Budget season is upon us as county elected officials on Monday began a near week-long process of hashing out a more than $16 million spending plan for 2022.
Members of the county council began meeting with department heads and other elected officials on Monday, officially kicking off a marathon of discussions lasting through today and likely well into tomorrow as they attempt to craft a balanced budget.
It’s a process each year that takes several hours over many days, sometimes even reaching into the wee hours of the morning.
“I do love having an opportunity to sit down with the department heads each year, see what they have going on,” said county council president Bob Lechner, “but I do dread the process and, often, the conclusion.
“It’s difficult, it really is. It’s not an easy process. We’re trying to move forward, solve problems and do the things that need to be done. But we’re doing it with less and less.”
Going into this year’s budget hearings, Lechner said he is feeling a bit less apprehensive than this time a year ago — when financial consultants were warning of significant shortfalls due to employment losses felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county a year ago was told to brace for as much as a 10% reduction in some of its funding sources.
Officials with the City of Vincennes, too, braced themselves as financial consultants said the full impact of the pandemic would likely be felt in 2022.
But as 2021 unfolded, many realized the financial fallout would likely not be as severe as original thought.
Even still, Lechner said he anticipates a difficult budget season as they look to find the balance between maintaining (or even increasing) services to county residents with an already-strained General Fund.
“It will be a trying time,” he said, “meeting all the needs of the county, recognizing that the price of everything is going up.
“We have to balance what we have with our desire to improve. We have limited resources with a growing need,” he said.
The county began meeting with department heads at noon on Monday inside the community corrections building at 147 N. Eighth St.
They had discussions with as many as 25 department heads, ones that included the county treasurer, the Area Plan Commission, the coroner, courthouse maintenance, the Public Defender Board, the Soil and Water Conservation District, the county clerk, the Knox County prosecutor as well as the county judges, among others.
Talks were expected to last well into the evening.
They continue today with hearings planned with Sheriff Doug Vantlin, the county auditor, the Knox County Commissioners, and more.
On Thursday, then, council members plan to come back together to continue hashing out where to add and where to cut as they move closer to 2022.
Lechner said his “No. 1 priority” moving into another year would be to take care of county employees, although he stopped short of saying the council was going into this budget planning season with a specific percentage increase in mind.
Last year, as they prepared for what they thought would be financial shortfalls, county elected officials extended to employees a modest 1% pay raise.
“We’ll go through this budget process and see where we are,” Lechner said. “That might very well be the last decision we make.
“We want to do as much for our employees as possible,” he said. “We know it’s been a difficult time the last couple of years. (The pandemic) was difficult for local businesses, local government, and the people who have paid the price for that are the employees. We will want to rectify that, but I know it’s going to be difficult.”
In addition to continuing to hash out a plan for expanding the Knox County Jail and finding ways the county can aid in bolstering its housing market — a task being looked at by officials all over Knox County, Vincennes and Bicknell alike — Lechner said likely his biggest concern moving forward, aside from finding the funds to offer employees a raise, will be in searching for every way possible to take some of the pressure off the General Fund.
He pointed to the property tax caps passed by the General Assembly years ago, a piece of legislation that forever capped how much counties and municipalities can raise in the way of property taxes.
“That has been a refrain for years and it will continue to be one,” Lechner said. “The fact is that our General Fund will never again support the budget, so we have to get creative in the use of some of our dedicated funds.
“We have to look at all sources,” he said. “We have to look outside the box in terms of revenue sources. House Bill 1001 (in 2008) put into place all the mechanisms that reduced the General Fund and forced us to become more reliant on seeking other income.”
City officials will go after a third and final state historic preservation grant later this year in an effort to complete an ongoing window restoration at the Vincennes Police Department headquarters, 501 Busseron St.
Members of the city’s Board of Works on Monday signed a contract, one not to exceed $2,500, with Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission, a grant administrator, to seek a third historic preservation grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“And this should be the last time we have to do this,” Mayor Joe Yochum told his fellow board members as they gathered for their regular meeting at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.
The city will apply yet again for $50,000; if successful, it would need to match that with another $50,000, but the mayor indicated, should it be necessary, that he would offer even more in an effort to finally put the now years-long restoration project behind them.
“We were encouraged to apply for this particular grant again,” the mayor said, indicating he thinks the city’s chances are good. “And if we get it, those windows will all be done.
“I want to do it now because the cost of materials is only going up,” he went on. “If we need to spend more than $50,000, so be it. But we need to get it done. I’m excited to get it complete and out of the way.”
The mayor said the city will apply for the funds before the end of the year; an announcement, however, isn’t expected until the spring.
