Meeting in person and onlline

By Cheri Shelhart

The County Council meets in person with one member of the board attending via Zoom at the former youth center in Rensselaer, which had room for the board to be social distanced as well as the audience.

RENSSELAER — The Jasper County Council approved several requests for additional appropriations from county departments including Judge John Potter, who has lost both of his court reporters and needs to replace them.

CASA, which advocates for children in the court system and the county clerks office, asking for money for absentee ballots as they are increasing due to the pandemic.

Potter asked for $12,600, an estimate for paying an additional court reporter while being trained by an experienced court reporter, who is retiring at the end of the year. He had one person leave and another dismissed.

Pat DeKock is serving as a part time reporter and is retiring. He has hired a woman who has some experience, but still needs additional training and is looking for another person to work full time for his courtroom. He wants to get someone hired by fall so DeKock can train that person before she leaves.

“Quite frankly, I’m stuck,” he told the council. “I have to get someone in to train. I don’t know what else to do.”

He said Superior Court Judge Russell Bailey was using his court reporter part time because he had lost one, too, then that person went to work for Bailey full time leaving Potter empty handed.

Since the judge didn’t have time to advertise his request, the council could not vote on it until next month.

All of CASA’s requests are part of matching grant funds. Katie Hall, who directs the program, asked for $8,000 for travel, but said she wouldn’t need that much because the national convention she normally attends will be virtual instead.

The CASA workers are volunteers and she said she does give them an option for travel reimbursement as well. Councilman Gerrit DeVries said he thought that was a lot of money for travel, and voted against the appropriation, while the rest of the board voted approval.

Hall also asked for $5,000 for furniture used to turn the room they were meeting in into a meeting and training room as well as some technology. Since the council was making use of the room, they approved this request with no dissent.

Kara Fishburn, county clerk, asked for $9,000, which she hopes to recoup from the state as the funds are needed due to the pandemic to cover extra personnel and extra equipment for the many absentee ballots that will be used for the general election in November. She said the county normally gets about 2,000 absentee ballots in a general election, and they had that many in the primary. She expects the number to double or even triple for the upcoming election.

Her office will need extra envelopes, ballot cards printed and extra people to help count. They have t o have four teams of people in both parties to do the counting. She has already requested the $6,000 from the state and will send another request for the $3,000 of the $9,000 to the state in August.

The board approved the additional money. Councilman Paul Norwine told Fishburn she and her staff do a “wonderful” job.

“This was a very tough time,” he said, “A lot of the poll workers are older.”

Fishburn said, “We take great pride in our elections. We’re very thorough in making sure every vote counts. We have a great team.”

Sheriff Pat Williamson asked for $130,000 as the first payment on the new communications software the council approved earlier in the year. The software transition project “kicks off” Aug. 11.

The City of Rensselaer will pay $20,000 towards the project, and other fire and police departments have pledged money to fund the project also. The DeMotte Police is the only police department in the county not paying into the program. The town has its own software for dispatching that works for them.

Williamson said with the large fire at NIPSCO in Wheatfield the week before, the new software would’ve automatically called out ambulances from across the county to respond along with every fire department.

“That’s what this is about,” he said. “With the push of a button, it will improve response.”

Williamson said the jail has had fewer inmates since the pandemic began, and it is slowing starting to go up. There were 54 inmates in the jail at the time of the meeting on July 21. This has helped control the food budget, with the cost of food on the rise.

A request for $21,000 for part-time help at Animal Control was tabled until their August meeting. There was no one there from the department to explain why another part time person was needed. Council members were reluctant to approve this with the discussion at the earlier joint meeting between them and the county commissioners who talked about a hiring freeze already in place.

Councilman Gary Fritts said Animal Control had already borrowed $5,600 from another line item in its budget this year. Councilman Brett Risner, who attended via Zoom, asked if the animal shelter has volunteers. Auditor Kim Grow said her office has a volunteer list for insurance and workman’s comp purposes.

Next month, the council begins work on the 2021 budget. Council President Rein Bontreger said, “The budget will be a unique challenge. It’s always a challenge but this year even more so.”

He said they look at numbers three years ahead, and they are already considering the loss of the NIPSCO generating plant, which is scheduled to shut down in 2023.

“The toughest issues are raises and growth factor. We really need to mind our P’s and Q’s this time around and keep it close.”

DeVries said, “In light of what’s going on in the county, people will appreciate if we hold tight.”

Fritts said they need to keep spending in check for the homeowners as farmland assessed values continue to drop.

“I feel like we always have,” he said.