By Caitlin VanOverberghe | Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — An increasingly complicated debate over a new jail. A major computer hack at the hospital. A prestigious designation that will unlock millions of dollars in grants.
Those were three of the most significant stories that made the biggest impacts in Hancock County in 2018. From agonizingly difficult community issues to the hoisting of state championship trophies, it was another noteworthy year. Here is our take on the top stories that made our pages over the past 12 months.
1. Jail referendum fails, ushering in a new era in the dispute on overcrowding
2018 was truly a year of debate over the fate of the Hancock County Jail.
Should a new structure be put in downtown Greenfield or outside the city on the county farm? How do we pay for it? With property taxes or income taxes? How many more staffers will need to be hired? Should the county buy modified semitrailers to create a temporary structure that could alleviate overcrowding until a solution is reached?
Those questions and more were topics of discussion at county board meetings and public forums held throughout the year. Candidates seeking election in 2018 pushed the debate further into the spotlight; it figured prominently in campaigns for sheriff, county council and county commissioner. At the same time, population at the jail swelled to more than 250 — an all-time high and well over its capacity of 157.
While discussions forced the project forward, its fate hasn’t yet been sealed.
A referendum was put on the May ballot asking for voters’ permission to hike property taxes to build a $55 million jail that would provide more mental health and addiction services to inmates and increase jail staffing while also paying for renovations to existing county buildings. The proposal failed, sending county leaders back to the drawing board.
In the fall, county leaders voted to move the project to a piece of county-owned farmland located along U.S. 40 between County Roads 400E and 500E. New schematic designs of a structure on that site are expected to be released — and likely debated further — early next year.
2. Hancock Regional Hospital hit by ransomware hack
Barely two weeks into the new year, Hancock Health fell victim to a cyber attack. A hacker demanded Bitcoin — a virtual currency used to make anonymous transactions that is nearly impossible to trace — to relinquish control of part of the hospital’s computer system.
The attack affected Hancock Health’s entire network, including its physician offices and wellness centers. The ransomware locked more than 1,400 files, including patient medical records, and changed the names of every one temporarily to “I’m sorry.”
The hackers gave Hancock Health seven days to pay or the files would be permanently encrypted. Eventually, the hospital network opted to pay a $55,000 ransom to the hackers in order to regain access to its computer systems. Luckily, no personal medical information was compromised.
3. The Health and Heritage Region earns state Stellar Community grant — one of two county projects named as finalists for the award
Millions of dollars in grant money will now be available for projects in Greenfield, Fortville and Hancock County after the area was picked as one of the two Stellar Communities in Indiana for 2018.
Calling itself the Health and Heritage Region, Greenfield, Fortville and Hancock County partnered to apply for the grant, offered by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs. The state picked the region as one of two winners for the year. The municipalities will receive up to $15 million in grant money to fast-track economic development and quality-of-life projects over five years.
A second finalist from Hancock County — a collaboration among New Palestine, Cumberland and McCordsville — was not selected as a winner, but had been chose as a finalist in April.
4. Greenfield Fire Territory confronts staffing issues
Members of the Hancock County Professional Firefighters Union gave a presentation to the Greenfield City Council over the summer hoping to demonstrate a need for additional hires to the Greenfield Fire Territory. The department, union reps said, is severely understaffed and needs 16 new firefighters as soon as possible — a cost they estimated at more than $2 million.
A minimum of 14 firefighters is needed to respond to a fire in a single-family home, according industry standards. But in Greenfield, it’s common to have 10 firefighters at a time protecting all of the 52-square-mile Greenfield Fire Territory.
In November, the city spent $35,000 to hire a Missouri-based consulting firm to study the territory’s needs. That study is scheduled to begin in 2019.
5. School safety takes a front seat
Hancock became the first county in the state to give teachers and administrators access to a mobile panic button to be used in case of an emergency at school.
