Members of the Marshall County Council conducted a work session last week to discuss several topics.
Council President Jesse Bohannon opened the meeting and read the function of the council. He said, “The council is the ultimate decision-maker in all fiscal matters. The council has the authority and the responsibility to view or review fiscal matters to determine proper policy and set priorities for the allocation and expenditure of county funds. The council also controls staffing through the Salary Ordinance setting not only just the pay for employees but staffing numbers and job descriptions.” Bohannon also apologized for calling a joint work session with the commissioners without checking their schedules.
The first item of discussion was Municipal Advisor. Bohannon said there were some concerns with how the current municipal advisors have been utilized. Councilman Tim Harman said the county, by State Statute, could hire administrative personnel although he was unsure if it included a contract employee. He said it would be an opportunity to better the council’s financial acumen and get some additional help outside of the general, ordinary ways the council operates.
Mr. Steve Dalton of Cendre-Dalton Municipal Advisors from Merrillville was present at the work session. Councilman Bohannon said he has discussed with Dalton the possibility of assisting the council with a multi-year strategic plan for the next four years. The intention would be how to grow the government, making sure it’s not too fast and increasing the capacity of the Highway Department, and creating bylaws for the council to follow during the budget process.
Bohannon said the council would have a formal agreement with Dalton at the March meeting to consider. Services would be billed hourly with no retainer or monthly contract fee.
An increase in Health Insurance costs was also discussed during the work session. Bohannon said he has been anticipating a major increase in this year’s health insurance premiums. When he asked County Auditor Angie Birchmeier told council members, she believes there is enough money in the budget to cover an increase.
Commissioner Stan Klotz said county employees are increasing in age and their medical issues are more costly. He also said the commissioners have looked at a partially self-funded option and the risk of having that option.
Councilman Jim Masterson suggested looking at insurance options earlier than waiting till the budget process and Klotz said he’s been contacted by three local companies interested in offering the county an insurance option. Masterson also said the family plans for county employees are expensive.
Councilman Bohannon said, “This is ultimately a commissioner’s decision to decide who we go with as a provider and what exactly that pathway looks like. As we set policy for the expenditure of funds it’s definitely an issue that council should be consulted with before the 11th hour.”
Council members also discussed the ARP (American Rescue Plan) Funds. Legal counsel for the County Council, Marcel Lebbin was asked to explain the legal requirements of the process. He said the commissioners make the plan on how to expend the funds and the council approves or denies the funding for the various portions of the plan. He said they might have been funds spent that was not part of the commissioner’s plan which doesn’t work under the rules. He said they may be some clean-up that is necessary to keep the county legal.
There were 3.8 million dollars not appropriated as of January 1st. during the January meeting to reappropriate $634,536.24 for the County Highway Department that wasn’t spent in 2022. That brought the total down to $3.2 million. Last week during the Commissioner’s meeting they asked to have an additional $1 million appropriated to the County Highway Department for roads. This was in the plan, to appropriate $1 million in 2022 and $1 million in 2023 for the Highway Department for roads. If approved by the council that would bring the total down to about $2.2 million.
Councilman Bohannon said he was confused about the process going forward. He asked, “Are the commissioners the initiating body and need to revise the plan because I don’t know that we follow the plan. I think the plan needs to be updated and then get us (the council) some confirmation. Is it up to the ARPA Committee to create specific suggestions according to the plan or is it up to the ARPA Committee to send suggestions to the commissioners so that they can revise the plan?”
The council’s legal counsel said communicating together with the commissioners on updating the plan with projects the council is willing to fund would save needless time.
The council indicated there are several items citizens would like consideration on for using the ARPA Funds. Bohannon said there have been some conversations about helping Polk and the Tippecanoe Fire Departments and the recent request to assist LaPaz with their water situation.
Councilman Harman who sits on the ARP Committee said that people who have requests for ARP funds would present their request to the committee, and the committee weighs in on the request and sends it to the commissioners with a favorable or unfavorable recommendation. Harman said, “There needs to be some sort of analysis on this stuff. What you see is people testifying I want some money and we’re not even involved in the initial conversation, and it’s approved. To me, that’s not a plan. A plan should be collaborative and analyzed.”
Harman said there have been decisions made about millions of dollars that have been “too quick, too arbitrary, blindsided and this is not the way to manage money.”
The APR Committee last year were Commission Kevin Overmyer and Council members Heath Thornton, Steve Harper, and Bohannon. Bohannon said they met 4 times and never voted on anything and said, “We never considered anything that didn’t get funded.” County Attorney Jim Clevenger who attended the meeting at Overmyer’s request said, “That’s not true. I sat in those committee meetings as well.” He said the commissioners set up the committee to get input from people making requests for funds. Some of those requests were not well received by the committee so they didn’t go any further. Requests that seemed to fit the plan and should have consideration were brought to the commissioners and they amended the “broad plan” they originally put in place. He said he made it clear to both auditors that they needed to have a written record of revisions to the plan to include the expenses made. He explained the plan was amended by motions during the commissioner’s meetings.