A breakdown in communication between county elected officials on Tuesday only worsened as the commissioners and council members went toe-to-toe over who has the authority to spend the $7 million coming to Knox County in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The more-than-30-minute argument included one commissioner storming out, two elected officials reading texts aloud from their phones, disputing who said what to whom, and council president Bob Lechner eventually, albeit temporarily, handing over the gavel in frustration.

“This is not how intelligent discourse is done,” Lechner said, shaking his head. “I’m very disappointed in this meeting.”

The disruption began when the commissioners — all three were in attendance Tuesday as the group met at the Pantheon, 428 Main St. — asked to spend $160,000 in ARPA funds to hire the Southern Indiana Development Commission, Loogootee, as well as Reedy Financial Group in Seymour to aid the county in the development of a plan to spend those federal dollars, ones aimed at bolstering communities through the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Streeter said from the moment word began to spread about the $7 million in ARPA funds, the commissioners have fielded requests and ideas, everything from the placement of fire hydrants on behalf of the Vincennes Township Fire Department to bonuses for county employees.

So the commissioners sought help in making sure all the state rules associated with spending the money — rules still relatively fluid — are adhered to in the coming years.

Lechner, however, said right away that it wasn’t necessary, that the council had already been working with its own financial advisor, Ben Roeger with Coonrod & Company, Indianapolis, on spending that money.

That news, however, came as a shock to the commissioners, who believed they had the sole authority for developing a plan of expenditure.

“This body is in charge of the (finances) of the county,” said councilman David Culp. “And this body has selected Ben Roeger to be its financial consultant.

“There are some things the commissioners should just leave alone,” he said.

Lechner, too, said there was “no need” to put together a plan, despite Streeter’s objection and claim that several other Hoosier counties are doing exactly that.

“We truly want to have a great impact on the community,” Streeter told Lechner. “That means putting together a plan, so I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Then the two entities began to argue about who exactly has the authority to spend the money when, in reality, it’s a combined task. The commissioners — just as with the annual plan to spend Economic Development Income Tax dollars — must develop an expenditure plan. The county council then must vote to fund it.

“We have viable projects, ones we need to start sifting through to see which ones we can fund and which we can’t,” Streeter said. “They’re stacking up.

“So can we start planning to spend these funds?”

But Lechner stuck to his position that there is no reason to hire anyone to help the county spend the money, largely because it’s “already spent.”

“Everything we have in the bank is already allocated. You just approved a jail that is $3 million (over budget),” Lechner alleged.

He was alluding to a $3 million funding gap between the $29 million the county can bond and the estimated $32.5 million it’s expected to take to actually pay for an expansion to the Knox County Jail, as well as an adjacent new building to house community corrections.

During a recent special meeting of the county council, using $3 million in ARPA funds was mentioned as a way to make up that shortfall, as was seeking a legislative change that would allow the county to borrow money over 25 years instead of just 22.

But on Tuesday, county elected officials couldn’t agree on whether or not that was a done deal — or even whose idea it was in the first place.

“It’s my understanding that you haven’t made that decision yet,” said commission president Trent Hinkle.

“You tell me,” Lechner fired back.

Commissioner T.J. Brink, too, indicated he’d traded messages with Lechner recently in an attempt to nail down what the council was thinking in terms of fully funding the jail, to which Lechner said any such discussions were “premature.”

“It’s like trying to get a mortgage before you buy a house,” Lechner added, to which Brink sighed in frustration.
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