Listening to the 2024 proposed budgets from the county’s department heads, the Kosciusko County Council on Wednesday heard the same issues that everyone else is facing – prices are increasing, good workers are hard to find and there’s projects on the horizon that need completed.
Wednesday was the first of two budget meetings scheduled by the county council, with the second one scheduled for Thursday.
County Administrator Marsha McSherry and Commissioner Cary Groninger were first on the docket Wednesday as they presented the commissioners’ budgets.
“I know that there’s some things that, we’ve seen consistent increases. We’ve all felt it in our homes, whether that’s salt for the water softener or electric bills or fuel or whatever. Our costs are rising,” Groninger stated. “There are some special projects built into here that we can talk about when we get to those, but we have had some requests, some EDIT funds for the airport as well as some monies for the surveyor’s office and some other things that may be larger ticket items.”
In presenting the first commissioner budget for maintenance, McSherry noted some budget increases were for things like softener salt, cleaning chemicals and trash bags, not because they’re planning to buy more but because of price increases.
For gas and electric, that was increased by about $26,000 for 2024 due to expected price increases. Councilwoman Kimberly Cates said in 2021, the county spent $555,000; in 2022, it spent $659,000; and asked if increasing the gas and electric only by $26,000 for 2024 would be enough.
“We base that on the averages we see,” McSherry said.
Groninger said the county had been getting a very sizeable demand fee from NIPSCO, “which means whatever your peak demand is, they’ve got to set aside that much capacity in our system.” He said the county spent about $80,000 for a capacitor which reduces the county’s peak “so we have a reduced surcharge, or demand charge, on our bill each month that’s kind of a flat fee.” He said that dropped it by about $50,000.
Groninger said even with the county using less, NIPSCO’s prices still went up.
Councilwoman Sue Ann Mitchell said in the first six months of 2023, the county spent $351,000. Twice that will be more than what’s budgeted for gas and electric in 2024, she said. McSherry said they will watch that closely.
Mitchell also asked McSherry about her plans for housekeeping. McSherry said in the last two weeks, she has lost two housekeepers so she may be going back to part time instead of full time for those positions. She does have one person working full time.
“It’s impossible to find people to work those positions,” she noted, adding that housekeeping is done at the courthouse, Justice Building, highway department and the health clinic.
Groninger said some of the struggle is that those are some of the county’s lowest-paid positions, and when a person can “flip a burget at McDonald’s for $15 per hour,” it’s hard to find people to be willing to mop floors for that wage.
Councilwoman Joni Truex asked McSherry if they were fully staffed, how many housekeepers would that be. She responded there would be two full-time and four part-time, but it takes a “certain person to be able to do that full time,” so options are being weighed for next year, including part-time employees or using a cleaning service.
In the commissioners’ budget, $250,000 is proposed for the drain improvement fund for 2024.
Groninger, who chairs the Drainage Board, said, “We’re really trying to be more pro-active in those projects that have been on the list. So, there’s general repair stuff that happens, but then there’s also reconstruction … that you can’t pay out of the maintenance fund, you have to do a reconstruction. So when that reconstruction happens, the landowner has pretty much a year to pay for that after work is complete, and depending upon when work is complete, it can be another eight to 10 months before that actually gets to their tax bill, so it can be almost two years before they have to pay the bill with no fees. They can extend that out even longer, but there’s a 10% interest charge on that, so most of them pay pretty promptly but they wait until the end of that period.”
As the county rolls through multiple drainage projects, Groninger said the general drain fund gets “pretty skinny” because it is carrying the costs for the landowners until the projects come back. The $250,000 will shore up the general drain fund enough, he said, so the county can continue to be proactive and get the projects through.
“The landowner is still paying for it, we just need to have the capacity in the fund to be able to pay for it in advance and then be reimbursed,” Groninger said.
Under “infrastructure, major improvements” in the budget, McSherry said the commissioners are working on updating the capital improvement plan. The plan, which has to be updated every three years, includes a number of items, including $500,000 for the airport.
“The remaining $2 million, we’re looking at doing a project for updating the Justice Building parking lot out there, so that will be part of those funds,” she said.
