It sent shock waves through St. Joseph County Friday afternoon. An email to call county department heads telling them to cut budgets by 3 percent in the remainder of 2014, another 5 percent in 2015 and enact a hiring freeze – including layoffs through attrition.
The letter, signed by county commission president Andy Kostielney, county council president Rafael Morton and auditor Pete Mullen cited Indiana’s Circuit Breaker Law that limits the amount of state tax a county can charge each property.
That property tax reform became law in 2009.
Kostielney said the cuts will not affect the number of officers on our streets or at the jail. He also said county fire departments wouldn’t be affected because they’re funded through a different revenue stream at the township level.
But there is a good chance the cuts could impact some of the youngest people who live in St. Joseph County.
St. Joseph Probate Court Judge Hon. Jim Fox told WSBT he had no idea the cuts were coming.
“It’s really difficult,” he said.
Fox deals with emergencies almost every day – including child abuse cases and children who need mental healthcare.
“You can’t run a budget that way,” Fox added.
And he’s frustrated that less than 18 hours after a budget meeting with four county council members and the auditor, he received the email telling him and other department heads to make big cuts.
“We walked out yesterday and really felt good about our meeting. And now we're faced to make really crucial decisions,” he said, adding it’s too soon to know what more he can cut.
Half of the Juvenile Justice Center’s building is already un-used because of budget cuts several years ago and the JJC’s also had major cuts to its education program.
“We’ve had conversations in the past about cutting budgets and people are concerned about how they're going to make that happen but we're asking them to just look at everything possible,” Kostielney said Friday.
He, Morton and Mullen made the decision this week to implement the cuts, he said. But they’ve known it was a possibility for a while and were waiting to see if property tax revenue could help close the gap.
“This is definitely unavoidable,” Morton said.
So far in 2014, Kostielney said the Circuit Breaker has cost the county $7.2 million – more than 10 percent of the General Fund budget. Plus, the impact is only expected to cut deeper in the next five years, he added.
“We're trying to be very proactive with our approach because this is a very serious situation that we're dealing with,” Morton said.
These cuts also include layoffs through attrition. So far this year between 30 and 35 employees plan to retire, Kostielney said. That number will probably go up, but many of the positions likely won’t be replaced.
Commissioners and the council are putting together a committee to determine which of those positions are "crucial" and can't be cut.
Revised budgets are due to the commission next Friday, August 1.