Commissioner candidates differ on borrowing practices

HANCOCK COUNTY — Candidates competing for election to the Hancock County Board of Commissioners agree that borrowing money is often a useful tool for officials — one that should be utilized on a case-by-case basis.

But on the defining details — what scenarios call for taking out loans and how debt should be managed — some stand apart from the pack.

The May 3 primary, in which two open commission seats are up for grabs, pits incumbent commissioner Brad Armstrong, who’s completing his second four-year term, against Matt Holland, a newcomer to public office, in the District 3 race. The candidates, both Republicans from New Palestine, are running to represent residents in Blue River, Brandywine and Sugar Creek townships.

Republican candidates John Jessup, Randy Harrison and Randy Sorrell are squaring off for the District 1 seat, which makes up Brown, Green and Vernon townships. Incumbent Tom Stevens, who will complete his eighth year on the board in December, opted not to seek a third term.

No Democrats have filed to run in either district.

While the county council, which acts as the county’s fiscal body, ultimately approves public loans, the commissioners set the wheels in motion and must give prior approval before debt is taken on.

Jessup, a Shirley resident who currently sits on the Hancock County Council, said, if elected, he plans to cut back on borrowing, reserving it as an option for emergencies only.

While Jessup voted in favor of the council’s most recent nearly $2 million bond, issued last October for the purpose of making significant building improvements to the county jail, he’s been leery of past proposals, he said.

In 2013, Jessup opposed a nearly $2 million bond officials proposed that would help cover the cost of new locks at the county jail. That expense should have been on county officials’ radar earlier, so it could be budgeted into plans, Jessup said.

If elected, Jessup said he will do his due diligence to make sure such surprises don’t arise again.

Sorrell said he supports the way the current board of commissioners have handled the county’s debt.

Bonds are appropriate for certain projects that carry a high upfront expense, he said; responsible spending sometimes requires taking on debt to make sure reserves don’t fall below a reasonable level, he said.

Harrison, a Fortville resident, opposes bonding for anything but “outsized and unusual expenses,” he said.

He supports the notion of keeping cash on hand for emergency expenses but thinks the current balance — about $13 million, according to Hancock County auditor Robin Lowder — is more than enough to operate without additional debt.

Armstrong defends the board’s borrowing practices in recent years, pointing to the county’s decreasing debt as proof of responsible money management.

When Armstrong assumed office in 2009, the county’s debt stood at nearly $12 million dollar. Today, it’s down to about $4.5 million, he said.

In recent years, Armstrong has opted to take on debt for projects instead of dipping into the county’s cash reserves, which have steadily grown to nearly $13 million today, he said.

Building those reserves was a calculated move by both the commissioners and the council, triggered by the economic downturn in 2008 when the county’s balances fell beneath a responsible threshold, and unforeseen expenses would have left the county without sufficient funds to cover costs, Armstrong said.

Now that those funds are once again stable, the county can turn to its reserves if a true emergency arises, Armstrong said.

Holland said he supports the commissioners’ recent decision-making with regard to borrowing, echoing Armstrong’s stance on the importance of maintaining strong reserve balances.

At a glance

Early voting in Hancock County begins today at the Hancock County Courthouse, 9 E. Main St. Residents may cast ballots for races in upcoming elections between 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday until May 2.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.