Public hearing on county’s $2 million loan set for Wednesday


GREENFIELD — As the county prepares to move forward with borrowing nearly $2 million for building maintenance projects, residents will have the chance to address the issue Wednesday at the Hancock County Council meeting.

County officials are deciding whether to borrow money for the third time in four years, a proposal some local residents have criticized. The public hearing on the matter begins at 8:30 a.m. in the commissioners room at the Hancock County Courthouse Annex, 111 American Legion Place.

Building improvements are planned for every building the county owns, Commissioner Brad Armstrong said. The largest chunk of the sum — $1.4 million — will address needs at the Hancock County Jail, including roof repairs.

County leaders say borrowing the money is needed to cover the cost of the repairs, which were put off as they tried to be frugal during and after the recession.

The county has reserve funds that could be used to help pay for some of the repairs, but county leaders say being good stewards of taxpayer dollars means keeping money on hand for unforeseen emergencies.

“We want to have that money if the economy turns south again,” council President Bill Bolander said.

If approved, officials will finish paying back the borrowed money in January 2021, according to county attorney Ray Richardson.

County officials say the list of immediate needs is just a snapshot of what needs to be accomplished in coming years. Facility studies have identified nearly $8 million in repairs needed to bring county-owned buildings up to par.

Instead of borrowing $8 million — amounts greater than $2 million must be approved by voters — and addressing all the needs at once, the county has identified a list of priorities to be completed before the end of the year. They plan to address all the needs in the next five to 10 years.

Some of the work on the to-do list is underway. The commissioners approved several measures to beef up security at the courthouse, and on Tuesday, they approved a contractor to repair the jail’s roof. Henry C. Smithers Roofing Co. of Indianapolis was selected to complete the work for about $395,000.

Armstrong said it’s important the county address the building issues immediately to preserve the facilities.

“County property is not like personal property; … you can’t just sell it,” he said. “The taxpayers own it forever, so you have to fix things so they last forever.”

Officials say the county isn’t drowning in debt because they pursue bonds with short repayment plans of 10 years or fewer. For example, this year, the county made a final payment on money borrowed in 2007.

Less than $3 million, not including money borrowed in 2009 for the Mt. Comfort Corridor TIF district, is outstanding.

In 2011, the county borrowed $1.1 million to pay for a lawsuit settlement and equipment for the 911 system. This year, that loan repayment cost the county about $124,000, and it’s expected to be paid off in 2022; about $177,000 will be collected in interest, according to reports.

County leaders voted to borrow nearly $2 million in 2013 — a year after a similar proposal was turned down — to pay for various county expenses, including land acquisition for a road project and election equipment needed when the county moved to vote centers. About $55,000 of the sum was used to pay the cost of issuing the bond, according to figures reported to Indiana Gateway for Government Units, which collects fiscal data submitted to the state by local government.

A repayment schedule posted on Gateway shows the bond is expected to be paid off in 2019, and the county will pay about $58,500 in interest.

Councilman Kent Fisk plans to vote in favor of the borrowing initiative. The jail badly needs repairs, he said, and the easiest and quickest way to pay for work that’s expected to cost about $1.4 million is through short-term bonds.

Additionally, the county has a good history of paying back the money it’s borrowed, and officials have done their homework, determining the best avenue is to borrow, Fisk said.

“To think we can be debt-free is kind of unrealistic because we have so many major assets that continually need updating or repair,” he said.

Officials say they believe most residents understand why the county is choosing to borrow money and support that decision; however, they know not everyone agrees.

Members of the local tea party have been publicly vocal about the issue, saying bonds are unfair because property tax caps mean not all residents pay into the bond.

Under property tax 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.

Proponents say many residents have already met those caps or are nearing them, and they’d rather see the county spend cash it has on hand.

Armstrong reminds residents they don’t typically pay outright for a car or home; they take out a loan and stretch their payments as a way to avoid draining their savings. The county has to do the same.

“It’s just like your personal savings account,” he said. “Once you take it out, it’s hard to build it back up.”

County-owned buildings on the list for repairs include:

Hancock County Jail: $1.4 million

Hancock County Courthouse: $88,000

Courthouse annex: $82,000

Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office: $115,000

Memorial Building: $150,000

Hancock County Community Corrections: $21,000

Hancock County Emergency Operations Center: $3,000

Hancock County Highway Department building: $40,000

Hancock County Purdue Extension office: $20,000

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The Hancock County Council will hold a public hearing to discuss whether it should borrow $2 million for building improvement projects.

The hearing starts at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in the commissioners room at the courthouse annex, 111 American Legion Place in Greenfield.