Monroe County’s council is already starting to weigh how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact future revenues.
A presentation from councilor Geoff McKim towards the start of Tuesday night’s regular monthly meeting considered some scenarios for revenue reductions that would, in just two years, wipe out the bulk of the county’s rainy day fund.
The county’s rainy day fund currently has a balance of $7.2 million.
President of the board of county commissioners, Julie Thomas briefed the seven-member council on about $157,000 that commissioners have already spent due to the COVID-19 emergency. Thomas ticked through two different $25,000 grants to social service agencies, and other expenses like electrostatic cleaners, laptops for work from home, licenses for Zoom video conferencing software, and repair to a sewage lift station.
That set the general stage for financial caution. But on a 5–2 split vote, councilors did wind up approving $50,000 in legal fees to support possible litigation over an environmental assessment done for a project planned in Hoosier National Forest.
When councilors were asked to make an additional appropriation of $343,000 to pay for some already budgeted items—like the refurbishment of the Alexander Memorial, parking deck maintenance, and some ADA work on the courthouse grounds—they unanimously agreed to postpone consideration until their May 12 meeting.
The items in question were not absolutely essential, councilors agreed, and they wanted an additional month to assess what the county’s financial picture might be like.
The next item, which asked for $45,000 to pay for a full-time maintenance worker at the county jail, got the same kind of scrutiny, but with a different outcome. The appropriation for the jail maintenance worker passed 6–1 with dissent only from councilor Marty Hawk.
Councilor Trent Deckard called the justice building “unique” among the county’s buildings because “it supports life,” a reference to the prisoners who are held at the jail. It’s important to support the work force that supports that life, Deckard said.
Next up was a $181,000 appropriation from the cable franchise user fees to pay for upgrades to the IT infrastructure and sound system at the Nat U. Hill meeting room at the courthouse. Nat U. Hill is the council’s normal meeting room, which was not in use on Tuesday, because the meeting was held using a Zoom video conference, par for the public meeting course over the last couple of weeks.
Angie Purdie, administrator for the board of commissioners, made a pitch for going ahead with the expenditure, by pointing out that now would be a time for the work to be done, because it wouldn’t disrupt meetings scheduled in the Nat U. Hill room. Eric Evans, the county’s chief technology officer, added that the outside contracted trades workers, who would be doing the work, are also hurting financially.
The need for the upgrades was not disputed by councilors. McKim said he found the observations made by Purdie and Evans to be good arguments, but in the end not persuasive enough to act now instead of waiting a month. Councilor Marty Hawk said she thinks that cable franchise fees can be used almost as flexibly as general fund money, and felt the money could, if needed, be used to make payroll for technical services staff. “Until I know where we are on [future revenues], I can’t work with this,” Hawk said.
Given the uncertain times, councilor Peter Iverson said he wanted to wait a month’s time before moving ahead on the expenditure.
Councilors voted unanimously to postpone the appropriation of cable franchise user fees to upgrade technical facilities in the Nat U. Hill meeting room.
An appropriation for some treasurer’s office software costing $10,000 was also postponed to the May 12 meeting, on a unanimous vote.
County attorney Margie Rice introduced the $75,000 appropriation to pay for the services of Eubanks & Associates in connection with possible litigation over the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project in the Hoosier National Forest. In the project area, the United States Forest Service is planning to clear cut some of the acreage, selectively harvest some of it, conduct controlled burns and use herbicides.
Critics of the project have pointed to its close proximity to Lake Monroe, which is the source of drinking water for much of the area, and the project’s potential impact on drinking water quality.
The council amended the appropriation downward to $50,000 when Rice told them that would be sufficient to get things started.
Councilor Kate Wiltz, who represents the council on the county’s environmental commission, said, “I’m all in on the lawsuit.” Environmental commission member Dave Simcox spoke during public comment in support of the legal fees.
Trent Deckard pointed to the long history in the area of trying to find and create sources of drinking water. He talked about the people who’d sacrificed their homes so that Lake Monroe could be built. This community has sacrificed for the greater good for this water, Deckard said.
A counter point was raised by McKim when he asked if the city of Bloomington utilities was going to be a party to the lawsuit. No, was the answer he got from Rice. The list of plaintiffs isn’t yet determined, Rice said.
McKim said he was convinced that the environmental assessment was defective and that other locations were not adequately considered. But he said, “Right now I am most concerned about our ability to carry on our essential county government functions.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food and beverage industry has almost completely shut down, McKim said. Indiana University, the county’s largest employer, is planning a 5-percent budget cut, McKim said, and that same day Cook Medical had announced cutbacks.
McKim was joined in dissent from the vote by Marty Hawk, who said it was “money down the tube at a time when we can least afford to pitch it.”
McKim had started off the night with a presentation on behalf of the COVID-19 budget task force that council president Eric Spoonmore established. Serving on that task force are McKim, Spoonmore, and Hawk.
McKim pointed to revenue from the innkeepers tax as something to keep an eye on—the
monthly debt payment, which is made from innkeepers tax revenue is $159,000. The convention and visitors commission (CVC) is taking steps to reduce spending, McKim said.
McKim said the 2021 local income tax distributions could be lower, because of the later filings that people are being allowed to make, due to the impact of COVID-19. The following year, in 2020, the local income tax distribution will be based on 2020 incomes—which we know will be down, McKim said.
Based on a scenario where 2021 sees a 10-percent decline in LIT and 2022 sees a 25-percent drop, the shortfall compared to current LIT revenues would be about $6.7 million, according to McKim’s calculations. The current balance in the county’s rainy day fund is $7.2 million.
At the county council’s Tuesday meeting, the final vote on the Ernest Health tax abatement, given initial consideration by the council last month, was put off by the council until May 12.
The reason for the postponement, based on conversation among councilors and staff at the meeting, the team from Ernest Health was having technical difficulties that prevented its remote participation in the meeting. Ernest Health is proposing to build $20-million inpatient rehabilitation hospital at the corner of Curry Pike and State Road 46. The timeline for the project was described at the March meeting as having a construction start in May.