For the first time in years, Allen County Council will begin its annual budget deliberations Wednesday knowing it won't have to make deep cuts in departments' spending requests.
The following day, the Council is likely to take a non-binding vote rejecting the very thing most responsible for the change: the city's recent decision to increase local income taxes by 0.35 percent, part of which will be shared with the county and other local governments.
“I don't think (the increase) was necessary,” said President Darren Vogt, adding that the county has no choice but to accept the anticipated $3.9 million that will turn the $1.73 million deficit projected by County Auditor Tera Klutz just last month into a virtually balanced budget. Although Vogt believes Council could have found cuts if necessary – and still may reduce specific departments' requests if appropriate – he acknowledged that “This is the first time in the 10 years I've been on Council I've been confident” in a minimal amount of budgetary pain.
This year's general budget is about $84.6 million, and departments have requested nearly $87 million for 2014. Next year's estimated revenue is now $86.68 million, producing a projected deficit of just $13.8 million. Klutz said she will recommend a salary increase of 2 percent, which could be funded through $1 million already set aside for a merit-pay system that cannot be implemented until 2015 at the earliest. Vogt also hopes to award a cost-of-living raise.
While most departments previously proposed flat budgets for next year and four even decreased their requests – and one is even under state scrutiny for not spending more – nine departments have requested increases totaling about $1.27 million. The largest include the juvenile justice center ($446,000, Superior Court ($309,886) Sheriff's Department ($283,524) and the Election Board ($125,705).
At the justice center, part of Allen Superior Judge Dan Heath's requested increase would allow the additional employees needed to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires certain staffing levels in order to protect prisoners from sexual abuse. The law takes effect in 2017, and “Unfortunately, this is yet another unfunded federal mandate that will have a substantial fiscal impact,” Heath wrote in a letter to Council.
While Sheriff Ken Fries also warned of the law's projected $2 million impact on his jail budget, that expense is not included in his 2014 request, which seeks more money for staffing, equipment and other needs.
Superior Court says it needs more money to handle an increasingly large and complex caseload. The Election Board's increase is to cover the projected cost of the 2014 elections.
County Recorder John McGauley, meanwhile, is not requesting any general fund budget at all because his office has mostly funded itself through user fees since the beginning of the year. And, according to the State Board of Accounts, that may be a problem.
“Their position appears to be that we cannot (be self-funded),” said McGauley, who argues that everything his office does is related to the function for which fees are collected: the recording of real estate and other records. “(Our) ability to self-fund depends entirely on revenue sources established in state statute,” he wrote.
Despite the influx of income tax revenue, Klutz said it's probably too late for departments that submitted flat or reduced budgets – including hers -- to ask for more. After Wednesday's meeting, Council members will establish budgets for each individual department and will allow department heads to appeal those limits before a final budget is approved.