Employees at each of the county’s four public school districts and three private schools can now push a button on a smartphone app and call 911 and simultaneously alert every member of local law enforcement to an issue in their building — particularly an active shooter.
This was just one of several steps county officials, police and administrators took this year to make schools safer for students. For example, each district took advantage of an offer from the state to receive free hand-held metal detectors; Greenfield-Central hired a therapist to work onsite in two of its schools; and Mt. Vernon partnered with the Fortville Police Department to bring a representative from a crisis-response organization to train first responders.
6. Talitha Koum opens as the city’s first recovery house
After three years of planning and fundraising, the Talitha Koum Women’s Recovery House opened its doors in downtown Greenfield, becoming the first recovery facility in the city.
Those behind the initiative purchased a house along East Main Street in Greenfield and invested more than $200,000 to remodel it. They created their own recovery curriculum and hired a staff.
The house has four bedrooms and space for as many as 10 women in recovery.
Funding for the place comes from a combination of donations, grants and sponsorship. Hancock County and Greenfield city officials chipped in taxpayer dollars as well to help cover construction and operating costs.
7. Teen parents charged as adults in shaken baby case
After their child was badly injured by what physicians said was child abuse — specifically, shaken baby syndrome — two teenage parents were waived into adult court after a series of felony counts were filed against them early in 2018.
Brandon Kimberlin and his girlfriend, Caitlin Mann, were 16 and 17 when the alleged abuse occurred last year: Police believe Kimberlin caused the child’s injuries, which included broken bones and bleeding to the brain; and Mann along with Kimberlin’s parents, who helped care for the child, didn’t do enough to help the baby went the child went into cardiac arrest.
All four cases are still pending. The defendants’ attorneys have asked that a doctor be hired at taxpayer expense to review the case. They say the infant’s condition was due to his prematurity, and not neglect as prosecutors have alleged.
8. Dragons wins second state championship in four years
The New Palestine Dragons football team claimed the second state title of 2018 for the school, defeating Decatur Central in the Class 5A title game, 28-14, at Lucas Oil Stadium, capping a 14-0 season.
It was the team’s second state champion and third appearance on the state’s biggest stage in four years and made history by winning a state championship in a class above their school’s enrollment. Standout running back Charlie Spegal broke state records for rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns, while also leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns.
In the spring, the Dragon softball team won its second state title in a row, and its best player Ashley Prange, was named the state’s Miss Softball.
9. United Way funding changes causes concerns for nonprofits
United Way of Central Indiana announced this year that it would change its funding-disbursement model, causing many Hancock County nonprofits to worry about future support. A number of them scrambled to find alternative funding sources.
Traditionally, United Way has collected money from donors — often through workplace-giving programs — and redistributed it to partner agencies. That practice will continue, but how United Way decides to distribute the funding is changing. Agencies accredited by United Way will be able to apply for funds based on its goal of addressing poverty. The nonprofit will measure the impact of programs and will only fund those that deliver results.
That could mean less funding for local groups like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hancock County, Meals on Wheels of Hancock County and Hancock County Senior Services that rely heavily on the United Way for support. Now, they’re bracing the change that will come in 2019.
10. Woman pleads guilty to reckless homicide, admits to giving friend drugs that caused his overdose
Days into the New Year, a 16-year-old Greenfield boy, Jacob Root, was found dead in his friend’s bedroom from a drug overdose.
That friend, Anna Southgate, would eventually admit to giving Root the drugs that killed him. A search of her cellphone as part of the investigation into Root’s death proved Southgate knew her friend was in distress; a series of Google searches from the night Root died included “what to do if your friend has overdosed,” “how to intervene during an overdose” and “the dying process,” court documents state. She never called 911.
Southgate pleaded guilty this month to two felony charges and was given a 12-year sentence. Members of local law enforcement hope the case will serve as an example of the punishment face those who pass drugs that cause overdoses. And the stakes are higher now: A new law went into effect in July that made dealing drugs and causing death a Level 1 felony, carrying a maximum penalty of 40 years.