Just like a lottery ticket, local voters will have to “Pick Three” on the ballot come Nov. 3 as four men are in a race to secure the three at-large seats up for grabs on the Knox County Council.
Incumbent members David Culp and Harry Nolting, both Republicans, as well as the council’s lone Democrat, also an incumbent, Kevin Meyer, are hoping to secure their seats for four more years, but they’re facing a challenge from Dan Reitmeyer, a tenacious political newcomer who just refuses to take no for an answer.
“It’s all so interesting to me,” said Reitmeyer, a bridge builder with CLR Inc. and a fixture at public meetings everywhere. “That’s why I go to all those meetings, to the council, the commissioners. It’s interesting where the money is, where it comes from, where it goes. It’s interesting that you can use this money for one thing but not for something else.
“It’s all just interesting,” he said.
Reitmeyer, as a Democrat, made an unsuccessful bid for the District 1 county council seat currently held by Randy Crismore in November of 2018.
He also threw his hat into the ring when local Democrats a year ago caucused to choose a replacement for former at-large councilman and retired judge Tim Crowley, who stepped down in November of 2019.
Meyer, a former county commissioner, was appointed instead.
Reitmeyer has now switched tickets and is running as a Republican.
But his interest in the numbers is what draws most candidates to seek a seat on the county council; it serves as the county’s fiscal body, managing the budget and keeping a watchful eye on the county’s expenditures.
And that’s only going to get harder — and more important — as they learn to live in a post-COVID world.
“I just want to make sure our money is wisely spent,” said Meyer, a business developer with architectural and engineering firm RQAW.
His priority, he said, will be in continuing to invest in infrastructure repair. The county has seen millions in improvements in recent years thanks, in part, to the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant fund.
“We’ve got to make sure we continue to upgrade our roads, maintain them, maintain bridges,” he said. “We can’t get behind on things now.”
Culp, who is seeking a fourth non-consecutive term on the council, said, with a long career working for local financial institutions, he believes himself well-poised to help the county navigate what could be funding shortfalls due to COVID-19.
“COVID has put all of us in a position we’ve never experienced,” he said. “My heart goes out to those who have lost family, friends, to residents who have experienced reductions in their incomes.”
And all of that, Culp, who also served as a city councilman and as a city clerk-treasurer, said may mean less revenue for the county in coming years.
“People are driving less, which means we’ll probably receive less in the way of the gas tax for road improvement,” he said. “Other county taxes that come from payrolls will be down. Yet the county still has a duty to provide services.
“So for me, my No. 1 priority will be (managing) the loss of revenue the county will experience in 2021 and beyond,” he said.
Good things, though, are coming.
The council recently worked alongside the county commissioners and the Area Plan Commission in paving the way for a solar farm to be constructed in Harrison Township.
A committee of council members worked with the solar team, Nebraska-based Tenaska and investors Capital Dynamics, in drafting an Economic Development Agreement, one that gives the solar duo a 10-year 100% tax abatement but gifts the county $2.5 million over the next five years.
And more clean energy companies are looking to locate here.
Councilman Harry Nolting, who served on that committee, said he would embrace additional development.
“We’ve established some perimeters moving forward,” Nolting, who is seeking a second term, said. “We’ve already started the negotiation process with another solar company, and they’re aware of what our deal with Tenaska was.
“There won’t be as many unknowns this time around. They have a pretty clear idea of what we will accept, and we have a pretty good idea of what they will be willing to do.”
What to do with the $2.5 million, however, is still to be decided, and most of the candidates seem to want to make sure others benefit, specifically the South Knox School Corp. and the Harrison Township Fire Department.
“I am looking forward to this solar project,” Meyer said. “I am. It’s in my backyard. But I also want to make sure that we take care of the people who live in that area and will be directly impacted.
“Let’s take care of the school corporation, the fire department if they need special training or equipment. We need better ditches for drainage, and I think we need to take some of it and maintain the roads in that immediate area.”
Meyer said he, like the rest, would be eager to vote to approve another. He hopes the county gets “two or three more projects” similar to the Tenaska project.
Culp, too, said he was “honored” to have served on the solar committee helping to usher in the EDA. And he looks forward to working with more , interested clean energy companies.
“The fact that my colleagues and I were capable of extracting $2.5 million from Tenaska as a payment to the county is just fantastic,” he said.
“We have set in motion the process of collecting it, and we know it won’t be spent as soon as it comes in. So the council can be approached with ideas or suggestions as to what should happen to those funds.”
Reitmeyer sees the development deal as a very good thing for the county. And he was pleased to see it all come together so quickly.
“It gives me hope for other things to come,” he said. “The council jumped on this pretty quick, and I’m all for it. We’re going to have to move forward with some new things given the threat to our (existing energy sources).”
Nolting, too, said the agreement “worked to everyone’s benefit.”
