Hamilton County Council Slashes Funding for Transit

As the divide in Hamilton County government continues to deepen, the County Council slashed funding the County Commissioners requested for transit, economic development and roadwork in the 2017 budget.

Local organizations that provide services were caught in the crossfire. The council cut $59,000 from the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA), $75,000 from the Hamilton County Economic Development Corp., and about $66,000 in proposed new funding for various nonprofits and professional services firms. The council also removed $2 million from the highway department, but members appear willing to restore that funding next year if necessary.

The council will hold a public hearing on the budget Oct. 5 and vote Oct. 17.

Commissioner Christine Altman said the county had the money to fully fund the requests. “These were political statements,” she said, “not fiscal issues.”

Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt said the commissioners have not yet discussed whether they will seek to restore the funding. “The commissioners haven’t even talked about it yet,” he said, “so I don’t have an answer. We meet Monday, and I’m sure we will have a conversation about it. But I really don’t see it changing.”

Councilman Rick McKinney denied the the cuts were anything but fiscal prudence. “Maybe they just need to be reminded of whose job it is to approve the budget,” he said of the commissioners.

The council members, who are the fiscal body of county government, and commissioners, who are the executive body, have been clashing frequently for several years. The majority of the council wants to keep taxes low, use debt sparingly and prioritize spending on the county’s fundamental responsibilities. But their outlook often clashes with the three county commissioners, who also want to keep a close eye on the purse strings but seek a more progressive role with spending to improve quality of life.

McKinney said businesses and business groups that have been advocating for transit should raise the money themselves, perhaps funding a system in a trial period. But he doesn’t think transit will work here. “I don’t think we’re dense enough to support transit,”‘ he said. “I’ve been to areas with transit, and they still have traffic jams. It’s not the Holy Grail it’s made out to be.”

Councilman Fred Glynn Jr. said he also voted to cut the funding because he thinks Commissioner Altman has a conflict of interest because her law firm, Altman, Poindexter and Wyatt, represents CIRTA.

Altman said she personally has ensured she receives no money from CIRTA through that contract. She said that her partner, Anne Poindexter, has represented the group since before their law firm was created earlier this year.

As Hamilton County’s representative to CIRTA, Altman has been active in the group for more than a decade. She currently serves as its chairman, a volunteer position.

Executive Director Lori Kaplan said the cut would amount to 22 percent of CIRTA’s annual $273,000 operating budget and would have an impact on services. She said CIRTA is heavily involved in the county, through providing informational transit forums for a potential referendum, through a countywide ride-share program and through coordinating on-demand transit services in the 10-county region.

She hopes to convince the county to restore the funding. “It would be a big loss for them to cut this funding,” she said. “We are disappointed it’s in their draft budget.”

Like CIRTA, the Hamilton County Economic Development Corp. is studying how the decrease in funding will impact its services next year. But unlike with CIRTA, the council cut only a portion of the group’s funding.

Hamilton County will continue to provide $175,000 annually. Fishers, Carmel and Noblesville also fund a total of $227,000. The remainder of the group’s 2016 budget of $686,000 comes through private investment. Westfield had provided the group about $30,000 but dropped its funding two years ago.

The development corporation seeks to attract new businesses to the county. But Glynn said he thinks the county’s cities are better positioned to attract development and noted they already are active in that role.

“I feel like Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville … companies are coming out because they are dealing directly with these cities,” Glynn said.

Tim Monger, the development corporation’s president and CEO, said he and his staff provide a valuable resource by reaching out to site selectors and businesses to convince them to build in Hamilton County. For instance, earlier this month he invited site selectors from California, Dallas, New York, New Jersey and Chicago during the BMW Championship at a Carmel golf course. During the trip, they met with the mayors of Carrmel, Fishers and Noblesville and toured the area.

“‘If each of our communities had to arrange these trips,” Monger said, “you’re talking about three times the expense. You have to think of Hamilton County as a regional area.”

The council also cut $2 million from the highway department. Highway Director Brad Davis said that money was going to provide a local match for $3.5 million the county has in state and federal funding to widen 276th Street from U.S. 31 to Gwinn Road near Arcadia next year, a project largely designed to accommodate large vehicles that travel to and from seed company Beck’s Hybrids.

McKinney said the council cut the $2 million to control cash flow and balance the budget. He does not think that money was earmarked for 276th Street. McKinney said he was confident the council would vote to provide the funds for 276th Street next year, if necessary. He said income tax revenue the county will receive next year would cover the cost.

Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at (317) 444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich and at Facebook/chris.sikich.

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