Four vie for two open seats on Johnson County Council

The local impacts of the opioids crisis, ranging from a crowded jail to a heavier workload for courts and emergency workers, are a top issue for the four candidates seeking two seats on the Johnson County Council.

Also on their list: improving infrastructure to keep up with growth and figuring out how to pay for a jail expansion and the staffing and other costs to run it.

Four Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination to two seats on the Johnson County Council. The seven-member board oversees the county’s finances, including how much should be spent on sheriff’s deputies to patrol neighborhoods and streets, and projects to repave and rebuild local roads.

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If a tax were to ever be increased or added, such as a local income tax increase that has been discussed as a method of paying for the expenses of a larger jail, the county council would be in charge of approving that as well.

This year, voters will be casting ballots for the four district seats on the council, which represent different areas of the county.

Incumbent Pete Ketchum, a retired Franklin police officer who now works as security coordinator for Cummins, is being challenged by Bargersville Police Officer Justin Griggs for the District 1 seat. That seat represents a wide swath of the county, including part of White River Township and all of Union, Hensley, Nineveh, Blue River, Needham and Clark townships.

And in District 2, incumbent Rob Henderson, senior vice president of commercial loans at Mutual Savings Bank, is facing a challenge from Steve Byerly, a Bargersville police department investigator. That seat represents part of Pleasant Township and all of Franklin Township. Whoever wins the primary election will face a challenge from Democrat Thomas Jackson in the fall.

In District 3, which represents part of Pleasant Township, Jon Myers is the only candidate for the seat and current council member Beth Boyce is not seeking re-election. Current council member James Ison is not facing a challenge in his bid for re-election to his District 4 seat, which represents part of White River Township.

Voters will be able to vote in the race that represents the district where they live.

The nationwide opioids crisis and the impacts that has locally were one of the key issues for candidates.

Byerly, who also works security at Johnson Memorial Hospital, said the crisis is the worst he has ever seen, impacting everyone, especially young people. He would like the county to seek funding, including grants, that would help pay for more enforcement and education, he said.

Local officials need to look to programs that are already dealing with the issue, including community corrections and probation, to try to come up with solutions, Henderson said. But the key questions are how those would be funded and where the county can find the space to house programs or other services meant to help people struggling with addiction, Henderson said.

The opioids crisis has a significant local impact, including increasing property crimes and the workload for emergency workers, along with the jail population and the caseload in local courts, Griggs said. As a council member, he would want to be sure that all of the government services battling the epidemic are properly funded, he said.

That includes the county community corrections program, which oversees work release and home detention for offenders. Expanding that program is a priority as part of an overall goal of looking for ways to decrease the likelihood that people will commit an additional crime, Griggs said.

Other candidates said expanding the jail, which has been consistently overcrowded for months, is a top priority.

The numbers continue to go up, and every year, the issue has been put off and the costs of construction continue to go up, Byerly said. No one wants to see their taxes increase, but if something is going to be done, it needs to be done now before the county ends up in federal court due to the overcrowded conditions and is forced to do an expansion, he said.

The county is already being forced to take action after getting a letter from the state that a plan is needed to address the situation, Ketchum said. Even with judges, prosecutors and the community corrections program continuing to work together, the jail has consistently remained overcrowded, and an expansion is needed, he said.

The current jail is aging, but has been well maintained and an expansion is possible, which is something county officials have already been meeting to discuss, Henderson said. Another possibility is constructing another building or repurposing an existing building to serve as jail space, he said. Whatever is built needs to be done so that it lasts for years and has enough space to meet the county’s growing needs, Henderson said.

But the other issue, outside of paying for construction, is paying for the staffing, maintenance and operating costs long-term, candidates said.

That is something officials have also been discussing, which could include an increase to the local income tax, Henderson said.

He would support an increase and is leaning toward the economic development income tax, which could be used for the jail and other public safety expenses, but could also be used for other costs, such as economic development, he said. Henderson also wants the county to look at all options, including whether any other spending could be cut, he said.

As the economy has improved, the county has been able to absorb some additional spending with increased tax revenues, but for a project this size, that likely won’t be possible and an added tax will be needed, Ketchum said.

One of the options he wants the county to consider is a new income tax increase option approved by state lawmakers specifically for correctional or rehabilitational facilities, he said. Ketchum would be open to other ideas as well, but said he would want to be sure the county was able to collect enough money from any tax increase to pay for the added expenses.

Byerly would want to look at all the options and see the impact on the taxpayer, he said.

