Chesterton Tribune

Health care costs and E911 deficit loom over county budget hearing

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BY DOUG ELISH

With the county’s biggest financial issues still looming in the budget process, the items that brought the most discussion in the first budget hearing were employee raises.

Thursday night was more of the same.

Several more department heads, including the assessor, recorder, treasurer and auditor, appeared before the council asking for either small increases in certain salaries or a restructuring of their staff.

The council stayed consistent in informing them all that all raises will have to wait until the end of the budget process as their budgets were approved without the increases.

Even though most of the requested increases were for deputy chiefs that are underpaid compared to their peers in surrounding counties, the council doesn’t want to make any promises until it knows for sure where the county will be financially when the 2012 budget process is complete.

Because of the huge number of raise requests, the council discussed adding an entire meeting to the schedule devoted solely to raises. The members agreed that adding another hearing before the final reading or moving the final reading back a week would probably be the best course of action, but no official decision was made.

“It’s clear to anybody that follows county government that most of these people deserve raises and it would be a shame if we aren’t able to do that,” councilman Jim Biggs said. “But there are issues that are out of the council’s control.”

The two biggest obstacles in granting raises for county employees are the soaring price of health care and how to fund the E911 program that will be operating at over a $2 million deficit next year.

The health care has been a frequent topic of discussion at these meetings as the costs for all departments are soaring and there is no end to that in sight. Council president Dan Whitten has already requested that the county bring in an independent actuary to assess the county’s health program.

“This program was brought in a few years ago to promote healthier employees, but it’s clearly not working and we need to determine why,” Biggs said. “It might be an aging workforce. It might just be a one year thing and things will settle down next year; maybe these things run in waves.

“I don’t think anybody can answer that right now. Certainly, what we are spending would give the impression that we need to look into this because it’s close to being out of hand and it’s affecting everything else.”

Auditor fund narrowly approved

The only split vote of the evening came regarding a $250,000 non-recurring fund for the auditor’s office. The fund, which passed by a 4-3 vote, will provide money to integrate the offices of the assessor, auditor, treasurer and recorder. Auditor Bob Wichlinski said computer software will be used so that documents will no longer need to be run from office to office in the county building by the public or by the offices. Instead a database will make all of the information from each office available to all of them.

“It’s going to make it one-stop shopping,” Wichlinski said.

The money for this fund came from the special fund created for collecting back-taxes owed to the county due to underpayment or mis-reporting by homestead owners. That fund has grown to almost $1 million in just this year.

Biggs supported the fund citing the vast improvements that have been made in the county’s tax collection system in the past year.

“I have no reason to doubt you guys,” he said. “I want you to continue to straighten out what was a huge problem and I will continue to support you as long as you continue to deliver.”

Whitten, Jeremy Rivas and Sylvia Graham all voted against the fund. Graham voted against the fund because she is concerned that the council will not be able to use the funds that are being generated.

In other news, two of the recorder office’s four positions that had been funded by the perpetuation fund were moved back to the general fund. The four positions had been moved back when the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy was still affecting the county to relieve some of the budget issues. The council decided it was time to move the two positions back where they are supposed to be and will consider moving the other two back next year.

 

 

Posted 9/23/2011