Knox County now has a full-time director for its Emergency Management Agency after three local entities have approved an inter-local agreement.
The county commissioners first signed the deal last week; members of the city’s Board of Works and then the county council followed this week.
John Streeter, a Vincennes firefighter, has served as the county’s part-time EMA director for years. He often works a full-time schedule, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the county has only ever paid him for part-time work, or $15,000 per year.
The pandemic, officials say, has shown how important the position is as Streeter has worked alongside county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart and other healthcare workers and first-responders for months in the fight against COVID-19.
And a federal grant — one obtained through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — reimburses the county for what it pays out for the director’s position.
But even more funds — up to $30,000 — are available for a full-time EMA director, and by bringing the City of Vincennes on board through an inter-local agreement, county officials can make the position full-time and receive the full grant amount.
The inter-local agreement allows the county to keep half its $15,000 investment, or about $7,500, with the rest, or about $22,000, going to the city to reimburse it for what Streeter is already paid as a city firefighter.
It won’t cover quite half what the city pays Streeter, but it’s near enough, the mayor has said.
Members of the city’s Board of Works made easy work of the approval Monday.
The county council, however, was a bit slower to approve the agreement on Tuesday.
Before moving to vote on it during the council’s regular meeting held at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., president Bob Lechner called for a discussion he hoped would clear up some confusion about the EMA position and the funding to cover it, as described in the agreement.
Councilman David Culp and Lechner both expressed some apprehension about what could happen in the future, should some part of the equation ever change, such as the end of grant funding for the position.
“What happens if the grant ceases or is not approved?” Lechner asked, to which councilman Harry Nolting pointed out that, per the agreement, there is no financial impact on the county.
For more than 30 minutes Culp and Lechner lobbed ‘what if’ questions to county attorney Andrew Porter, looking to uncover any possible way the county or its taxpayers could be negatively affected by entering into the agreement.
Culp said that while he understands there would be no cost to the county in the immediate future, his concern is about what may happen if the Homeland Security grant is eliminated years down the line.
“How do we have a guarantee that five years from now we don’t start getting billed?” Culp asked.
Tensions in the room continued to escalate when Culp and Lechner questioned the logistics of having a Vincennes firefighter as the full-time EMA director.
“I can’t see how this would work if the EMA director by title becomes a non-employee of the Vincennes Fire Department,” Culp said.
But Nolting posited that it’s not really a county concern.
“I don’t think it affects us. It doesn’t matter to us if he’s a fireman or not. It’s the city’s agreement,” he said.
Mayor Joe Yochum, who was in attendance at Tuesday night’s county council meeting, tried to simplify the issue, noting that the agreement would merely reimburse the city for the countywide EMA work John Streeter is currently doing, often while on duty for the city.
“John (Streeter) does EMA work anyway, and he’s doing it on the city’s dime. It was brought up to me that this (grant) is a way to get reimbursed,” said a visibly-frustrated Yochum.
“I don’t care if we don’t get a dime. I will allow whomever the EMA director is to do this job for the benefit of the entire county so long as I’m mayor.”
But the questions and frustrations continued for several minutes, with additional commentary from Streeter himself as well as county commissioner Trent Hinkle, before Nolting asked that members of council simply focus on the present.
“All the what-ifs in the future are beyond the scope of this resolution. We’re in the weeds here about what happens down the road,” he said.
“Let’s focus on the resolution itself. It doesn’t put us on the hook for any dollars. It helps the city, but it doesn’t harm the county,” Nolting said.
In the end, the resolution passed unanimously.