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Fix roads or save money

By John Estridge, Editor

The question to the county's residents is this: Do they want the county highway department to accumulate money in the bank or do they want their roads and bridges fixed?

That was the question voiced by highway department bookkeeper Jacque Schulz at a special Franklin County Council meeting Tuesday night, Oct. 3.

“If you're going to put that into investments … I think taxpayers will be more concerned about not seeing their roads improved than having money in the bank,” Schulz said.

Her comment was in response to council member Rebecca Oglesby's assertion the county is leaking money; therefore, more money must be put into the bank for a rainy day.

“Five years ago we had $5.7 million investments (for the county funds),” Oglesby said. “Now we have $1.4 (million). Money's going out the door, and we have to set money back in reserves for emergencies, not spending it like it's going to be here the next time around.”

Counties are seeing an increase in highway funds from the state due to a dime-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, and an even larger increase on diesel. Oglesby said that might be rescinded in the next legislative session because people are against the increase in gas tax.

“The problem with the gas tax is it's a political pawn,” Oglesby said. “The next guy at state that runs for office is going to say 'to help you taxpayers I'm going to lower the gas tax.' It can be lowered. You've got to watch out and not have your budget up to the max of the gas tax because I have the feeling in 2020, it might change.”

Franklin County Commission Vice President Tom Linkel, who is the commissioner in charge of the highway department, said the state recommends 10-20 percent of the annual budget be put back reserves.

“Becky said we ought to have half a million in the highway (reserves), and I agree,” Linkel said. “I said within our highway funds, we ought to have a half million dollars either in investments or whatever sitting there for cash reserves. That's not unreasonable between our three or four highway funds.”

However, there is a lack of consensus on what will be the cash reserves at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. Schulz and Linkel believe the highway department will have $3 million on hand. Council members Aaron Leffingwell, Keith Hall and Oglesby believe the amount will be about $200,000.

Even though Schulz had consultations during the meeting with auditor Karla Bauman at the council's dais, there was not a clear consensus on the amount of money currently on hand for the highway department, or what will be on hand at the beginning of 2018. Linkel said the council members are not taking into account another tax disbursement from the state prior to this year's end.

After more debate, council unanimously voted to approve $930,000 in highway Economic Devel-opment Income Tax (EDIT) Fund, $20,000 in Covered Bridge Fund and $365,000 in Local Road and Street Fund.

Aggravating everything in this situation is the fact the county struck out seek-ing a Community Crossing Grant. These are 75-25 grants with the state putting in the 75 percent. While almost every county around Franklin received up to more than $800,000 from the state, the county was denied any funding because Indiana Depart-ment of Transportation (INDOT) officials said the county's grant application was incomplete.

Franklin County High-way Engineer Ted Cooley, who has held that position for the past six years, resigned his position effective Dec. 1. He was the person who submitted the application. The county had planned for many needed road and bridge projects to be funded through a Community Crossings Grant.

Schultz said there is a need for an engineer, a secretary for the engineer and a secretary at the highway department. There was a secretary at the highway department until this year. She retired and was not replaced, leaving Schultz to cover both the bookkeeper and secretarial positions. The engineer's secretary will split time between the engineer and the highway department.

Leffingwell said the commissioners did not give Cooley a fair shake. Cooley's office was at the county transfer station. It had bad Internet access. Also, Leffingwell said the county gave Cooley a decrepit vehicle to drive and did not pay him what an engineer deserved.

Commissioner Eric Roberts said the vehicle in question is somewhere between a 1994-96 Chevy Blazer. He does not believe it is worth it to buy a new vehicle for the position.

According to Linkel, the new engineer will have an office at the highway department garage and offices located in Brook-ville, which has better Internet access and will help communication between the engineer and the highway department. There will be some extra cost for remodeling at the highway department. Commissioners wanted to pay the new engineer up to $48 per hour and have that person work 40 hours per week.

“Now we're going to put out for another engineer with better pay, a better car and help,” Leffingwell said. “It seems to me we didn't give Ted a fair shake.”

“I'm not going to let it happen again,” Linkel said.

Leffingwell said the commissioners should not accept Cooley's resignation. Instead, they should see how his job performance is with a better office and a secretary to help share the load.

According to Roberts, Cooley pro-crastinated in filing grant applications for bank stabilization projects. Schultz had to step in to get them completed, and she does not have any training in grant writing.

Leffingwell then asked how the commissioners figured the pay.

Roberts said counties in Indiana pay highway engineers between $50-80,000. The Dearborn County engineer makes $75,000. Engineers who work for INDOT make $75-80,000, and engineers who work for private firms make between $100-150,000 per year.

Roberts said the county wants to pay $75-80,000 in order to attract good candidates. He wants the county to take its time in hiring the right person.

According to Schultz, the new engineer will be responsible for writing grant applications regarding the highway department. The highway department also applies for federal grants, which are 80-20, with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the cost. The secretary will take responsibility for paperwork associated with the engineer's duties.

Some council members such as Joe Sizemore, said the county should employ a grant writer. Leffingwell said the county pays the Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (SIRPC) to write grants, and the only grant the SIRPC wrote for the county this year was a housing grant, which was very controversial with council and some residents.

Leffingwell said if SIRPC is not going to be utilized for grant writing, then the county should drop SIRPC and save the money the county pays that organization.

Roberts said he looked over the Franklin County application and compared it with Dearborn Counties. Dearborn County was awarded in excess of $800,000. Roberts said he did not see much difference in the two applications.

There have been some conversations regarding INDOT not awarding the county any grant money in retribution for some Brookville merchants' opposition to the INDOT Main Street project. Commis-sioners seemed to take the side of the merchants who were against the project. INDOT has denied that occurred. When asked, commissioners say INDOT officials told them it did not come into play regarding its decision on the grant.

In the end after motions initiated by Oglesby, council approved $75,000 for a new engineer. Council member Dean McQueen was the only council member to vote against Oglesby's motion.

Council also agreed to pay the secretary $28,511 and the administrative secretary $28,977.