Editor’s note: Today’s advance coverage of the June 2 primaries focuses on the GOP race for at-large seats on the Vigo County Council. The Democratic primary race for County Council will be featured in Wednesday’s newspaper.
Four Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination to run in the fall for three at-large seats on the Vigo County Council.
They are Lucus T. G. Bendzsa, Thomas William (Tom) Bogigian, Steven B. Neice and Travis Norris.
Tax revenue for the county this year and into 2021 could be challenging for the County Council. A study from Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research estimates Vigo County could lose between $3.5 million to $5.1 million in lost income tax revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic as more than 7,600 Vigo County residents had filed for unemployment through early May.
The county uses income tax to fund its county’s sheriff’s department.
Bendzsa, a student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said “to combat the [income tax] losses, the county council should ask each department to temporarily cut their budget by no more than 3% and delay non-essential new equipment purchases for one year. Any subsequent amount of money that would be lost could be offset by issuing bonds.”
Bendzsa said that “thanks to great leadership by Governor [Eric] Holcomb and the state of Indiana we are safely and slowly getting back to work.”
Bogigian, a voter technician, said “the principle issue that faces Vigo County right now is economic; in particular jobs and taxes. I believe that we must address these two issues if we are [to] move forward in a meaningful way toward improving life for our residents.
“Vigo County currently has an operational surplus sufficient to continue through the rest of the year. It would [be] irresponsible to speculate at this point what steps might be needed regarding the 2021 budget until we see what the numbers look like as we move closer to the new fiscal year,” he said.
Neice, who said has been forced into unemployment by the coronavirus pandemic, said utilities are already asking to raise rates to make up for lost revenue from the pandemic. Neice said the county should not follow that example, but instead consider limiting purchases for non-essential departments and holding back on filling new or vacant clerical positions.
“We can’t do that for the new jail as we are short-staffed on correctional officers and will need to hire more, but we can limit hiring for certain departments,” Neice said. However, Neice said he would also exclude such restrictions on the county parks system, which uses seasonal workers over the summer, saying people will want to use county parks “to get out and get back to some type of normalcy.”
Losing revenue may be a challenge, said Norris, a small business owner, but he said public safety “is more important now than it ever has been.
“We need to keep in mind that the sheriff’s department budget is only one of many that constitute the financial responsibility of the County Council. Department heads need to work within the framework of the budget that they submit and that is approved by the council. Weighing wants versus needs is a concept that needs to be digested by some within county government, and I feel [that] is very important,” Norris said.
On growing the local economy
Bendzsa said to “grow our economy, we need to create a welcoming environment for businesses to set up shop and thrive. To do this, a few things need to happen. We need better lobbying for businesses to relocate here, we need to be very aggressive in tax abatement and we need to create a quality of life that is better than surrounding counties,” he said.
“When considering funding, quality of life does have to be considered. Not only is providing services for residents important, but it is an important factor for businesses deciding to relocate,” Bendzsa said. “Development on the river front, improved parks and recreation, and county beatification could very well be the deciding factor between a company wanting to resettle 500 jobs in Vigo County or resettle those jobs elsewhere. That being said, we need to continue being fiscally responsible and working with the private sector.”
Bogigian said that “through the use of various tax incentives and infrastructure improvements, I believe that we can create an attractive business climate in Vigo County. The creation of this climate is critical to Vigo County being able to compete in a national and international marketplace for employers to locate and expand their operations.
“Another critical step toward improving the economy of Vigo County is learning from the second- and third-place finishes in these bids for employers. We need to be asking why Vigo County did not win out, and what we can be doing to address those issues. Knowing these details and keeping a friendly rapport with potential employers will help Vigo County adjust its strategic plan and improve our reputation as being a county willing to work with employers on the issues they face,” Bogigian said.
The county, he said, needs “a comprehensive five year strategic plan developed in partnership with local and regional boards and commissions. This plan will be the principle guiding document regarding budgeting beyond required government functions, and include metric analysis and goals, be updated yearly to better track progress and make appropriate adjustments to better achieve those goals.”
Neice said tax abatement should be used to attract business, but they should be issued based on how many jobs are brought to the county. It is the same for any project that could require use of tax incentives, including locating in Tax Increment Finance districts, he said.
“You have to look at the larger picture of what are we doing for the whole of the county,” he said. Neice said he thinks “funding public safety comes first for the county, then infrastructure such as roads and bridges.”
Additionally, the county needs to look to partner with recovery programs aimed at helping people return to work who have had drug and alcohol additions, enhancing its efforts with groups such as the Turner House or the Bridge Church “to bring down the stigma that people that were addicted are bad people,” Neice said.
To help strengthen the county’s economy, Norris said the council has to weigh information, “by not making a knee-jerk or an emotional reaction when things are presented to the council. Nor is it smart to just listen to one group or the loudest person in the room.
Norris said there “has to be a balance between development and growth. Many things can be developed but how many of those developments present an opportunity for true growth?
“I think we [the Vigo County Council] need to work with the commissioners on a five, 10, and 15 year plan in place. With a plan on how to fund projects and how to make those plans come to fruition. I think fiscal responsibility plays a very important role in a stronger economy. … Working together and within our means on a vision is the only way we grow our local economy,” he said.