Groninger said, “To look at that major infrastructure, we have about $1.8 million left this year. The Justice Building parking lot will be a part of that. The other thing would be the tower project for Sidney, as well as we’re looking at the possible purchase of property here downtown that would give us some additional parking because we’re going to need places for people to park. Even if we do the reconstruction of our existing Justice Building (lot), during that time, and even after that, the improvements that we would do would kind of get us to where we’re able to have room for all of our employees, but it wouldn’t necessarily give us enough room for all of the people doing business with the county, too.”
Looking at the 2024 budget, he said the airport was a large portion of that fund. The county is also working with Design Collaborative to get a plan in place to address building repairs and improvements as needed over a span of time and significant funds will need to be set aside for those. The parking lot at Work Release will need attention, and there’s a study taking place now looking at the downtown Warsaw parking which also includes the possibility of a parking garage downtown. Groninger said that funding may not be required for another two years or so, but the studying and planning takes time.
In another budget that McSherry and Groninger presented, a new line item of $250,000 was budgeted for painting and carpeting of some offices in the courthouse that have not been updated yet.
After a short break, Kosciusko County Highway Department Superintendent Steve Moriarty presented his budgets.
He budgeted $20,000 in buildings and repairs to address the ventilation in the shop.
“We’ve got three different quotes because the ventilation in the shop right now is – I’ll just be honest with you – I don’t think is good for our guys,” he said, noting that the low bid was about $45,000 to improve ventilation in the shop.
He also increased the budget for road striping and paint by $20,000. He said they’ve paved a lot of roads the last two years, but with that comes more paint striping.
“We’ve looked at the crash data provided by LTAP, and part of it is roadway departure accents. So one of our things to try to solve those is to do more fault lines, and make sure that we get that because, when at night, sometimes it’s very hard to see a road that’s just been paved,” Moriarty said. “Plus, it’s increased, cost-wise, per lane mile, about 17% overall for paint striping, and it’s just going to go up and up and up.”
Under other equipment and trucks, he said that will be $300,000 for trucks. Moriarty said on Monday an order for trucks the highway department had put in Dec. 1, 2021, was cancelled. “At this point, we have no trucks ordered,” he said, adding that he hopes to purchase two trucks this year with this year’s funds and then in December order for 2024 if they’re approved.
Cates asked him if he thought he would be able to order any trucks, and Moriarty said he would have to buy used. Cates said she was told that fire truck orders are three years out and ambulances are two years out.
Pictured are a binder (L) of the 2024 Kosciusko County budgets that the county council members saw during their first day of budget hearings Wednesday and a binder (R) of the budget information that the county auditor’s office had on hand in case of questions about any of the department budgets. The second day of budget hearings is Thursday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
This next year, Moriarty said, he would like to replace his department’s paver that is no longer working. Estimated cost is $600,000, but Moriarty said he hopes to get some trade-in value with the old one and pay for the new one through a payment plan/lease.
Moriarty also talked about how the bridge projects will start coming online in 2024.
Several departments presented budgets with little or no changes. Those included Community Corrections, Probation, Health Department, Clerk’s Office, County Council, Area Plan and Soil & Water.
In presenting his budget, Prosecutor Brad Voelz made a request for two legal secretaries, one assigned to the front office that will deal with the public and the other assigned to the investigative division of the prosecutor’s office. “One is necessary, two would be nice,” he said.
When County Surveyor Mike Kissinger presented his proposed 2024 budget, Council President Mike Long asked him to elaborate on the major drain reconstruction projects that Groninger had referred to earlier in the morning.
“We have one big project and one smaller project,” Kissinger said. One involves Nappanee and a joint drainage board. It drains from Nappanee’s industrial park down to Kosciusko County.
“That’s going to be a pretty large project. We’re still working on our estimate. It looks like it’s going to be right around $400,000 for that project,” he said.
The smaller project is on Ind. 19, north of Etna Green, and is the Danner ditch. Kissinger estimated that will run about $104,000. The Danner project will probably happen this year or spring 2024, with the one involving Nappanee in 2024.
Right now, Kissinger said there’s about $415,000 in the general drain fund. He compared that to 2015 when there was only $15,000 in the general drain fund.
In 2024-26, he said he could see about another $250,000 necessary for reconstruction projects, with four after that.