MOROCCO — For the third consecutive Newton County Council meeting, political party requirements for sitting on the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals (PTABOA) came up.
This time the issue was brought to the council by Newton County Democrat Chairman Roxanne Hanford at the council’s meeting on Feb. 12, who said she didn’t even know about the issue until she saw it in the newspaper.
“The state contacted me because they saw the headlines,” said Hanford. “I am very disappointed that no one came to me or asked me. I know that a lot of you know that there are Democrats for that position.”
Hanford would go on to say that the PTABOA is an animal within itself and what has been done is illegal.
County Council President Michael Mark informed Hanford that the council was asked by Assessor Kristen Hoskins several years ago to waive the political requirements.
“It was relayed to us that there were no qualified Democrats to appoint to that board,” said Mark.
That was never the case according to the Newton County Democrat Party, as they have stated there has been at least one fully qualified Democrat to sit on that board for the past decade.
Newton County Commissioner Kyle Conrad told the council that he has been in contact with the assessor and that she received guidance via an email from the Department of Local Government and Finance several years ago with a different stance on the issue than what has been said most recently.
Barry Wood, Director of Assessments at the Department of Local Government and Finance, spoke to the Enterprise a few weeks ago and stated, “With the terms to the PTABOA board being 1-year terms, I would suspect that the county would need to revisit any waiver of political requirements each year by all three parties listed in the state code, the assessor, county council, and county commissioners.”
Wood also added that someone who disagrees with the PTABOA’s ruling could then ask the Indiana Board of Tax Review to make their decision null and void since the makeup of that board does not comply with the state code.
According to state statute, no more than two of a three-member PTABOA can belong to the same party. However, that subsection of the law can be waived if there is an absence of certified level two or three Indiana assessors-appraisers whose appointment would satisfy the political party requirements.
That is what the county did in 2017, when Newton County Assessor Kristen Hoskins, the Newton County Council, and the Newton County Commissioners voted to waive the political party requirements since at that time allegedly no Democrats were willing to be on that board.
That changed at the end of 2019 when the county council voted to reinstate those political party requirements after finding out that two Democrats were willing to serve on that board and one of those had a level three certification.
To fulfill the political party requirement, the county council made a motion on Jan. 15 to appoint Teri Pasierb, a Democrat, to the PTABOA. However, that motion failed by a 4-3 vote. Following the failure of that motion, a motion to re-appoint Christine Belt, a Republican, to the PTABOA board passed 5-2.
At a previous meeting, the council appointed and approved former assessor Lester Moore to the PTABOA board, but later tabled the issue.
Currently, all three appointments to the PTABOA are Republicans, and with the state law not being real clear the issue may have to be settled in court.
“Some council members tried to rectify this issue, but the appointment failed,” said Councilmember Abbey Rossiter. “We need to correct that.”
“We need to get an answer to this because there are a lot of politics and personal issues involved,” added Mark.
Conrad suggested getting a ruling from the State’s Attorney General to get the issue solved once and for all.
In other news, a question on if the council was following past practices regarding approving job descriptions blew up to a heated debate that lasted around an hour.
The council approved the job description of Maintenance Director, but unlike the last vacancy of a department head, they were not able to review it before it was filled.
When the Building Commissioner position was going to have a vacancy, the job was posted and advertised. The job description was reviewed by the council and the commissioners held interviews for the opening, however, with the Maintenance Director, the commissioners accepted a resignation and voted to fill the position with Jacob Shufflebarger all at the same meeting.
“This has nothing to do with the person in the position,” said Council Vice-President Scott Carlson. “We have asked that when a position comes up, we need to be informed so that we can make a decision if that position is needed and at what compensation.”
“That procedure was not followed by the commissioners in this case,” Mark added.
“Historically, the council has taken the stance of not eliminating positions that are filled with people, but when a position is open that is a prime time to review it,” Carlson said. “There doesn’t seem to be any consideration by the commissioners to start a person at a position with a lower salary and having them work their way up.”
Conrad argued that they always send their department heads over to the council when they have vacancies but they can’t be hamstrung with their department heads.
“At some point, you have to trust us to do our jobs,” said Conrad.
“Trust is earned,” replied Carlson.
In other news, members of the Brook-Iroquois Township Fire Department came before the council to get a verbal commitment of a $200,000 grant and a $75,000 loan to bid on a used 2003 aerial fire truck coming from Rensselaer. The council gave a verbal commitment for the funding.
Councilmember Rossiter informed the other members of the council that she has been working with the Newton County EMS (Ambulance) to get a competitive pay matrix together. She asked for the issue to be on next month’s agenda to be discussed.
“I know they get overtime, but I can’t comprehend seeing an EMT who has been here 22 years being paid $12.86 an hour, and a paramedic who has been here 18 years being paid under $15,” said Rossiter. “Public safety is important to our residents and it’s getting hard to even fill the open part-time positions.”
Carlson responded by saying that the issue needs to be looked at but that other counties’ EMS don’t get the overtime that is offered here in Newton County.
“We do need to be competitive and we may have to restructure the shifts,” said Carlson.
“I understand the overtime is built-in, but that is time they have to work and be away from their family to make decent money,” answered Rossiter.