The uncertain status of the Huntington County Emergency Management Agency continues to color spending decisions by the Huntington County Council, and the lack of progress in resolving differences between the EMA advisory board and the Huntington County commissioners continues to irk council members.
"Until that mess we have - that people won't take the responsibility to resolve - we need to leave that department alone," Councilman Don Davenriner said as the council pulled back from a proposal to spend unused money in the EMA budget on an upgrade to police communication equipment.
The conversation occurred during the council's Aug. 20 meeting, during which the council took care of regular business and got a first look at county departments' proposed budgets for 2013.
Proposed 2013 budgets for about half the county departments were presented to the council on Aug. 20; the remaining departments were scheduled to present their proposals during a special council meeting on Aug. 21. The county council meets again on Sept. 17 to adopt a 2013 budget, making any necessary adjustments to individual departments' budgets at that time.
With just a couple of exceptions, department heads proposed budgets for 2013 that were not much different than their 2012 budgets.
The EMA's proposed budget shows a decrease of $13,642 from this year because of a planned restructuring of the department's staff.
For the past several years, the EMA has been staffed by a full-time director and a full-time deputy director. In 2013, according to the budget proposal, the office would have a full-time director and a full-time administrative assistant.
The EMA currently has no director or deputy director. The office is being staffed by a part-time clerk, Kathy Juillerat. Juillerat was hired after Brian Topp, the EMA's former deputy director who was serving as interim director, resigned in July. Topp had served as interim director since the commissioners declined to renew the contract of EMA Director Brandon Taylor late last year.
The commissioners' action prompted a lawsuit, filed in April by the EMA advisory board, claiming that only the advisory board - not the commissioners - has the right to hire and fire the EMA director. The civil suit was moved to Adams County Circuit Court and is currently awaiting a ruling by Judge Frederick Schurger on the commissioners' motion to dismiss the action.
During their Aug. 20 meeting, council members briefly eyed the money budgeted - but not spent - on the EMA director's 2012 salary as a source for funding an unexpected $15,000 in additional costs for an upgrade of a county-wide emergency communication system. That money, however, might be needed if the lawsuit is decided in favor of the EMA advisory board and a judge orders back pay for the terminated director, council members noted.
"I think that budget needs to be left alone until we get a new director," Davenriner said. "It is a nightmare if we touch that budget."
In the end, the council decided to take the $15,000 from the local option income tax (LOIT) revenue set aside for public safety projects, while increasing the user fee for agencies throughout the county that will be using the system in order to pay back the $15,000.
That wasn't the end of concerns brought about by the EMA situation.
Noting the recent decision of Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters to discontinue the city's annual $35,000 contribution toward EMA operating expenses, Councilman Chris Hoke wondered if that was an indication of similar actions to come in the future.
Fetters justified the decision by saying that city residents also pay county taxes that go to support the EMA, but EMA advisory board member Jerry Helvie told county council members that the city - with its greater concentration of population - used EMA services more often than other areas of the county.
"Can the city unilaterally decide to withdraw the funding?" Hoke asked.
It's been done in other counties, Helvie responded, noting that there's never been a written cost-sharing contract with the city.
"I think it's been a gentlemen's agreement," Helvie said.
Hoke expressed concerns that the city might also decide not to contribute to the county's information technology department, which provides services to the city, or the combined city-county dispatch operation now under discussion.
"We need to protect our interests in some way," Hoke said.
In other budget discussions:
• County Clerk Kittie Keiffer asked for an extra $40,000 to implement vote centers in Huntington County, should that change be implemented.
"I am anticipating vote centers coming into play," she said.
Half of the $40,000 would pay for laptops and software, she said, and the remaining money would pay for election supplies. However, she said, the implementation of vote centers would save money in the long term.
• County Commissioners Tom Wall and Kathy Branham asked for an $8,000 raise for the county's human resources director and sought permission to create a new position that would relieve the HR director of her responsibilities as the commissioners' secretary. A new part-time secretary would cost $10,140.
The commissioners also asked for a $5,100 raise for the county's animal control officer.
• Sheriff Terry Stoffel budgeted for an increase in overtime pay, something he says is an unavoidable expense given the nature of the job.
An officer working a 2 a.m. accident, a meth bust, a rape or any major incident will likely spend five hours on that incident, he said.
"We just have to work it and see it through," he said.
Stoffel said he's investigating a Skype-like system for court appearances in an effort to cut down on skyrocketing costs of transporting prisoners back to Huntington County for court hearings.
Instead of sending two officers on a 10-hour round trip to transport a female prisoner to Huntington for a 10-minute court hearing, the prisoner could stay in the state women's prison and participate in the hearing online, he said.
Stoffel said the number of young mothers arrested on meth charges and sent to the state women's prison is steadily rising. Because they have young children, they must attend court hearings regarding those children several times a year, he said.
Stoffel didn't ask to hire more deputies, but Councilman Shane Bickel, a city police officer, brought up the subject.
"We don't have enough deputies to operate like we should," Bickel said, noting a change in work schedules for Indiana State Police, as well as city and town officers, that leaves fewer officers on duty at night.
"I think we have a problem we need to correct," Bickel said. "This isn't working; we need at least three more (deputies)."
• Council also heard budget proposals from Jonathan Leist, director of the Solid Waste Management District; County Auditor Cindy Yeiter; County Treasurer Brenda Hamilton; County Recorder Cheryl Schenkel; County Surveyor Jay Poe; County Assessor Terri Boone: and Jim Michael, weights and measures superintendent. Their proposals for 2013 were largely unchanged from their 2012 budgets.