What about your background and experience qualifies you to serve on the Jackson County Council?
I have served on several other boards and am familiar with budgets and what it takes to make them balance. In my 12 years of prior experience on the county council, I learned how county government finances work and the budget process.
What is the role of the council and its members?
The county council has the responsibility to set budgets for all county offices. They also determine salaries and wages for all county employees. The council has the authority to borrow money in the form of bonds to finance large county projects.
What is the top issue facing our county, and how would you address it?
Other than the jail overcrowding addressed below, I think the financing and construction of the new judicial center in Brownstown will be a big issue for the council next year. This will be financed with a bond issue and shouldn’t affect property taxes because the jail bonds will be paid off. It should improve efficiency of the judicial system, but proper staffing should be addressed. The use of the current superior court building will have to be addressed. Turing it into a work release center to reduce jail overcrowding has been considered as well as selling the property.
What steps should the council take to keep the budget balanced and not have to dip into savings?
Employee salaries and benefits are by far the largest part of the county budget. Retaining quality employees should be a priority, but increasing their numbers should be done very carefully, if at all. The past councils have done a very good job of balancing the budgets every year, and most department budgets are in good shape. The last professional salary study for county employees was done in 1998. I think it may be time to look at this again to ensure our salaries and benefits are in line with the local labor market.
What are the biggest financial challenges facing the county, and how would you address them?
The biggest challenge I see facing all county councils is the state government trying to balance their budgets by pushing more requirements to the counties and towns while cutting funding. The state has pledged not to raise taxes but is always happy to provide a way for local governments to replace the lost money by forcing them to increase taxes and user fees. The current council has just created another income tax effective next year to offset lost income from state cuts. The financing of road and bridge improvements will also be a challenge because the state has changed the formula for the highway dollars the county receives. The state says the county can implement a wheel tax that you pay when you renew your license plates on each vehicle you own to replace the money. I am opposed to a wheel tax.
Jail overcrowding is an increasing concern. How can the problem be solved? Do you support a jail expansion?
The council needs to work with the judges, prosecutor and sheriff to determine the reason for our high inmate counts. I know the drug epidemic is responsible for most of the problem, but not all counties handle the problem the same way. Bartholomew County has almost twice the population of Jackson County, but their inmate count is usually about 80 less than ours. It hasn’t been that long ago that Jackson County actually made over $400,000 per year by using excess jail space to hold prisoners for the state. Now, we are talking about paying other counties to hold some of our prisoners. Part of the problem is a new state requirement that counties hold prisoners with no reimbursement after they have been convicted of a Level 6 felony. The state used to pay us for that. There has to be a way to balance public safety with responsible use of taxpayer dollars. Brent Steele once said, “We should lock up the people we are afraid of, not the ones we are just mad at.” I am not opposed to jail expansion if that is the right decision, but spending millions of taxpayer dollars would be a last resort.
Is open government important? Why or why not? How will you ensure that the council is open and honest with the public?
Open government is always important. The more the general public is involved and informed, the better decisions government leaders can make.
Name: Jack “Andy” Fountain
Residence: West of Brownstown on the family farm
Family: Wife, Linda; two children; four grandchildren
Occupation: Insurance agent
Previous political experience: I served three terms on the county council from 1999 to 2010