By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
2012 was a rather uneventful year for Elkhart County government, with limited funds coupled with the need to downsize and streamline leaving little money left over for major building or infrastructure projects.
That said, there were some significant achievements made during the year, and we at The News recently sat down with Elkhart County Administrator Tom Byers and Elkhart County Councilman Dave Hess to reflect on some of the past year’s biggest hardships and success stories, as well as what’s to come for 2013.
According to Hess, 2013 was really just about maintaining services and managing the budget effectively. Big, expensive projects never really came into play — at least not like they had in previous years.
“I’ve been through years when there had been project after project after project, when we were asking ourselves ‘How are we going to finance this?’ and ‘How are we going to finance that?” Hess said. “In the past two or three years, we’ve just not been able to do any of that. So now we’re just kind of down to how do we best manage the budget and manage the services in the framework. And looking forward to 2013, it looks like that challenge is going to continue.”
As an example, Hess pointed to the continued loss of revenue experienced by the county through the state’s property tax caps and a loss of revenue associated with reduced jail bed rentals at the Elkhart County Correctional Facility as a contributing factor in what he expects to be another tight budget year in 2013.
“As the loss of revenue from the caps increases and as our loss of revenue from bed rental from the jail comes into play, coupled with further reduced interest earnings, that continues to put a tremendous squeeze on existing budgets,” Hess said. “Looking forward to 2013, I think what we’re really going to have to do is continue to evaluate the staffing levels, because after all that’s the biggest expense in government. And the other thing that I don’t know how to predict really depends on what happens in Washington, and how the issue with the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ is going to play out. That is really one huge unknown for state and local government.”
C.R. 17 finished
Declining revenues and squeezed budgets aside, Byers was quick to point out one significant standout for the county this year — the successful completion of the most recent phase of C.R. 17 down to C.R. 38 this past October.
“The opening of C.R. 17 down to C.R. 38 was certainly a milestone,” Byers said.
Even so, Byers noted that this most recent extension of C.R. 17 has not been without controversy, with county and city officials butting heads over what they feel is the best option for an east/west road connecting C.R. 17 to the city’s south side.
From the county’s perspective, officials feel that the C.R. 17/C.R. 38 intersection is adequate as a connector road allowing truck traffic from the Elkhart area to bypass downtown Goshen while still giving access to the large industrial parks on the city’s south side.
However, a wrench was recently thrown into those plans when members of the Goshen City Council voted to pass an ordinance banning truck traffic involving trailers greater than 40 feet long on a small section of C.R. 38 located from Ind. 15 west to the city limits. Done in the name of safety — city officials feel the small section of roadway is unsafe for large truck traffic — such a change will effectively force the drivers of larger semi-trucks to detour to state routes, including Ind. 119 if they wish to gain access to the city from C.R. 17.
Like Hess, Byers noted that other than the big C.R. 17 project, the county really didn’t have much excess funding available for large building and infrastructure projects.
“It sure makes a difference when you have no money to build things,” Byers said.
On a more general note, Byers said he is seeing some positive things relative to the increase in Local Option Income Tax as the county heads into 2013.
“2013 is still a tight budget year, but it appears with the increased employment we’re seeing, that those figures are beginning to go up,” Byers said. “And obviously seeing people getting back to work and having more job opportunities is a great thing for the county.”
As for any big projects or plans that may be in the works for 2013, Byers pointed to possible resuscitation of discussions about a new juvenile detention center and work release center for the county.
“Those discussions have come up off and on for quite a while,” Byers said. “But I want to emphasize ‘discussions’, because we’re not going to be in the position to build either of those any time soon. But we can at least start planning them.”
Along those lines, Byers also pointed to the possibility of more discussion on the next phase of C.R. 17 construction popping up in the coming year.
“I also hope we can start talking about what the next phase of C.R. 17 is,” Byers said, “and what the timeline might be for that.”
Current plans for C.R. 17 are to extend the road from C.R. 38 to C.R. 40, though the currently discussed extension would involve a less expensive two lane road rather than the four lanes that make up the C.R. 17 corridor. County officials have indicated that phase of the project could begin as early as this coming spring.