The city received its first historic preservation grant for $50,000 back in 2016 for the initial phase of the restoration project, which included several of its large first-floor windows.
The city then applied again in 2019 and received another $50,000; that time they matched it with just over $100,000 to complete a second phase, or 20 more windows. That project was just completed this summer.
But about 20 windows remain, hence the need to apply for the historic preservation funds yet again.
The city also received this same grant years ago to complete a more than $100,000 restoration of the enclosed shelter house at Gregg Park — a Works Progress Administration-era Project — which included restored windows, tuck-pointing, and a handful of interior improvements, too.
VPD headquarters is a Neo-classical revival style building was first constructed in 1907, in part with Indiana limestone, and was purchased by the city in 2000. It’s one of just a few in Vincennes that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It also previously served as a U.S. Post Office.
In other business Monday, Mark Hill, director of the United Way of Knox County, sought permission from the board to use the Riverfront Pavilion on Oct. 15 for the organization’s biannual chili cookoff.
The event is currently set to be held inside the Harmony Society, as it was in 2019, but in the event that Knox County finds itself back in the red on the state’s COVID-19 metrics map, coordinators want an outdoor option.
“Our hope is to do it inside the Harmony as we did two years ago, which was quite a success, but due to the uncertainty of COVID and what level we may be at, we want to reserve the pavilion as backup plan,” Hill told the board.
The United Way of Knox County last month kicked off its 2021 “United to Thrive” fundraising campaign
While in recent years the organization has set a fundraising goal of more than $300,000, Hill said, for a number of reasons, this year the committee chose not to set a definitive financial goal.
The funds collected by United Way throughout the year are filtered down to their 25 partner agencies, including Meals on Wheels, the Bettye J. McCormick Senior Center, Life After Meth and Red Cross, particularly focusing on people in need of educational, health or financial services.
To donate, contact the United Way at 812-882-3624.
With new census data in hand, members of the city council will look to better balance its five voting districts.
Council president Tim Salters on Monday formed a special redistricting committee to take a look at the new census numbers and better align them with the city’s five voting districts — all in an effort to better distribute the city’s residents amongst them.
“We have new census data, and we just need to look at it and make sure everything is clean,” he told his fellow council members during their regular meeting at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.
Salters placed onto that committee himself as well as District 1 councilman Brian Grove and District 4 councilman Dan Ravellette.
Based on new census numbers, Salters believes that Grove’s district will likely be the one most affected, and Ravellette was placed on the committee because he was on the council ten years ago when it undertook a major redistricting effort then.
The council in the fall of 2012 voted unanimously to approve a new map, one that reflected new district boundaries for the first time in more than 30 years.
After weeks of crunching numbers, moving lines and, in many cases, moving them again, a council committee, led by then freshman councilman T.J. Brink, now a county commissioner, came up with a map that got the populations of the districts to within 3.8% of one another, well within the state’s mandated guideline.
The council, too, oversaw the reduction of precincts, from 16 down to 12.
Salters, who was also on the council at the time, said that redistricting effort did “much of the heavy lifting,” so he’s anticipating this next redistricting effort to be a much smaller task.
“We did the big change ten years ago,” Salters said following Monday night’s meeting. “This time, I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of changes.
“The key thing is in making sure the districts are all relatively similar in size. But I do think some of these could be tricky.”
The tricky part, he clarified, is that the districts must be equally divided in terms of population — not registered voters.
District 1, for instance, includes Vincennes University, so while it does have a lot of residents, it doesn’t have a lot of registered (or active) voters.
State law does allow for a 10% difference between districts in the event that one has a university, and Salters indicated they will lean heavily on that law now in redrawing those boundary lines.
While talks are still preliminary, he envisions moving more of the city’s north end into District 1 then redrawing the other district lines only slightly in an effort to balance out the population elsewhere.
“We’ll look more closely at it,” he said, “but again, I don’t expect any major changes.
“As people move and change locations, we just have to make sure our districts are even. It’s our responsibility to do so.”
County elected officials, too, will be doing the same, both with its own five voting districts as well as the three commissioners’ seats, in the coming months.
The new census data is used alongside a piece of software in the county surveyor’s office that can help to add or subtract blocks — or even entire neighborhoods — to allow elected officials to see how the population would change one way or another.
In other business Monday, council members set their annual budget hearings for 6 p.m. on Monday.
Mayor Joe Yochum said he and city clerk-treasurer Cathy Lane on Wednesday will meet with the city’s financial consultants from Seymour’s Reedy Financial Group to discuss the 2022 budget.
The council on Monday will then meet with the mayor as well as the city’s various department heads to go over the proposed spending plan.