COLUMBIA CITY — “I don’t know what else to do, gentlemen, because I’ve given you everything I can possibly give,” Sheriff Marcus Gatton told the Whitley County Council at its Oct. 3 meeting. “I wish you would have put the faith and trust in me with everything I gave you that this is a comparable wage.”
Gatton came to the council after approaching the Whitley County Commissioners the day before with a suggested wage for the E911 director position at county dispatch, where he received a favorable pass. E911, or Enhanced 911, is a service that provides location-based support to dispatchers for mobile phone users. At last month’s meeting, the council recommended a three percent increase in wage to match increased duties for two employees in the Sheriff’s department, but both refused the duties and increase because they felt it inadequate.
In a presentation to both commissioners and council, Gatton showed wages from nearby counties as well as other Indiana counties with a population similar in size to Whitley.
The duties of Indiana Data and Communications System coordinator, or head of communications in Whitley County, and 911 director positions are designated by state mandate, so they are the same county to county.
In counties with populations between 30,000 – 40,000, the average pay for these two positions is $80,264 per year, according to Gatton’s research. Whitley County only has the IDACS position, and in Gatton’s list it is the second highest in the group at $46,270.
Gatton’s proposal is to have Janelle Schmitt assume the duties of 911 director on top of her position as head of communications and increasing her wage to $58,262. This is the same position requested earlier this summer, which was not approved. For the same duties, Putnam, LaGrange, Adams and Steuben counties pay between $10,169 – $60,739 more than his requested wage, he said.
“Whitley County grew 19.5 percent between 1990-2010,” he also noted. “We all know this has increased work for 911.”
The total cost to Whitley County to increase Schmitt’s wage to the suggested amount would be $11,905.19 for the year.
Commissioner George Schrumpf petitioned the council to consider Gatton’s proposal, “not only for the sheriff’s department but for us as a county because we as commissioners have to legally make sure we have a 911 director.”
Councilman Bill Overdeer spoke up in favor of the proposal.
“When this first came up, I made the motion to approve it because I was convinced then that we needed it and that it’s actually saving us money,” Overdeer said. “It doesn’t really affect our general fund, so I again make the motion that we approve it.”
Council President John Barrett seconded, and considerable discussion opened on the floor.
Barrett asked if Gatton knew Schmitt’s approximate hourly wage.
“We just passed a tax abatement for advanced materials and their beginning hourly wage is $26.77 plus benefits,” Barrett said. “If we can give a tax abatement for that type of wage, why can’t we do it for our own employees?”
Councilman Chad Banks was hesitant to pass it.
“I don’t have a full understanding of what’s happening in that office, and I feel that meeting with Ed (Reuter, executive director of Indiana 911) and having him be in that work area maybe he can explain to me,” he said. “I would like to have that conversation with him in person before I support an increase of $10,604.”
Reuter is expected to visit Whitley County sometime this month to meet with the council. Gatton, however, sees this as an unnecessary hurdle.
“What Ed can talk about are in the state statutes we have to follow,” he said. “Ed’s not going to tell us anything more than what the statute says the job requirements are. He’s not going to give any advice how much you’re going to pay the person you assign those duties to.”
“Don’t we have to count on our department heads for their knowledge of the department and what needs to be done,” he asked. “I know we can study this for weeks and weeks, but a decision needs to be made here and I think we need to depend on the sheriff.”
Several of the councilmen echoed Banks’s lack of understanding of the department’s operations. At that moment, Schmitt spoke up.
“Mr. Banks has said for the last two meetings that he doesn’t understand us. You’ve not come to my office to see what I do or ask questions. You have not visited dispatch,” she said. “You’re not going to understand if you don’t ask.”
Councilman Thor Hodges suggested tabling the issue for a month to “take a step back and digest this information and have some conversation.”
Jim Bayman concurred.
“Where we lacked as a council was that we just plain did not do any due diligence from the start,” he said. “We have not done our due diligence.”
The issue moved to a vote, where it failed 3-4 with Barrett, Overdeer and Glen Larue in favor, Kim Wheeler, Banks, Bayman and Hodges in opposition.
“They aren’t worried about public safety,” said a disappointed and defeated Gatton.
In other Whitley County Government news
• Highway Engineer Brandon Forrester said the county was selected for $670,000 in grant money through Community Crossings. The funding will be used for liquid asphalt, allowing the county to use the money elsewhere. Although undetermined, Forrester has several ideas for how to spend it.
The county also received a railroad crossing grant to improve its safety measures leading up to tracks. The money will be used for paint, signs, and warning signals leading up to crossings across the county.
“Twenty-six crossings will be updated, which is all that we maintain,” he said.
The county is not responsible for the pavement around the tracks or the arms at the crossings – both are the responsibility of the railroad company.
• Jon Myers, of the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation requested and received a tax abatement for Advanced Materials Design LLC, a subsidiary of Fort Wayne Metals, which will ease $12 million in property taxes “for adding 15 new jobs, adding the capacity to produce medical device wires,” among other new services.
• Jorell Tucker, director of Whitley County Solid Waste brought his 2018 budget of $780,840, which unanimously passed.
• Tad Varga again approached the county for help funding Columbia City’s new aquatics facility, which was greeted by a motion by Banks to offer a favorable pass to the Commissioners, who control the CEDIT fund. The motion failed, but Schrumpf said they would still be willing to listen to what Varga had to say.