Spend or save? Candidates for council debate borrowing practices

HANCOCK COUNTY — Candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Hancock County Council agree borrowing money is a useful tool that allows officials to save for rainy days.

But on the defining details — what situations call for taking out loans and how debt should be managed — the candidates find less common ground. One candidate has called for the county to take out loans more often, while another says she believes the county has historically been too quick to rely on borrowed dollars.

Three at-large seats on the Hancock County Council are up for grabs Nov. 8, and voters will elect three of the six candidates running. On the ballot are Democrats Rita Johnson and Randy Jones, Martha Vail, a Republican, and incumbents Debbie Bledose and Kent Fisk, both Republicans. Zachary LaFavers is running as a write-in candidate.

The county council, which acts as the county’s fiscal body to manage tax dollars, gives final approval for the county to take on debt.

County officials aren’t currently considering any bond proposals, but the council’s decision to borrow to cover county projects has historically drawn criticism from residents. Since 2011, the council has considered borrowing money to pay for county projects four times and moved forward with bonding in three of those instances. Most recently, last October, the council approved borrowing nearly $2 million to pay for building improvements officials said they didn’t have adequate funding to cover.

Bledsoe and Fisk defended the current council’s borrowing practices, saying members have only agreed to bond when it was necessary.

Costly county projects should be paid for through bonds to keep county leaders from draining savings reserved for emergencies, they said.

Bledsoe pointed to last year’s bond, which paid for building maintenance she said was sorely needed, as an example of a time bonding was the best option.

“I’m all for bonding — but not for any simple thing,” she said. “We can’t drain the rainy day fund.”

Fisk agreed, saying county leaders have worked to build healthy cash reserves in the rainy day fund for unforeseen emergencies, but those could quickly be spent down if the council used them to pay for expensive projects.

LaFavers echoed Fisk and Bledsoe’s sentiments about saving emergency funding, saying he thinks the current county council borrows only when taking out a loan is necessary.

Since learning more about the types of projects bonds can be used for and how the borrowing process works, LaFavers said he’s grown more supportive of borrowing money; he even thinks the county council should use the tool more often.

Bonds need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said. For example, borrowing money for a project such as the proposed new fairgrounds would be appropriate since the public will benefit from the facility, he said.

But other candidates say they believe the county council is sometimes too quick to rely on bonds rather than using cash the county has on hand.

Vail said she understands why county leaders want to save money in case of emergencies, but she feels some of the money in the rainy day fund could be spent in order to avoid borrowing.

The county ended the year with roughly $4.7 million in the fund, financial records show.

Vail said she’d also like to see the council involve taxpayers more in the process by giving them more opportunities to voice opinions over whether they want the council to borrow for the project at hand.

Before bonds are approved, the council has to hold a public hearing to give the public a chance to weigh in. Vail said she’d like to see the council give residents another opportunity to have a say in the matter.

Johnson agrees the council needs to be more transparent about bonding. Though she doesn’t feel the council borrows money too often, she does think the council should involve the public more heavily, making decisions on residents’ behalf only after making sure their opinions are known.

The council historically doesn’t borrow more than $2 million — the threshold for taking the proposal to voters. Johnson said she’d like to see all bonds be weighed by voters.

“I question, if we have the money, why we are bonding?” Johnson said. “If it’s just $2 million, and you can pay for it, why not just pay for it?”

Randy Jones could not be reached for comment.

Early voting

Voters may cast a ballot ahead of the Nov. 8 election and skip election day lines.

Through Nov. 4, voters may vote from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays at the Hancock County Courthouse, 9 E. Main St., and at McCordsville Town Hall, 6280 W. County Road 800N.

Those sites also will have early voting hours on two Saturdays, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5. They’ll be open for limited hours on Nov. 7.

Both branches of the Hancock County Public Library and Vineyard Community Church in Mt. Comfort will hold early voting hours later in the month.

For more information, visit hancockcoingov.org/hancock-county-indiana-election-office.

Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.