HANCOCK COUNTY – Officials approved up to nearly $5.6 million in funding for improvements to county government buildings following debates on topics connected to the proposed projects that date back months.
The Hancock County Council voted 4-2 earlier this month to adopt an ordinance authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds in an original principal amount not to exceed $5,575,000 to fund the improvements.
The council narrowly approved the bond ordinance upon its introduction last month amid debate over whether the Hancock County Commissioners voted on hiring a construction company that had been helping manage preparations for the projects. It was later determined that the commissioners did not vote to hire the company, Indianapolis-based BW Construction. While commissioners Marc Huber and John Jessup argued there was an intention to hire the company last year, commissioner Bill Spalding’s disagreement with that notion and Jessup’s abstention from a re-vote ultimately prompted the board to seek a different way of handling the construction management.
Jessup has disclosed BW Construction contracts him as a construction superintendent but maintains he would not work in that capacity on Hancock County government projects. A conflict-of-interest investigation led by the Indiana State Board of Accounts is ongoing.
Before final approval of the bond ordinance, the council amended it to remove work to the county’s former jail, where the county’s community corrections department is slated to move, as those renovations are already earmarked in another general obligation bond approved last year. Jessup said it was included in the latest bond ordinance by mistake.
The latest ordinance still addresses remodeling the existing community corrections building to house the prosecutor’s office, whose current building is nearly 150 years old and is deteriorating faster than it’s able to be maintained.
Plans to move the prosecutor’s office to the current community corrections building follow debate over whether to bring back community corrections’ work release program, which allowed those incarcerated in the county’s criminal justice system to work and earn money. There had been considerations of renovating cells in the former jail into lodgings for work release, but community corrections director Wade Kennedy felt the new space would require a significant staffing increase and that the operation would be better suited in its current location.
The county suspended work release in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2023 budget talks earlier this summer, a majority of council members opted not to fund the program next year.
The latest general obligation bond is also slated to fund improvements at the county Purdue Extension office, highway department, restroom repairs at the existing prosecutor’s office and improvements to the basement of the county courthouse annex, including an information technology suite and conference rooms.
Council members Bill Bolander, Kent Fisk, Robin Lowder and Jim Shelby voted in favor of the bond ordinance while Keely Butrum and Jeannine Gray voted against. Mary Noe was absent for the latest vote, although she opposed it upon its introduction.
“We’ve got repairs and things that need to be done to these buildings and we’ve got to have the money to do it,” Bolander said. “It just seemed like the prudent thing to do. The prosecutor’s office is falling in. There’s other buildings that need work, so we support the commissioners wholeheartedly.”
But Gray, who wanted to see work release included in the 2023 budget, recalled how work release space was upgraded during the pandemic in the community corrections building.
“And now they’re going to tear apart the community corrections building and make it the prosecutor’s office, when we are ready, willing and able to move forward with the work release program,” Gray said. “…The work release program can be very advantageous and a good tool for the judges’ sentencing options, and now who knows how long it’ll be before we have those options.”
Gray acknowledged the prosecutor’s office can’t stay where it is, but thinks the former jail should be renovated to accommodate it rather than community corrections.