At the beginning of last year, the county’s rainy day fund — its savings account — held around $1.4 million.

That fund now sits between $300,000 and $400,000.

Unexpected expenses with employee health insurance, the probation department, the public defenders and the county’s ambulance service contract brought that balance down below $500,000 in 2019.

“If we have another year of a $1 million of unpaid expenses, guess what? The rainy day is not going to be there to cover it,” Brown County Council President Dave Redding told the council at the first meeting of the year.

“I think we need to peel back the details in these areas and convince ourselves that if we have unplanned expenses in these areas in 2020, that we either have people working on it to avoid that in the first place, or we know how to recover from it if we have similar levels of unplanned expenses.”

Redding presented a draft of an “executive summary” about 2019 at the council’s January meeting.

Some of the positives included a “good general partnership” with other Brown County boards and offices that also make decisions. “I think we did work together. I thought the budget process was a joint effort and led to success. Was it perfect? No. But nobody was going after each other, at least what was visible to me,” he said.

Redding also highlighted how the council was able to conduct “professional, respectful” meetings.

The auditor’s office passing the state audit last year with no findings was another positive.

During budget hearings last fall, the council worked to keep all departments to their 2019 budgets for 2020, with the exception of the county’s election board, which received an increase for new election equipment this year.

“If you looked at all of the requests of things our leaders wanted to do, I felt like was being ‘Dr. No’ and we weren’t being very cooperative of offering other solutions, alternatives, like, ‘Let us help you write grants,’ for example. Our target was level spend and level head count,” Redding said.

Last summer, the council had voted to “thaw” a property tax levy freeze that had been in effect for the past five years. At that time, Redding said the thaw was brought about after the Department of Local Government Finance reached out to the county saying there would be a shortfall in the budget. Brown County was one of three counties in the state that still had a property tax levy freeze.

Ahead of budget hearings last year, the council required each department to make sure job descriptions were in place for each employee and that each employee received an annual review or at least had a discussion with their manager to see where they stood, Redding said.

“We had a lot of complaints about that, but then after each area got through it, they were like, ‘I’m glad we did that.’ That’s the same experience I have at Cummins and other places I’ve worked. It’s a pain in the rear, but once you get through it, you’re kind of glad you did it,” he said.

Committing to the county’s employee HR policy, by making sure each employee had a job description and review, was another positive Redding mentioned.

Work to do

At the Brown County Fair last year, the local Republican Party, of which Redding is a member, had a poster outlining three areas members intended to focus on last year: Environmental stewardship, expansion of infrastructure and reversing unfavorable trends.

“We wanted to make sure we’re focused and coordinating our efforts,” Redding said.

He tipped his hat to Brown County Solid Waste Director Phil Stephens and his staff for making “measurable progress” toward environmental stewardship. That department helps to organize trash pick-ups in the county, and is often out picking up large pieces of trash, like furniture, off the side of roads where people have decided to dump it instead of disposing of it properly.

As far as infrastructure goes, Redding noted that advances are being made on sewer and broadband internet to the area. But sewer is currently only available to residents near Nashville, Helmsburg and Gnaw Bone. The Brown County Regional Sewer District Board is still working to bring it to Bean Blossom.

Multiple companies in the county, including REMC and Mainstream Fiber, are also working to provide broadband internet to more homes in areas like Jackson and Van Buren townships.

A declining population results in other unfavorable declines in the county, like school enrollment and the workforce. “These aren’t unique to Brown County, but we are experiencing these and the unintended consequences of an aging, reducing population with reducing workforce, school enrollment,” Redding said.

“When we do attract business here, the first thing we hear is, ‘How can I get fire insurance?’ and ‘Where am I going to get employees and where are my employees going to live?’”

Redding said he will continue to work to have groups focus on the three areas this year since the county is still early into the three-point strategy that was outlined at the fair. Being in the early stages of that three-point strategy was included under the “major concerns or gaps” portion of Redding’s comments.

A second concern was the fact that the council was unable to fund requests from departments and boards last year relating to growth and improvement in the community due to them keeping to 2019 budget levels.

Requests last year included giving money to the new Brown County Humane Society shelter and putting more money in the Brown County Parks and Recreation budget for projects like remodeling the bathrooms at Deer Run Park.

“No one wanted to see their income taxes go up, nobody wanted to see their property taxes go up, nobody wanted to see increased fees and things like that. That kind of puts us up against not being able to fund any kind of growth or improvement projects,” Redding said.

For this year, county employees will receive a 1-percent raise to help keep up with inflation. Redding listed the percentage as another concern because it was insufficient. “(It was) far below what all of us are experiencing with our checkbooks, around our dinner tables,” he said.

In December, the council unanimously voted to give a $1.50-per-hour raise to the current drivers at the county’s highway department with commercial driving licenses as a way to keep them from leaving and hopefully encourage more people to apply for the five open driver jobs. At the Jan. 23 council meeting, Magner reported that he had four potential new drivers lined up.

“I think, systematically, we’re short-changing ourselves by allowing some of our best talent to be filtered away by other opportunities nearby,” Redding said about low pay in the county.

After the meeting, Redding sent his comments to the rest of the council for additions. The other council members did not offer any additional information to the executive summary during the meeting.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Redding was elected president again and Dave Critser was elected vice president.
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