RENSSELAER — For the last time in 2020, the Jasper County Council and Commissioners met together Tuesday night in the meeting room of the CASA/Health Dept. building on Sparling Ave. in Rensselaer. The meeting room allows for social distancing during meetings, unlike the meeting room at the courthouse. Security for these meetings was one of the topics the two boards discussed.

Council President Rein Bontreger expressed his condolences on the passing of former councilman and president of the board Ron Sipkema, who dies on Nov. 17. Bontreger said, “He was an excellent president and a great guy. He always had an infectious laugh. He lead Jasper County well. We’re going to miss him.”

Councilman Gerrit DeVries, who was on the council during Sipkema’s term, agreed saying, “Ron was a wonderful president.” He said he appreciated the way he would deal with the audience and the council. “He had a loving heart,” he said.

Sipkema served on the county council for 12 years, and sat on many of the county’s boards, including the drainage board.

Sipkema passed away on Monday, Nov. 16, at the age of 78.

Bontreger stepped into the role of president when Sipkema left the board. Paul Norwine, who replaced him said he would call him for advice from time to time when he first took his seat on the board.

With Commissioner Kendell Culp the only member of that board physically present, he spoke for the other two commissioners, who were attending the meeting via Zoom. He gave an update on the projects accomplished or upcoming for the year, including the announcement of the Dunn’s Bridge solar Project, which will begin in the Wheatfield area. Part of the large solar farm will spread into Stark County as well, with the $1 billion project ready to build its next phase. The last phase of the project will be finished in 2023, the same year NIPSCO will shutter its coal burning facility at the north end of the county.

Culp said it will be the largest solar project “east of the Mississippi.”

There is also a smaller solar field planned for the Kniman area, and the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office and jail will be hooking up soon to its own solar field, built on the southeast side of the building. They expect to go online before year’s end.

Culp also said they have spent $3 million on road construction this year, with 32 miles of new asphalt spread across multiple county roads. The majority of the paving projects were bid out, with Walsh & Kelly awarded the projects. The county highway department did $70,000 worth of paving as well.

Areas paved included Tefft, Fair Oaks and numerous subdivisions throughout the county.

The commissioners also spent money to renovate the Sparling St. building for the health department, which will move into the building next month. Some of the money spent will be reimbursed to the county through the CARES Act, so some of the money budgeted for the project will go back into the county’s general fund.

They are renovating a portion of the third floor to allow for social distancing for the Superior Court’s administrative offices. They are taking a room used for evidence storage and making it an office. An HVAC system also in the “evidence” room will have to be relocated. The “L” shaped room will be the width of a window. The renovations will cost $19,000, and Culp said should also be reimbursed through the CARES Act money.

The county also saved money on the new software the sheriff’s department has ordered, with some of that reimbursable also. Between $125,000 to $150,000 of the new dispatch and administrative software should come back into the county’s coffers.

Expecting to use the larger meeting room into the future, the commissioners will be outfitting the room with monitors, speakers, microphones and cameras to allow for virtual meetings to continue there as well. Currently, a tablet and laptop are used to connect those attending online. Those who speak via Zoom could only be heard by those near to the laptop. The added equipment will make the meetings easier for the boards to talk to one another and to see each other, whether online or in person.

The money spent for the equipment will be sent in for reimbursement as well. Since the money must be spent first, some of the departments are short on funds as they wait for the reimbursement dollars to flow back to the county. The sheriff’s department is among those finding themselves short on cash as they wait for reimbursements, which is taking longer than the state had anticipated. With 92 counties all requesting the funds, turn around is much longer than expected.

Sheriff Pat Williamson said there should be money to cover the cost of security at the meetings as courthouse security has been minimal while the evening meetings have been online or at other locations than the courthouse.

He didn’t think it would be a problem to have at least one deputy to keep the building secure. He and Chief Deputy Jason Wallace were in attendance and capable of providing security at the joint meeting.

Councilman Gary Fritts asked if they had heard of any discussion on traffic flow on the I-65/SR 10 corridor as a new truck stop is being built. He said traffic flow through that area is already an issue even before the new business is built. The only word from INDOT, which would be responsible for the interstate and state highway, is the possibility of round-abouts rather than traffic lights.

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