County government joint session

By Cheri Shelhart

The county commissioners and council fill the table at their joint meeting Tuesday night at the courthouse, with all but Commissioner Richard Maxwell in attendance.

RENSSELAER — The Jasper County Council and Commissioners began discussions on budget priorities and progress on the former PNC Bank remodel.

When completed, the former bank building will serve as offices for the prosecuting attorney and probation office.

Jasper County Commission President Kendall Culp said when the bank building is ready for the offices to move from the annex, which is a block or two north of the bank, the county will probably put that building up for sale.

The bank building sits directly across the street from the courthouse and has two stories. The basement will house the probation department, and walls were added to accommodate privacy.

The main floor will be the prosecutor’s office. An elevator had to be added for ADA compliance, and a shaft has been built, but the delivery of the elevator has gone past the expected date of delivery.

The health department will move to the former youth center building, which sits on land owned by St. Joseph College, and was donated for the purpose of a youth center, which has since closed.

In other business, Sheriff Pat Williamson said the department’s financial advisor reported the sheriff’s pension fund had earned nearly $15,000 in interest, which is an improvement for the retirement plan.

The county government has been charged by the state to offer a better pension plan than what they currently have.

“The point is it can’t go on in perpetuity the way it is,” said Rein Bontreger, president of the council.

In budget priorities, Culp said they changed the insurance policy for county employees with a third-party carrier and have saved over $400,000 in the first six months of the year. He said the board of commissioners is asking, “Where are the places we can cut back? Are there programs that can be changed or eliminated?”

“We don’t want to wait for year five and then make cuts,” he said, referring to the closing of the NIPSCO coal generating plant that has been on the minds of the county government since the announcement of the closing came in fall of 2018.

Councilman Steve Jordan asked if the county was at a point where they won’t have as many capital projects coming up. Culp said there is the Downtown Revitalization program.

“We’re getting to that point. We’ve made tremendous investments in the courthouse,” Culp said.

The commissioners have been updating the HVAC system in the courthouse, and adding energy saving features wherever possible, including new windows and insulation.

Culp did say they are considering solar power for the jail building, which has been costly in utility bills since it was built. Work has been done to improve the HVAC system to control the high costs of heating and cooling the building. The company, Trane, mentioned the county could save by installing solar panels to power the jail. Culp said they are looking into either having their own or leasing to a company that would build the solar panels.

Commissioner Jim Walstra said there is one more year for the Indiana Crossroads grant program, and the county has received the grants and paved or chip sealed many of the roads around the county.

With the grant money, local income tax and revenue from the state’s new gas tax, Culp said they’ve had 100 miles of roads chip and sealed three years in a row, starting with the worst roads.

He said even though the money comes from gas taxes and not property taxes, they are still trying to keep costs low. He said they did hire two people to help during the winter.

“As we get closer to the NIPSCO shutdown, something has to give,” he said.