The Knox County Commissioners met in special session Thursday to begin hacking away — quite literally —at a 2021 spending plan.
Armed with a letter from the Knox County Council — one directing all county officials not to ask for any increases over their 2020 budgets — commissioners Trent Hinkle and Kellie Streeter quickly started pushing pencils to see how best to make it all work.
“We have got to stay on top of the highway department,” Streeter, commission president, said with a frustrated sigh as she set down her eyeglasses. “We cannot be the only county dealing with this.
“We just can’t be,” she said.
Members of the county council, the county’s fiscal body, met last month to begin talking about the 2021 budget; they expect to see at least a 10% drop in revenue due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The full effect of the job losses that have resulted from the COVID-19 shutdown likely won’t be felt by government entities in terms of lost tax revenue until next year, perhaps even 2022, but county highway superintendent Benji Boyd told the commissioners, the county’s legislative body, on Thursday that they’re already feeling the pinch.
That department is largely funded by the state’s gas tax, one paid by motorists at the pump, and since Hoosiers largely stopped traveling during the stay-at-home order, he’s already seen a drop in revenue.
The county is paid gas tax funds from the state each month, Boyd said, and they’ve seen a 35% drop so far.
The state two years ago mandated that highway departments spend at least half that gas tax money on a specific set of improvements — things like street and bridge repair. The other half they can spend on operational costs, payroll, etc.
The latter fund is dwindling, Boyd said, and due to the state mandate, they can’t move any money over to make ends meet.
He’s not even sure they’ll make to the end of the year, he told Streeter.
“I don’t want to have to furlough a single employee,” he said. “We’re understaffed to start with. It takes a lot of employees to do the mowing, ditching, filling pot holes. I have two guys in each district doing nothing but filling pot holes right now.
“And once we start (eliminating employees), (road) conditions will go downhill fast,” he said, to which the commissioners agreed.
Boyd has, however, heard of lobbying efforts being made at the state level, ones pushing to allow highway departments to more freely move gas tax revenue around in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
“It would be a one-time, temporary reprieve to move that money around to make payroll,” Boyd said, “but I don’t know about that yet.”
Hinkle said, as the commissioners stare down the barrel of a couple of tough years, he’s thankful they hired Boyd four years ago.
In those years, Hinkle said, Boyd has taken the county a long way in terms of infrastructure improvements, even securing millions from the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on repaving roads, building bridges,” Hinkle said. “And now that we’ll have a shortfall, I’m glad we were able to do those things.
“Because now they’re bleeding over there,” he said of the highway department.
There was, however, good news.
Streeter said the county is eyeing a 3.3% reduction in fixed health insurance costs in 2021, and Harold Hensley, the county’s veterans affairs officer, found more than $12,000 to cut from his proposed 2021 budget.
Other line items will hold steady, like the $80,000 set aside each year for courthouse maintenance and the annual $28,000 given to the Knox County 4-H Fair Board.
But in other budget business, Streeter said she will talk with Vincennes Mayor Joe Yochum and Vincennes Animal Shelter Director Leah Vantlin on possible changes to their inter-local agreement, one wherein the county pays to the city $100 per dog taken in and sheltered from outside city limits.
Currently, county sheriff’s deputies are charged with collecting stray dogs and transporting them to the city shelter at 1128 River Road.
Streeter would rather see the county pay to the city one annual lump sum to handle those transports.
“So I want to talk to them, ask them, ‘How much would you need to take our dog calls in lieu of county deputies taking those calls?’ ” Streeter said.
In terms of the commissioners’ plan for the expenditure of the county’s share of Economic Development Income Tax dollars, Streeter said they will look to once again set aside $100,000 for the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre for operational costs.
The county put up those funds this year as officials with the shared work space and small business incubator looked for additional help with “start-up costs” and to an hire executive director, a position held by former county councilman Nichole Like, Streeter said.
Streeter said they will likely designate the same amount in 2021 as the Pantheon looks to add staff.
Also from the county’s share of EDIT dollars, the commissioners hope to replace the chiller in the probation department and put a new roof on the courthouse annex, projects that are likely to cost upwards of $90,000.
Streeter said she will also ask the county council to reinstate its annual financial contributions to the Knox County Development Commission.
In previous years, the county has given to the KCDC $4,000 per month for operational costs as well as another $150,000 specifically for projects.
Last year, the county council voted to cut those contributions in half.
Given the KCDC’s support of the Pantheon in recent months — its board of directors voted to give to the shared work space and small business incubator up to $650,000 to meet various funding needs — Streeter believes those contributions should be offered in full once again.