“It will lower taxes, increase county revenue, which is so important right now,” he said. “We’ll inevitably be dipping into our reserves, and this will help to build them back up. Plus, it’s a great opportunity for land owners to increase their incomes as well.”
The council next year, too, will need to revisit a possible expansion to the Knox County Jail, which is currently at capacity.
The commissioners hired RQAW this summer to do a jail study, one that calls for a $32 million expansion, which includes a new space for community corrections, currently located on Eighth Street.
The council last fall voted to reinstate the jail tax at a rate of 0.2% to raise the money needed. The tax is expected to generate about $1.2 million in revenue per year.
In the midst of COVID-19, however, the issue has fallen to the wayside.
Nolting said with funds from the new jail tax already accumulating, it will be up to the council in 2021 to decide what to do with them.
“We have to determine what we can afford and what we need,” he said. “But I think some sort of expansion is certainly warranted.”
His reasoning: the hundreds of thousands collected by the county each year for housing federal inmates.
“That’s a good money maker; it pays more than it costs to house them, so we don’t want to wait until we are so full that we can no longer take advantage of that opportunity.”
Nolting, too, said with a wait list at work release, additional — and more efficient — space is needed there as well.
“And I think it would be better to have work release out on the jail property,” he said, “where we can consolidate it all.”
No official plans have yet been brought to the council for consideration, Culp pointed out, but when they do, it will be a game of figuring out exactly what the county needs — and how much it can spend, he said.
“We’ll have to digest how much we can pay monthly, how much it will cost,” he said.
“I’m not anti-addition,” he continued. “I’m just saying we’ll have to see what we can afford and go from there.”
Reitmeyer said among his priorities will be the construction of a new facility for community corrections. It would be easier, he said, to have them together in one location; their existing downtown facility is less than ideal.
“And we’ve got to continue to get those federal inmates,” he said.
Meyer, since he is employed by RQAW, said he has intentionally excluded himself from ongoing conversations about a possible jail expansion and would have to recuse himself from any vote to move forward with the measure.
Another issue facing the council as it moves into 2021 and beyond is the opening of the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theater, which is a co-working space and small business incubator set to open in the historic theater at 428 Main St. next month.
The city and county now jointly own the building and each put up $1.2 million for construction.
With business sponsorships and user fees, the Pantheon was meant to be self-sufficient once up and running — but both the county council and the commissioners have approved $100,000 per year through 2022 to help with operational costs.
While some candidates think the Pantheon could mean great things for Knox County, specifically in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship, they aren’t keen on continuing to fund it with taxpayer dollars.
“The intent was that it would stand alone,” Culp said. “That’s what we told the public. That’s what I told taxpayers.
“So I’ve decided to be a team player for now, but this was not meant to be a drain on the taxpayers.”
Likewise, Meyer said he “didn’t love the idea of funding the Pantheon long-term.”
Nolting, though, said he was “encouraged and excited about the Pantheon,” and hasn’t ruled out the notion of continuing to support it.
“I’m willing to keep supporting them somewhat if they prove they are making a real positive impact on the economy in Knox County,” Nolting said.
“I believe there is incredible potential there for filling an area where we are weak, and that’s in start-up businesses. I think this could be a solid foundation for our economy moving forward.”
Reitmeyer, too, is excited about the bright minds that could be bolstered by the Pantheon, which will have direct ties to Purdue University and foster local STEM education efforts as well.
“I know it was a controversial thing, but I think once it gets going, it will be a good thing,” he said. “I’m OK to help it along now, but hopefully soon they’ll be OK on their own.
“For now, we have to support it, get it going.”
While they agree on much, each candidate also believes their unique set of skills makes them the most suited for a seat at the table.
Culp, with his years in banking and in public service, said he’s ready to lead the charge as the county looks to manage in a post COVID world, while Meyer said the relationships he’s built working for RQAW all over southeast Indiana could be a huge asset.
“With my background, my connections, the relationships I have with other county council members and mayors in other communities, I just think I bring a lot to the table,” he said.
Nolting said he’s enjoyed being a part of the team that’s brought Knox County to “as good a spot we’ve been in in years,” he said.
Communication amongst elected officials and even those in the county’s small towns will be key in keeping the momentum, he said.
“In every area, we’ve improved,” he said. “And I look forward to continuing that.”
And Reitmeyer said a fresh perspective is always a good thing.
“I think the council is doing a great job, but they could think outside the box a little bit,” he said. “Maybe a new brain in there, someone with new ideas, could open their eyes to something they didn’t see before.”
BICKNELL — City officials have sold three acres in the industrial park to a relatively new local manufacturer.
Mayor Thomas Estabrook said at a special meeting of the city’s Board of Works on Wednesday, members agreed to sell the land underneath a building previously occupied by KCARC, one located at 7382 Russell Drive, to Basiloid Diversified Products, a manufacturer of fork lift parts.
