Jail, Commission on Aging forum prompts criticism, questions
Barry County commissioners were asked not to speak or participate in the forum. From left are: Howard Gibson, Jon Smelker, Vivian Conner, Dave Jackson and Heather Wing. (Photos by Rebecca Pierce)
About 80 Barry County residents attended a community forum in Hastings Monday night – and some of them took off the gloves when it came to considering the future of the jail, a Commission on Aging facility and the prospect of a millage request in 2020.
“How much does the county pay you guys to do this?” Joel Ibbotson of Rutland Township asked facilitator Eric Hackman from TowerPinkster.
“We've been working with the county for six months and we have a not-to-exceed $50,000 budget,” Hackman replied.
“Well, given the fact that you guys have a not-to-exceed $50,000 budget, this is what I came up with on a zero-dollar budget,” Ibbotson replied, proceeding to tick off the errors and omissions he had caught in Hackman's presentation that had started the forum.
“I'm very disappointed in the county for paying what they did for this worthless presentation,” Ibbotson concluded.
Others said they were just bewildered and underwhelmed.
“It wasn't what I expected,” Michelle Duits, a volunteer at the Commission on Aging, said. “I guess I expected to hear a bit more about each building and what the possibilities were, what has been discussed up until now, and about what some of the solutions could be.
“And I expected we would be able to say more than just write something on a board and then have just one person from each group to be able to speak.”
TowerPinkster, the company hired by county commissioners to facilitate the session, started the forum with an overview, a brief historical review, then reported on the current shortcomings at both facilities.
The purpose of the forum was not to propose any solutions, Hackman said. The point of the meeting was to gather substantive information and ideas and create a report that will go back to the county board with details about next steps.
The overarching goal is to develop options and ask for opinions and questions about those options, Hackman said.
“Ultimately, we're trying to get to an answer that best fits what your community is looking to do.”
After Hackman's presentation, which reviewed the county's 2015 facilities master plan, the role of the Commission on Aging and the sheriff's office and jail, the purpose of those buildings and current condition and shortcomings of each facility was reviewed.
Then the audience broke into small groups, wrote questions on Post-it notes and reconvened to summarize the major questions or concerns of each small group.
The groups asked for demographics to determine which facility would be needed more.
“Why are both proposals on the same ballot?” one woman asked. “They should be separate.”
The audience applauded that comment.
Hackman said that the two issues could not be rolled into one millage question.
“Legally, the two things can't be on the same millage. That's called logrolling. You can't do it. It may be on the same ballot, but you're going to be able to vote yes and no on either issue – if it gets to that decision.”
“There is not anything the ballot yet,” Hackman emphasized, saying he has “stressed to county commissioners again and again” that this community engagement process will involve several options that will be pitched to the public for a thumbs up or down.
“We will come back to you three times before the county commissioners ever decide to put anything on the ballot,” he said. “That way, you have an opportunity to be part of the process.
“It's not our building. It's not our tax dollars. It's yours. We want it to be your solution for your community.”
Hackman said that the community may come out of the next two meetings – scheduled to take place in early January and likely sometime in March – and say not “to spend any more tax dollars on the Commission on Aging and we don't want to spend any more money on the jail.”
If the community says: “County commissioners, figure it out with what you have. That will save the whole community the process of going to an election. That's the right answer for the community then.
“It's ridiculous to go out and campaign for a solution that none of you have any idea of why we got to where we are.”
After the forum, some attendees said TowerPinkster has an inherent conflict of interest in acting as a facilitator to help the county determine a course of action when the firm is likely to submit a bid if the county proceeds with a project. When asked if TowerPinkster would recuse itself if the county seeks bids on a project, Adam Doubblestein, a principal with the company who attended the forum, declined to do so.
“The plan that TowerPinkster put together for the county was we would go through this community engagement process with the intent of possibly being on a ballot in August,” Hackman said during the program. “That sets up our timeframe … to come back to you in January with options, then we'll come back again in March.”
The information extracted from that third meeting will inform the county board what the decision needs to be, he said. “This process also helps create a dialogue with your elected officials,” Hackman said. “They're in the room,” he said, gesturing to the back corner of the hall. “Talk to them. They're here to listen. Representation.”
Audience members had many questions, such as: “What took the commissioners so long to have this discussion instead of all the money spent on these issues?”
“Why don't the county commissioners make the hard decisions to do something?”
Another point made by a small group is that the county won't get both a Commission on Aging facility and a new jail at the same time. “You'll have to do one at a time.”
For that reason, they pointed out, the county needs to look at how many elderly people will be living in the county in 10 years and how many inmates will be in the county jail in 10 years. How much is being spent to maintain these buildings, they asked. And if the county builds, where would it build?
One of the more unusual questions asked was whether the county could build underneath an existing structure.
That was a question that has not been considered.