News and Tribune

August 3, 2013

OUR OPINION: Landfill fund payments hurt public trust


— Just because something may be legal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do.

That was the situation in Clark County over the past few years, when a county employee’s wages were being subsidized by funds meant for the county’s coffers.

The then-commissioners in 2009 tried to follow proper channels when they requested a raise for then-Highway Superintendent Jim Ross. When the county council denied the raise, at least two of the commissioners decided to circumvent the way the process is supposed to be handled by creating their own plan.

Ross — who appears to be stuck in the middle of this whole mess while merely collecting a paycheck — was ordered to be paid $14,000 annually out of landfill funds that were supposed to go to the county. The arrangement between Clark County and Clark-Floyd Landfill Corp. has the latter paying a host fee to the county in order to operate the site and make money.

To make matters more sneaky, Ross’ take of the funds was upped this year to $4,000 per quarter, or $16,000 a year.

All three current commissioners denied knowledge of just how this raise happened, although Clark-Floyd Landfill President Bob Lee said it was Commissioner John Perkins who ordered the boost in pay.

And all of this is perfectly legal, according to Greg Fifer, who was the county attorney when Ross began collecting the funds.

Fifer may be correct in the end. That’s yet to be seen, as the Indiana State Police and State Board of Accounts are both looking into the payments.

But even if Fifer is right, this payment structure certainly wasn’t the right way to go about a raise.

To begin, the fiscal authority of the Clark County Council was ignored and abused.

Second, there is no record of a vote by the then-commissioners on the matter — simply and email from Fifer to Lee, then-Commissioner Les Young and Mike Harris, a project engineer with Jacobi, Toombs and Lanz, noting the start of the $14,000 annual payments.

Then, three years went by and few — if any — people beyond those involved knew that money intended to go into the county’s coffers was really going into a private citizen’s pocket.

And that’s the main problem we have with the whole situation — the fact that public funds were being used in a way that the average taxpayer would have no knowledge of where the money was going and what it was being used for.

It’s sneaky and, just like the landfill, kind of dirty.

The current commissioners, recently becoming aware of the payment arrangement, have put a stop to the practice.

That’s a good step.

But policies and safeguards must be put in place to make sure that if an arrangement like this is proposed in the future, it’s out in the open for the public to see and put through the proper channels.

And if investigations do end in any criminal charges, those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

— The News and Tribune editorial board is comprised of Publisher Bill Hanson, Editor Shea Van Hoy, Assistant Editor Chris Morris and Assistant Editor Jason Thomas. Responses can be sent to shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com