The board weeks ago took bids on the ground, which the city has owned, Estabrook said, for years.
They later discussed them in executive session.
Basiloid Diversified Products, until recently, was based in Elnora, but the facility there sustained damage in a fire last year.
Estabrook said the company looked to Bicknell for space, eventually working with KCARC in securing that building.
They’ve been operating there, the mayor said, for at least six months.
The owner, Estabrook said, unsure of whether or not it would be a permanent move, eventually approached the city about buying the ground underneath the building.
And the city, he said, was eager to oblige.
“The building he is in was owned by KCARC but the ground is ours; it goes back to a lease agreement that dates back about 30 years,” he said.
“But he came to us and said, ‘I want to buy the ground underneath the building as well as another small piece.’ So we went through the process of getting that done.”
Estabrook said the board accepted Basiloid Diversified Products’ bid of $2,000 for the approximately three acres of land. They’re happy, he said, to get it back on the tax rolls.
He is unsure whether or not Basiloid has bought the building from KCARC, but he is hopeful that with the ground now secured, the manufacturer is here to stay.
Currently, he estimates, they employ 10-15 people.
“This is probably the largest industrial employer we’ve had come here or be interested in Bicknell in decades,” the mayor said excitedly. “The jobs that could come from this are the type of high-wage jobs that are going to invest in the community and are going to help turn it around.
“This potential investment is the momentum we want,” he said. “It’s the type of business we want to come to our community, offer jobs, pay property taxes.
“It was a no-brainer for us.”
Political newcomer Karen Donovan, a former county employee and small business owner, is challenging Democrat incumbent Brian Hagen, a veteran city police officer, in the race for county coroner in Tuesday’s General Election.
Hagen is vying for his second full term, and he touts his now hands-on experience, knowledge and a full understanding of the job as coroner.
A military veteran and long-time police officer with the Vincennes Police Department, Hagen spent 14 years as deputy corner before replacing Gordon Becher as coroner in 2015.
“The experience matters. It’s helpful if you have a background in the medical field or as a first responder, because you have to be able to respond to a call and focus without getting really upset by what you see,” he said.
Hagen said the job of documenting, photographing and collecting the facts of a death can be difficult.
Too, he says, the coroner’s position is one that requires being on-call and responding at all times of day and night, something he’s shown his commitment to time and again.
“We’re always busy, and constantly on standby — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That includes holidays, and that’s ok, it’s part of the job,” Hagen said.
In a highly-divided political climate, Hagen hopes Knox County residents will look beyond strict party lines and instead examine each race and candidate individually.
“I’m a professional,” he said, “and I am trained to do what needs to be done to get to the truth in each case, and if re-elected I will continue to do everything I can.”
Hagen also contends that his years as coroner have allowed him to establish good working relationships with first responders, medical professionals and residents of the county, and that he would like to continue serving the community in that role.
“I want to continue working the citizens of Knox County — to get answers for families who have lost loved ones so they can have the closure they need,” he said.
Donovan was born and raised in Washington, a graduate of Washington High School. But she’s been a Vincennes resident ever since.
Married to Bruce Donovan, the couple operate A&A Disposal, a trash and lawn maintenance company.
She received a degree in early education from Oakland City University, then obtained a degree in surgical technology from Vincennes University in 2011, doing multiple surgical rotations at regional hospitals.
She then went to work in the city inspector’s office as a secretary and code enforcement officer. She joined the county highway department after that and then moved over to the auditor’s office two years ago. She resigned from there, she said, in May.
But it was her surgical rotations, she said, that left the greatest impact on her life.
She often found herself sitting out in the waiting room with anxious families, providing both updates on the procedure itself but also lending a listening ear.
The experience, too, launched a love for hospice care, and she’s been by the side of many families and friends to offer advice as they’ve gone through the process.
“I love being able to help people,” she said. “I feel like I’m very sincere and caring, and I listen. A lot of times, people just want you to listen. They might not have questions. They may just need to vent or to cry or just need someone there with them.
“I want to be the one there with them, to help them with anything they need.”
Watching what families go through during a difficult loss, and offering compassion is what interested Donovan in seeking the position as coroner, she said.
If elected, Donovan says she would like to create an open-door policy with the coroner’s office, allowing local families who have experienced tragedy the ability to come or call later, once the shock subsides and, perhaps, questions arise.
Too, she says, she would like to do what she can to make more efficient the process of acquiring death certificates.
“My goal is to have an office where people can contact me easily, come in, sit down if they have questions,” she said. “I want to make myself available.”
Editor’s note: The Sun-Commercial made repeated attempts to reach Karen Donovan for comment for this report but was unsuccessful. The comments and information seen here are from an article published prior to the primary election in May.