GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council on Wednesday voted to borrow nearly $2 million for building and maintenance repairs, despite pleas from residents to consider other options.
After a public hearing on the matter that morning, the council voted unanimously — council member Kent Fisk was absent — to borrow money for the third time in four years.
Facility studies have identified nearly $8 million of work that needs to be done to bring county-owned buildings up to par. About $1.4 million of the bond will go toward the jail, where roof repairs and plumbing maintenance are sorely needed, officials said.
For years, the county put off some maintenance as officials tried to be frugal during and immediately following the recession. Putting off some repairs further could be detrimental to county infrastructure, they say.
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They identified about $1.9 million of work that should be completed as soon as possible and pushed the idea of taking out a bond, while opponents of borrowing pointed to the county’s cash reserves as an alternative to a loan.
The county has reserve funds that could be used to help pay for some of the repairs, but county leaders said being good stewards of taxpayer dollars means keeping money on hand for unforeseen emergencies. In the years after the recession, the county’s fiscal body has worked to build a cushion for unforeseen emergencies. And until it meets the minimum cash balances it set as a target, council members won’t be voting to spend that money, officials said.
But some residents say the county has a history of perpetually borrowing for projects instead of using the money it has on hand, which they say is fiscally irresponsible. Four residents addressed the council Wednesday morning to stress those points, but the council was undeterred.
In 2011, the county borrowed $1.1 million; officials discussed another loan in 2012, which ultimately was turned down; and the county borrowed nearly $2 million in 2013.
Those two bonds are still being paid off and have balances of less than $3 million.
Since 2009, the county has increased its cash balances, which are at an all-time high, and that amount is expected to grow this year, resident John Priore said in speaking against taking out a loan to support the projects. He sees no reason to borrow money, especially because loans come with thousands of dollars in fees, and the interest the county will pay over time is a waste of taxpayer dollars, he said.
Additionally, he said, not every household in the county pays when the county borrows money, which is unfair to those who will see increased property taxes.
Under property tax cap rules, homes cannot be taxed more than 1 percent of their gross assessed value. This means a $100,000 home cannot have a tax bill greater than $1,000. Many residents already have met those caps, leaving the remainder to shoulder the cost, opponents say.
How much property tax bills would increase can’t be determined until the county secures an interest rate for the loan.
County officials have identified seven funds they said should carry cash balances totaling $13.1 million, which officials estimate would sustain the county should there be another financial crisis. Many of those funds are nearing the target county leaders set, said county attorney Ray Richardson; but until they have that amount on hand, spending from those accounts would be irresponsible.
Opponents came to Wednesday’s meeting with figures suggesting the county’s on-hand cash reserves already total nearly $14 million. Richardson said the county is still somewhat shy of its goal, but council members did not cite an exact dollar figure.
In 2009, after the recession started, the county had close to nothing saved for emergencies, Richardson noted, and leaders were cash-strapped for a few years. The county never wants to be in the position of having to borrow to fund payroll and other everyday expenses, so having savings is important, officials said.
Greenfield resident George Langston echoed Priore’s statements when speaking before the council, saying it’s clear the county doesn’t need to borrow money. Borrowing should be done only to pay for major expenditures, such as building a new jail — one project that county officials have mulled for years.
A bond shouldn’t be used for building maintenance, he said.
“You guys are reaching in our pockets, taking money out you don’t need to be taking out,” he said. “You don’t need this bond.”
Residents Janet Brown and Randy Harrison said the county has a habit of borrowing money frequently. They said it seems that every year officials consider borrowing just less than $2 million to avoid having to take the issue to the ballot box.
State law requires a loan exceeding $2 million to be approved by voters.
“As soon as one (loan) expires, new ones are added,” Brown said. “This is exceeding egregious, and it amounts to a form of taxation without representation since the public is never permitted to vote on them.”
But officials say the county has bills that need to be paid, and cash won’t keep piling up forever.
Council president Bill Bolander said there was a time he felt it was better to spend the county’s savings rather than borrow. Several years ago, the county had money on hand to cover the cost of repairing the courthouse roof. Then the economy went south, and officials had spent a good chunk of its savings, leaving officials strapped for money, Bolander said.
“I learned my lesson,” he said. “You don’t want to see history repeat itself.”
A tentative list of repairs includes:
- Fixes to the roof, plumbing, light fixtures, sprinkler heads, handrails, holding cells and windows at the jail: $1.4 million
- Replacement of damaged ceiling tiles; analysis of and minor repairs to the roof, window and wall leaks; installation of alarms and metal-detectors at the courthouse: $60,000
- Lighting upgrades; repairs to the roof, ceiling tiles and entry door of the courthouse annex: $82,000
- Replacement of window seals and brick; repairs to entry ramp, handrails, awning and loose slate shingles at the prosecutor’s office: $115,000
- Installation of a chairlift and fire alarm system; repairs to handrails and entry ramps; maintenance of the boiler heat system at the Memorial Building: $150,000
- Repairs to parking lot pavement and roof; replacement of damaged ceiling tiles at community corrections: $21,000
- Repairs to exterior window and leaks at the emergency operations center: $3,000
- Repairs to the roof; installation of a new furnace at the county highway department building: $40,000
- Replacement of the roof; repair of water damage at the Purdue extension office: $20,000
The county plans to borrow nearly $2 million for repairs and maintenance at 9 county-owned buildings.
The loan should be paid off in 2021. Roughly $60,000 will go toward fees associated with taking out the loan.
This is the third time in four years the county has borrowed money. In 2011, the county borrowed $1.1 million, and in 2013, it borrowed nearly $2 million.
To date, the county owes less than $3 million, not including money borrowed to fund the tax-increment financing district in Mt. Comfort.
“We’re here every year talking about these bonds, and yet, our cash stash keeps increasing.”
Randy Harrison, county resident who opposed the bond
“This is exceeding egregious, and it amounts to a form of taxation without representation since the public is never permitted to vote on them.”
Janet Brown, county resident who opposes the bond