a separate fund for group medical expenses, but the general and rainy day funds are affected ultimately if they are tapped to cover additional costs not budgeted in that fund. As of Aug. 16, the group medical insurance fund was negative $400,000 with four months of the year to go and no additional money budgeted to go into that fund. Last year the group medical fund was $600,000 short, Clements said.

Redding added that the county has been working to fix the problem by taking “dramatic actions.” He suggested finding ways to better monitor claims and reinsurance checks as they come in as a way to manage “unknowns” including a massive medical event for an employee or an eligible family member.

The commissioners and council have been working together to cut health coverage and reinsurance expenses for years. Last fall, the commissioners approved changes to county employee preferred provider organization plan and high-deductible health plan, including more money paid per pay period from employees’ checks and a spousal carve out. Certain county employees were moved to Medicare coverage and the county offered a retirement incentive to qualifying county employees.

In June, the county’s HR coordinator Melissa Stinson said these moves resulted in $300,000 in savings in one year. But more money was requested in 2023 to cover 61 county employees who are now using a health savings account. The county commissioners had budgeted for 40. The county contributes $1,000 to employee health savings accounts in hopes they choose in-network providers, ultimately saving the plan money. The commissioners also requested an additional $10,000 for its employee wellness incentive program next year, which encourages employees to participate in activities such as walking challenges.

The county council will meet on Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m. for the budget hearing and members are expected to make cuts to requests then.

Commissioner provides update on new coroner office

The location, and price, for a new coroner’s office has changed as construction is still set to start this summer.

Daviess County Metal Sales will build the barn-like structure and pour the concrete for the new office that will now be located next to the Brown County Law Enforcement on State Road 46 East.

Coroner Earl Piper did not seek re-election this year. Piper’s main job is at Bond-Mitchell Funeral Home, and that is where he has been taking bodies involved in coroner cases when the need arises. He currently uses a room in his home as his office. Once he is out of office that space will no longer be available to the county.

Discussions on a new coroner’s office began over three years ago. Commissioner President Jerry Pittman has been leading the charge on finding a new office and said that the new barn will be a “pretty basic building” with a required drain system.

“I am kind of being the general contractor trying to save as much money as I can. I am getting bids on HVAC, electrical and plumbing,” Pittman said.

“Hopefully this will be done when the new coroner takes office Jan. 1, 2023. … We’re not paying any utilities or property taxes (currently on a coroner’s office). Our expenses will go up somewhat when we own our own building, we have to heat and cool it.

The county first received bids for the project in January 2020. At that time the cost for a basic building was $47,700.

“I sent that back to the same contractor to get an update. Two years later it was $108,000. It more than doubled in two years’ time,” Pittman said.

Construction costs for the new office were originally planned to be entirely covered by the $3 million capital improvement loan the county recently took out. The original budget for the new office was $50,000. Now $50,000 has been requested out of the cumulative capital development fund next year to help cover those costs.

There is an additional $500,000 in that loan now since the county did not decide to pursue purchasing the Career Resource Building for a new prosecutor’s office. But recent discussions at commissioner meetings have focused on using that funding to cover more security upgrades at the Brown County Courthouse.

Another $100,000 was budgeted in that loan for tearing down the prosecutor’s office, which will not happen until a new location is found for the building or the decision is made to build a new office in its current location.