Backhoe backdrop: Statehouse fight

    The Adams County Solid Waste Management District's board of directors on Monday directed its attorney to negotiate and execute an inter-local agreement with the county commissioners that ultimately would lead to the waste district's purchase of a new backhoe. That piece of equipment, in turn, would be shared with the county surveyor's office if the legal details can be worked out.
    Solid waste director Hank Mayer said it was recently brought to his attention that state law currently prohibits the county surveyor's office from purchasing or owning equipment. Mayer said conversations with County Surveyor Paul Norr had revealed that the backhoe currently used by Norr's office, and owned by the county commissioners, is badly in need of repair or replacement.
    The surveyor's office uses the equipment primarily to maintain ditches throughout the county.
    Mayer recommended a two-pronged solution that he said not only would provide a new backhoe for the surveyor's office, but could also prove beneficial to the solid waste district in the long run.
    The backdrop for Mayer's generosity is an ongoing battle at the Indiana Statehouse between legislators and solid waste district officials statewide. Lawmakers will meet in a summer study session, Mayer said, to continue a debate over the future taxing ability of solid waste districts. Some lawmakers, he said, would like to strip waste districts of their ability to use tax receipts for day-to-day solid waste operations.
    "The General Assembly is looking at the money solid waste districts have, and I think the end game is to take that money and give it to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to disperse as they see fit," Mayer said. "So I think it would be wise for us to lower our cash reserve balance" in anticipation of financial scrutiny from lawmakers.
    Tim Baker, the solid waste district's legal counsel, said local waste officials had been told by the state for years to maintain cash reserves equal to approximately 50 percent of the district's annual operating budget. But those requirements have been loosened in recent years, Baker said, with the district now required to maintain a much lower cash reserve balance.
    Mayer recommended the transfer of $51,000 now in the solid waste district's cash reserve into a non-reverting fund set aside for future costs at the district's two closed landfills. He also urged the solid waste board to further reduce its cash reserve through the purchase a new backhoe. Mayer said solid waste employees would get some considerable use from the equipment, adding that Norr's office would be responsible for all maintenance on the equipment.
    "I think this is a way local governments can work together and benefit each other," Mayer said. "If we were to do this, we would still have a healthy cash balance in reserve, in my opinion."
    Mayer got support from solid waste board members for his proposal. "I think it's a wise use of the taxpayers' money," said DuWayne Herman, who represents the Adams County Council on the waste board. Berne Mayor Bill McKean called the proposal "a win-win for the county."
    Baker, however, urged some restrain in reducing cash the district currently has on hand.
    "This doesn't mean we should let our cash balance drop too low," Baker said. "Any future problems at our closed landfills could potentially be expensive for the district."