GOSHEN — Like the year before it, 2013 turned out to be a rather uneventful year for Elkhart County government, limited funds coupled with the need to streamline county departments meant little revenue left over for major building or infrastructure projects.
That said, there were some notable achievements made during the year, and we at The News recently sat down with Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino and Elkhart County councilmen Randy Yohn and David Foutz to reflect on some of the past year’s biggest hardships and success stories, as well as what’s to come for 2014.
According to Foutz, 2013 was really just about maintaining services and managing the budget effectively.
“The overarching issue in 2013, as in the recent past, was filling the gap between insufficient revenue and appropriate budget expenditures to meet the service expectations of county residents,” Foutz said. “Since the budget of 2009 following the start of the ‘Great Recession’, record setting unemployment resulted in a dramatic decrease in local income tax revenue received by the county. As the health of the local economy improved during the recovery and income tax revenue began to increase, a decrease in property tax revenue began as the effect of the property tax cap came into play.”
Referencing the current fiscal dilemma faced by the county, Foutz noted that property tax revenue is decreasing faster than income revenue is increasing.
“Consequently, all local taxing units are facing an increasing gap between financial resources and local service needs,” Foutz said. “Specific issues that resulted from budget constraints were providing employees with a much needed pay increase, paying for highway paving and repairs, and infrastructural improvements.”
Declining revenues and squeezed budgets aside, Councilman Yohn was quick to point out one significant standout for the county this year — communication.
“I think that communications between the council and commissioners was greatly improved this year,” Yohn said. “We worked closely with them to prepare the 2014 budget. While cuts were necessary, we were able to make employee raises and healthcare a priority. We budgeted for 3 percent pay increases for employees and increased the employer contribution to their health savings accounts.”
In addition to that increase in communication, Yohn also pointed to what he felt was a strong spirit of cooperation from county department heads and local elected officials when it came time to craft the 2014 budget.
“The council is getting good cooperation from department heads and elected officials as they prepare their individual budgets,” Yohn said. “While that is good news, it makes it very hard to trim excess from their budget requests as we look to reduce spending to match our income.”
For his part, Commissioner Rodino took a similar stance when looking back on the year from the perspective of the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners.
“We fought the cash shortage, our departments got meaner and leaner and the county moved on,” Rodino said of the year. “We have some great department heads that get the big picture and we are thankful for them. We did not cut employees or departments, nor do we feel we lowered the quality of services received.”
When asked to highlight some of the biggest achievements to come out of 2013, Foutz pointed to the recent completion of a five year technology improvement campaign for the county and completion of the newest section of C.R. 17 as some of the brightest gems.
“The county is at the end of a five year technology improvement campaign that has substantially improved the way county government does business,” Foutz said. “These technology upgrades have resulted in greater worker efficiency, better service for residents of the county, and cost savings. Also, this has been a good year for highway improvements. Spring saw the opening of the newest section of C.R. 17 and brought us closer to the goal of a cross county expressway that will improve driving by residents and enhance commerce.”
Jumping forward to 2014, Foutz pointed to a lack of sufficient revenue as likely the biggest issue to face the county in the coming year.
“The biggest problem faced by the county, as well as all other taxing units, will be insufficient revenue,” Foutz said. “Governor Pence’s call for the elimination of the personal property tax paid by businesses will very likely be at the expense of local taxing units.”
Yohn was quick to agree.
“The council and commissioners will need to work together to find new revenue sources to replace property tax losses caused by Property Tax Caps,” Yohn said. “New proposals coming out of Indianapolis to reduce or eliminate property taxes on manufacturing equipment will create even more losses. Funding for road maintenance will also continue to challenge the Highway Department and council.”
Other possible concerns pointed to by both Foutz and Yohn include ongoing issues with the county’s criminal justice infrastructure.
“Following signals from the state, whose previous agenda was to house most felons in security residential facilities, Elkhart County built a large new facility to house local inmates as well as inmate overflow from the state,” Foutz said. “This creates two problems. No one has come up with a constructive use for the building, and as a result, we have the old jail sitting empty except for minimal use as a juvenile detention facility.”
Secondly, Foutz noted that while he feels Elkhart Circuit Court Judge Terry Shewmaker and the Circuit Court staff have done a commendable job of insuring that the Juvenile Detention Facility meets or exceeds state standards, he also believes the old jail needs to go and a new, modern Juvenile Detention Facility needs to be built.
“Additionally, a parallel criminal rehabilitation apparatus exists in the form of Community Corrections centered in the city of Goshen,” Foutz said. “Instead of sentencing lower level felons to jail, the state is encouraging them to be sent to Community Corrections where they may be housed and assigned to work release or placed on electric monitoring.”
While philosophically this appears to be the direction the criminal justice system is moving in the state of Indiana, Foutz noted that such change has resulted in an unexpected overcrowding in the work release facility and an underutilization of the county jail.
“Of course, because of differing state standards, these three facilities cannot be used interchangeably,” Foutz said. “This is a problem the county will be dealing with for some time to come.”