He understands no one wants to see their taxes go up, but also pointed to the wheel tax that was approved to pay for local road work that people were opposed to at the time. Now, people have become accustomed to it, Byerly said.

A tax increase is a last resort, Griggs said.

The county needs to look at ways to decrease spending in other areas to pay for added expenses, he said. If the increased tax would help with providing services to residents, he would consider it, but it is a last resort, Griggs said.

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Johnson County Council

District 1

Represents: Part of White River Township, along with all of Union, Hensley, Nineveh, Blue River, Needham and Clark townships

District 2

Represents: Part of Pleasant Township and all of Franklin Township.

Duties: Approving the county budget, including how many sheriff’s deputies will patrol the roads and how much should be spent on road projects. Approves any new or increased taxes, such as the wheel tax on vehicle registrations or an increased local income tax for expenses related to the jail or public safety.

Term: 4 years

Salary: $8,352

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Name: Steve Byerly

Party: Republican

Residence: Franklin

Family: Wife, Kay; two adult daughters, three grandchildren

Occupation: Bargersville Police Department investigator

Educational background: Whiteland Community High School graduate

Political experience: None

Memberships: None

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Name: Justin Griggs

Party: Republican

Residence: Bargersville

Family: Wife, Hannah; two children, Adalyn and Vannie

Occupation: Bargersville police officer

Educational background: Brown County High School graduate; attended Trine University; Indiana Law Enforcement Academy graduate, 2007

Political experience: None

Memberships: Fraternal Order of Police, Phi Kappa Theta, Gold Prospectors Association of America, Indiana Brazilian Jui Jitsu Academy

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Name: Rob Henderson

Party: Republican

Residence: Franklin

Family: Wife, Brandi; children Jack and Abbie

Occupation: senior vice president commercial loans Mutual Savings Bank

Educational background: Franklin Community High School graduate, Indiana University graduate

Political experience: Franklin City Council, 2012 – 2015, Johnson County Council 2015 – present

Memberships: Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Franklin Elks #1818, F & AM Franklin Lodge #107, Franklin Rotary

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Name: Pete Ketchum

Party: Republican

Residence: Nineveh

Family: Wife, Tamar; five children, Peter, Patrick, Margaret, Will and Daniel

Occupation: Retired Franklin Police officer, works as security coordinator for Cummins

Educational background: Graduated Silver Creek High School, California; bachelor’s degree from Indiana University; masters of public administration from American Military University

Political experience: Johnson County Council, 2011 – present; Prince’s Lakes Town Council, 2000 – 2011

Memberships: Fraternal Order of Police, Sons of the American Legion

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Here is a look at some of the questions and answers by county council candidates:

What makes you the most qualified candidate to serve on the Johnson County Council?

Steve Byerly: Has 44 years in public service. Lived here his entire life, and has seen Johnson County go from a bedroom community to the community it is now. Seen growth and knows what it takes.

Justin Griggs: Doesn’t have political experience, but has committed his life to public service. Can bring a fresh perspective to issues the county has continued discussing. Can hear concerns of residents and work to solve problems with new level of enthusiasm and perspective.

Rob Henderson: His banking background, familiarity with numbers and the budget process and his experience on the Franklin City Council help him on the county council. Budgeting isn’t just about money coming in and going out, but also about timing and making sure the county is in the right position.

Pete Ketchum: Been a member of county council since 2011. Was on Prince’s Lakes Town Council 11 years. Learned a lot, and would like to continue putting his knowledge, experience and relationships to use and being a good steward of tax dollars.

In what specific departments does the county need more employees? How would any added positions be paid for?

Byerly: Continued growth in the judicial system and prosecutor’s office, and federal money can help pay for those. If you build a new jail or add on to it, have to staff it. Turnover rate is high at the jail and would want to look at pay increases.

Griggs: Are going to need to add employees for the prosecutor’s office and courts, but also the highway department. Need to analyze budget to see what cuts can be made to accomplish those goals without raising taxes. County employee turnover rate is high. By paying employees more, that could save money long-term by not investing in training a new employee and them leaving.

Henderson: Thinks IT department needs more employees, especially with issues businesses have had with ransomware. Would want to consider if more maintenance of county facilities should be done in house. Would want to explore if more law enforcement officers are needed. With limited resources, would push officials to apply for grants, but all options should be considered for funding.

Ketchum: Doesn’t know of any department that needs more employees. Is an issue that is discussed in yearly budget hearings. Have been able to absorb cost of recent new hires. Jail will need additional staff, and the county will need to look at other ways to fund those positions.