County continues moving departments amid emergency

Boxes pile up outside of the former Hancock County Prosecutor's Office in downtown Greenfield on Friday ahead of moving to the office's new location. Brent Eaton | Submitted photo

GREENFIELD – Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office employees, who have been working remotely for over two weeks after an environmental emergency forced them out of their building, are expected to be in their new location in a matter of days.

It will follow another government department’s abrupt move to a different building as well. The county mobilized multiple employees and contractors to facilitate the transitions. Leaders are grateful for the way workers have come together to pursue solutions as quickly as possible. They also acknowledge there remains much more to do.

The prosecutor’s office has been closed since Oct. 26 when the presence of black mold was suspected during a restroom renovation and later confirmed. County officials declared an emergency with plans to approve up to $500,000 from food and beverage taxes toward the response to that emergency. They then jump-started a plan to move Hancock County Community Corrections staff into the administration area of the former county jail in downtown Greenfield in order to make way for the prosecutor’s office staff in what is now the former community corrections building.

The county already had intentions for those moves, although at a much milder pace. Officials are now phasing the renovations differently and conducting temporary construction measures that will allow employees to work in parts of their new buildings while the rest of the properties are remodeled, after which they’ll move into the completed spaces so the remainders can be finished.

Hancock County Board of Commissioners President John Jessup is managing the transitions.

“The community corrections staff has been absolutely amazing,” he said as work continued in the department’s former building Thursday. “Once we said, ‘Guys, this is what we’ve got to do,’ they jumped into gear.”

That included working through their Election Day holiday to pack and move down the street into the county’s former jail, where they continued settling in on Thursday. Jessup said community corrections will be operating there on Monday, and that the prosecutor’s office will be operating in the former community corrections building that day as well.

“A lot of amazing people pulled together,” he said.

Workers with Indianapolis-based Wurster Construction recently put up a temporary wall in the now former community corrections, soon-to-be prosecutor’s office building in order to provide two separate work spaces for paralegals and child support.

With his work history under scrutiny lately due to his former contractual relationship with a company that’s done business with the county, Jessup emphasized he worked for Wurster several years ago but no longer has a relationship with the firm.

“Other than – they answer the phone,” he continued. “And that’s an important thing to remember through all this, is relationships. People answer the phone when you have a relationship, and you can do amazing things. To relocate two departments between three buildings and do a major remediation project while dealing with the county council, sheriff, prosecutor’s office and security issues, chain-of-custody issues and all that stuff – if you don’t have relationships, you don’t get anything done.”

Community corrections left behind some furniture for the prosecutor’s office, and new furniture for corrections’ field officers was being set up Thursday.

“It came together really well,” community corrections executive director Wade Kennedy said of the transition at his new location.

Everything moving out of the old prosecutor’s office to the new location is being remediated for black mold exposure, which includes processes like cleaning with vacuums equipped with special filters and treating items with chemicals.

“They’re going to have stuff to work through for months,” Jessup said.

Another challenge the county has had to navigate is files in the prosecutor’s office that have a chain of custody. Since employees can’t be in the building due to the environmental hazards, security cameras were set up to monitor files and a security firm was hired to accompany movers transporting them.

Additionally, contractors were hired to do cleaning and make HVAC modifications at the old jail ahead of community corrections’ move, Jessup said. He added county 911 director John Jokantas worked through the Election Day holiday and delayed a vacation to help set up security cameras. County IT director Bernie Harris worked through the holiday and Veterans Day as well, Jessup continued, adding facilities manager and veteran Cory Taylor did too. He said he’s also grateful for the patience and involvement from the prosecutor’s office staff.

Days have been filled with other tasks like shutting off phone lines, resetting phone lines, moving computers and setting computers back up again.

“It’s been stressful and tiring but I’ve been really impressed with our county staff,” Jessup said. “We have really special people that work in this county. The people in these buildings are top notch. Everything that I’ve needed, people have just done backflips to make it happen.”

Jessup said as of Thursday nearly $80,000 of the emergency funding has been committed. He doesn’t anticipate needing the entire half-million promised for the emergency, estimating a grand total to come in around $300,000.

Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton said he’s grateful for all the efforts underway to get his office moved and for the way his staff has been coping.

“We more or less had five or 10 minutes’ notice and then we more or less evacuated,” he said. “And then we have kept the system running and doing all the things people expect prosecutors to do, really pretty much without pause, hiccup or letup in the last 15 days. I couldn’t be more grateful, proud and just really honored by the work of the people in the prosecutor’s office to continue to move things forward in a way that’s appropriate and doing so under what can charitably be categorized as difficult conditions.”

In the time since the closure, Eaton said, prosecutor’s office employees have been working in rooms and offices around the county courthouse, at home and elsewhere. He added workers have also been huddling around a table in the county auditor’s office conducting work on their tablet devices.

Eaton agreed there’s a long road ahead as items from his former building continue to be remediated before being moved to the new location, leaving plenty more for him and his staff to need to adapt to.

“There’s a big difference between having a footprint and having an office which is going to be up and running for 24 people,” he said. “Maybe we can have a copy machine and a place for some people to sit down, but that’s a long way from a 21st-century prosecutor’s office.”