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Jasper County Council hires new attorney

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At the Jasper County Council meeting on Dec. 18, the council hired a new attorney following the recent resignation of council attorney Robert Monfort.

Council President Rein Bontreger said he had had a good conversation with Monfort, expressing his gratitude for the attorney’s service. “With some changes coming in the landscape in 2019, we agreed it would be a good time to make a change,” Bontreger said. He said with the consent of the council, he reached out to attorney Jacob Ahler to take over.

Ahler said he has experience with local government, representing Wolcott, Brook and the City of Rensselaer. He also said he is experienced with issuing bonds and with the State Board of Accounts. “It’s an area of practice I’m growing,” he told the council. “If I could, I’d do it full time.” He grew up in Rensselaer and came back to get involved.

“He’s a good man,” Bontreger said.

The council had budgeted for a $6,000 retainer for 2019; however, Ahler was asking for an $8,000 retainer. He said he would keep track of his hours and deduct it from his retainer. He said he bills on an hourly basis and charges government entities a discounted rate.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to do this,” he said. He will begin on Jan. 1, and his contract will be renewable every year. The council and Ahler agreed to adjust his contract retainer to the budgeted amount of $6,000. Shortly after the decision was made, the council put Ahler to work right away.

Sheriff-elect Pat Williamson brought a contract with him for the council to approve. He explained he had recently gone to “sheriff school” and learned the best way to be paid is by a statute allowing for sheriff’s to be paid at a rate of 60 percent of the prosecuting attorney’s salary. With that equation, the sheriff’s pay would be more than $90,000 per year if it includes the $5,000 paid to the prosecuting attorney by the county.

The state pays prosecuting attorneys $147,000, and the county pays $5,000 to its PA. Williamson said the attorney for the sheriff’s office, figured in the $5,000. He said the pay is based on a state statute. Bontreger asked if the council would need a contract if they agreed to pay by the statute. He asked Ahler to look into how the 60 percent is figured, either with or without the county’s contribution, and if a contract is needed.

The council budgeted just over $86,000 for the sheriff’s pay in 2019, a $5,000 difference from Williamson’s request.

The council decided to continue the meeting to the following day to give Ahler time to get the answers they needed before making a decision.

Williamson approached the Jasper County Council the following day, Dec. 19, for the somewhat last-minute meeting to negotiate his salary.

If a county has 20,000 to 40,000 people — the range in which Jasper County falls — the sheriff receives a salary of 60 percent of the Jasper County prosecutor’s yearly salary, and was the contract Williamson wanted to have approved. However, Ahler wanted to make sure he could speak with the attorney for the sheriff’s department about exactly how the salary was calculated.

“We were all a little confused on the salary contract, as to ‘Does it include both salaries?’” Williamson said. “...That can be confusing, but we wanted to make sure it’s legal and transparent.”

The two sides’attorneys then conferred with the other over the next day and resolved the matter legally, finding that the salary should only be calculated from the total state funds.

The meeting to make Williamson’s salary official had to be held in a hurry, since an elected official’s salary can’t be changed after Jan. 1 of a given year.

“This is the same identical contract that the sheriff approves every year, for the last eight years,” Williamson said to the council on Wednesday, citing the 60 percent mark. “...I’m really happy your attorney worked with my attorney on it.”

Williamson also asked the council to approve a $4,000 retainer for the sheriff’s department attorney, Jim Austen, who is one of two attorneys recommended by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association. Williamson said he is “very versed” on laws concerning the sheriff’s office and liability. Attorney Eric Beaver recommended him also. The council approved the request, with the retainer coming from the sheriff’s commissary account.

The council appointed Councilman Steve Jordan to replace Gerrit DeVries on the county’s plan commission board. DeVries has represented the council on the board for six years and decided to step down for 2019. Bontreger first asked Councilman Gary Fritts if he could replace DeVries, but Fritts declined, saying his plate was full already. Jordan reluctantly agreed to sit on the board for 2019.

“I don’t want it to be a big burden for anybody,” Bontreger said.

The council heard from Justin Wells of Orion Renewables, who talked openly to the council about his company’s plan to build a solar farm near the Wheatfield NIPSCO plant, where the utility plans to shut its coal-fired generators by 2023. Orion Renewables had hoped to build wind turbines in the county, but opposition to the proposal has caused the company to rethink its plans.

Wells came to discuss the issue because the company will be requesting a tax abatement after the first of the year.

Contributing: Nick Fiala