Members of the county council on Tuesday entered their second full day of budget hearings, meeting with representatives from some of the county’s biggest-spending departments, ones like the sheriff’s department, county highway superintendent Benji Boyd and, among others, members of the county commissioners.
Spread out across a large table — one strewn with yellow highlighter-marked pages and heavy 3-ring binders — in a conference room inside the community corrections building at 147 N. Eighth St., county council members went line by line through each department’s budget, keeping a careful eye on any increases as they set to crafting a more than $16 million spending plan for 2022.
Sheriff Doug Vantlin, during his time in the hot seat, set his sights on bolstering the pay for his deputies and jailers.
He asked the council to consider increasing part-time help from $17,500 per year up to an even $20,000.
For his 66 full-time employees, he’s seeking to secure them an additional $6,000 per year, slightly more for ranked officers.
Finding — and keeping — officers, he said, has become a public safety issue, and he believes increasing what they are paid the first step toward solving the problem.
“We are a 24/7 business,” he told the council matter-of-factly. “Snow, COVID, whatever it is, we have to be there, both in the jail and on the road.
“And we’re losing employees,” he went on. “Twice this year I’ve been down five jail officers. I’m down three now.”
A pay raise, he argued, would not only attract new officers to apply for open jobs but also help to retain the good ones he already has.
“I want to keep what I’ve got,” he said, “because I’ve got some good people right now.
“I’ve lost some good ones,” he said, “and I have to stop the bleeding.”
Vantlin said he’s looked at the pay scales of other sheriff’s departments in neighboring Hoosier counties, and Knox County still pays less. He looses them, he said, to other departments or the private sector, many of them offering as much as $10,000 more per year.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “You’re talking about a public safety issue here.
“If we don’t have enough jail officers, what are we going to do?”
The council didn’t, however, immediately approve his request. They will come together again today to discuss the proposals they’ve heard so far from department heads.
Council president Bob Lechner has said employee raises will be a top priority during this particular budget season, but he said they would put off those discussions until later.
Boyd went before the council with an updated road improvement plan, one that, if it comes to fruition, would equate to the most the county has spent on infrastructure improvements — perhaps ever.
“This will do 20% more roads than we’ve ever done in the history of the county,” Lechner said as he looked at Boyd’s $4.4 million proposal. “That’s not too bad.
“We’re doing more and more roads every year.”
The commissioners recently went before the county council asking for just over $1 million for additional road repairs, ones the result of an especially tough freeze/thaw season.
The council, however, denied the request, instead looking ahead to budget season when they could sit down with Boyd and prioritize road repairs for 2022.
Members’ argument was that work wouldn’t get done before then anyway.
Boyd said he “measured every road in the county” and rated them in terms of condition then made a 5-year plan to present to the council. Next year would see more than 40 miles with some kind of treatment, whether it be new asphalt or chip and seal.
“And hopefully, this will cover all the bad ones,” he said. “It will be close.”
The $4.4 million budget — the majority of which comes from state-allocated funds like the tax Hoosiers pay at the pump — doesn’t include any additional money that would come from more successful applications to the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program, one that has pumped millions into city and county infrastructure repairs over the last few years.
It also doesn’t include a federally-funded reconstruction of Elkhart Road slated for next year.
When combined, the county could reach upwards of $7 million spent on road repair in 2022, Lechner pointed out.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
Commission president Trent Hinkle chimed in from the sidelines and said the county was “trying to catch up from years and years and decades of being behind.”
Lechner, however, pointed out — as he has teasingly so many times before — that such a goal is like a dog chasing its tail.
“Are we ever going to catch up, Benji?” he asked Boyd, to which the two, in harmony, said, “No.”
“But we can try,” Hinkle replied with a smile.