ELKHART — Five people running for Elkhart County Council. Three seats up for grabs. One chance to vote.
Election Day is less than two weeks away, and county council hopefuls are out and about in the community campaigning for support. The slate of candidates includes Republican incumbents John Letherman, who is seeking a seventh term, and David Ashe, who hopes to keep his seat on the council for a second term. The challengers are Republican Tom Stump and Democrats Mike Settles and Ralph Spelbring.
MORE WITH LESS
Declining revenues trickling in from the state and local taxes have put constraints on Elkhart County’s budget. The spending plan for 2013, approved in September, included more than $2 million in reductions and was balanced by applying $800,000 in rainy day funds and $1 million generated from the Economic Development Income Tax, which is primarily used for road maintenance.
But despite the county’s limitations, Letherman said the budget process went relatively smoothly. He lauded the county’s department heads who, for the most part, flatlined their budget requests, meaning no increases for the upcoming year. However, there is room for improvement, he added. Letherman said redundancies in local government — like multiple departments for parks and planning — are a problem that needs to be fixed.
“I don’t have the formula that puts all that together, but we’re conducting ourselves as if we were rich, and we’re no longer rich, and we’ve got to figure out how to consolidate a lot of this stuff, I think, in a way that creates better service and costs the taxpayer less money,” Letherman said.
Ashe said working closer with the cities is an ongoing discussion among council members.
“If it’s going to save the taxpayers money, it should be something that we’re looking at,” he said. “That’s the bottom line, and hopefully we’ll continue to work in that area to try to combine services where possible.”
Stump agrees with Letherman and Ashe that efficiency is one way of getting more done with less funding. But, Stump said, the county could face some challenges.
“I think the big problem is that people feel that they’re going to lose control over their local fire department or their local planning department,” Stump said. “So when these things are consolidated, you have to have the right managers that are going to be responsive to those kinds of feelings and problems because I can understand where the Goshen City Park Department doesn’t want to lose control to the county park department.”
Spelbring said the county needs to address funding for roads and bridges as its top priority.
“I suggested increasing the motor fuel tax by 4 cents per gallon with 2 cents going to the counties, and the state can retain the other 2 cents,” said Spelbring, who also cited making pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug as another reason why he is running for county council.
Settles thinks more reductions may be in order.
“Realistically, I think what we would be looking at in the future is some sort of salary cuts, and I would propose we would start with elected officials,” he said. “The savings there are not only in the salary that you’re cutting but also in the attached social security contribution and also in the attached public employees retirement fund contribution. Ugly as it is, I think that’s the next step.”
Settles, however, noted that he would not want to trim salaries to the point where county employees would want to start looking elsewhere for work.
Another major concern among the five candidates is funding for roads.
“Right now, we can repave an Elkhart County road about once every 64 years, and the standard is every 16 years,” Letherman explained. “The Michiana Council of Government just did a complete analysis of all the road projects in Elkhart County, in St. Joe and other counties here in the MACOG region, and we’re falling millions and millions of dollars short of what we need just to take care of what we have right now.”
Letherman said the county is doing everything it can locally to maximize road funding. For example, Letherman said inspections for the C.R. 17 extension project from C.R. 28 south to C.R. 38 near Goshen were done in-house using employees from the Elkhart County Highway Department.
“We’ve been buying gasoline on a bid basis, asphalt and those kinds of things,” Letherman added. “We’ve been rehabbing trucks rather than buying new ones, but you can only stretch this so far, and at some point somebody in a position greater than anybody in Elkhart County is going to have to figure out how we can maintain what we have.”
As the economy strengthens, Stump said, more tax money will come back to the county to help with roads. The county could also review its specifications for subdivision roads, he said.
Settles and Spelbring said the county should try to fortify its relationship with state officials.
“From sitting through the budget hearings, it seems to me the roads and bridges are the major revenue shortfall, and that’s going to take the state Legislature doing something to provide more revenue to counties around the state,” Spelbring said. “As councilman Letherman pointed out, there’s some counties that don’t have a wheel tax, so they’re not as well off as Elkhart County.”
Ashe said there will be no new road projects on the horizon in the county until funding picks up.
“I think we need to look at not so much building new roads for a while, just improving the roads that we have,” he explained.
Later this week, council candidates will sound off on tax abatements for companies and support for nonprofit groups.