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News
APC to take month to mull over solar plan

Following more than two hours of public comment regarding the potential construction of a solar field in Harrison Township, members of the county’s Area Plan Commission have decided to give themselves some time to think it all over.

Dozens filled a large meeting space at Vincennes Water Utilities’ Drinking Water Plant on River Road Tuesday night to speak either in favor of or against plans for a more than 1,200-acre solar field to be constructed in southeastern Knox County.

After hearing all of them out, APC members said they wanted to hit pause, not only to think the proposed plan over themselves but to take the time necessary to get answers to the questions raised by the people who would be most affected.

“These people came seeking answers,” said APC executive director Colt Michaels Wednesday morning. “And there were a lot of things we couldn’t answer last night.

“So we’ll be submitting those questions, in writing, so we can, in turn, provide some written answers for people.”

Michaels said he will compile the questions addressed to the board Tuesday. He will then submit those questions to representatives of the solar development team — many attended virtually Tuesday — and await answers.

County residents who attended Tuesday were invited to leave their phone numbers or emails. Once Michaels has the Q&A sheet ready to go, he will send it out, hopefully in time for residents living near the proposed site to think them over before the APC meets again on the first Tuesday in March.

The APC is considering an application for the proposed development of a $110 million solar farm dubbed RATTS 2 being taken on by Tenaska, a Nebraska-based solar company, and Capital Dynamics, the company that will oversee construction and management.

The solar duo has filed the necessary paperwork with the APC to secure a zoning change; it’s the first in several required steps before the they can be awarded the proper permits and, with them, the green light to begin construction.

Tenaska has leased about 2,800 acres of land in Harrison Township for the project. Actual construction has been proposed for just 1,250 of that, an area perimetered by roads that include Lucky Point, South Petersburg, Burke and Governors, among others.

But it’s not one large area, as many expected, but rather multiple areas — some large, others small, and they’re not contiguous.

Several of those in attendance at a public hearing Tuesday expressed opposition to the project.

Many were worried about their home’s value.

Others expressed concern about wildlife habitats, the potential for dangerous health effects, and why a more remote location — one away from any homes — wasn’t possible.

But most of them simply didn’t want a solar farm in their backyard.

A few, however, spoke in favor of the project, like Chris Pfaff, CEO of the Knox County Development Corp.

He pointed to Knox County’s “rich history” of power generation and the benefits that would come with the solar project, both in the form of jobs (there would be about 8-10 as well as another 250 construction jobs) and tax revenue.

Allowing the solar project to move forward, he said, would ensure Knox County would continue to be a “regional and statewide leader in new power generation” as well as “diversify its portfolio of energy into the future.”

Representatives with Tenaska and Capital Dynamics attempted to find favor with upset local residents. They assured them storm water drainage plans would have to be approved by local and state leaders and pointed to the county’s new solar ordinance, which requires a 200-foot buffer between any solar panel or corresponding facility from the nearest structure.

Many in opposition, however, wondered if it couldn’t be farther, a decision that would have to be made by the county commissioners as they approved the legislation.

The solar team, too, said basic communications — things like cell phone and radio signals — will not be impeded as a result of the solar panels, and a road use agreement between themselves and the county ensures the repair and restoration of roads used during construction once the project is complete.

The development team, too, pointed out that the solar project would have a $1 million positive impact per year on local GDP; the project would also result in about $1 million more paid out per year in lease payments to land owners.

In addition, the county council and commissioners this fall approved an Economic Development Agreement with the development team. The deal struck allows for a ten-year tax abatement — one that essentially forgives 100% of the personal and property taxes on any improvements made to the land.

In return, $2.5 million will be paid to the county in “economic development payments,” ones made by Tenaska and Capital Dynamics over a six-year period.

The county, too, is expected to see additional tax benefits totaling some $16 million over the expected 35-year life of the solar farm.

And a handful of county officials have already suggested that some of that money be spent improving the roads around the proposed solar field, roads that are still just gravel.

For information about the project or to request a copy of the FAQ sheet once it’s prepared, contact the APC at 812-885-2544.


News
Unwanted visitors

A handful of county employees have added bat wrangler to their job descriptions as the downtown probation and community corrections offices have had a few extra — and unwanted — visitors in recent weeks.

The Knox County Commissioners on Tuesday said the old jail downtown at 147 N. Eighth St. — which houses the probation department, E-911 and community corrections — has an infestation of bats.

“Bats are flying into the probation offices, and (employees) have had to chase them out,” said commission president Trent Hinkle.

“And dispatch,” added E-911 director Rob McMullen from the crowd.

“And community corrections,” added that program’s director, Scott Brown, from the other side of the room.

“A lot of people are keeping brooms in their offices these days,” quipped commissioner Kellie Streeter, to which the small group chuckled.

So in an effort to remedy the problem, Hinkle said he sought estimates for the work and received proposals from two companies, CRNAC in Vincennes and Cavett’s Wildlife Control LLC in Oakland City.

CRNAC submitted a bid for just under $48,000 while Cavett’s was slightly higher at just over $53,000.

The bats, explained Hinkle, seem to have a found a comfortable place to nest in the building’s three attic areas.

Because these bats are a protected species in Indiana, crews cannot harm them. They will essentially create a one-way door out, encouraging a space for the bats to leave but without allowing them access back in.

Once they’re confident that all the bats have made their exit, the entire area will be cleaned, sealed and insulated to prevent their return.

“And that should take care of the problem,” he said.

The commissioners tentatively approved the contract with low-bidder CRNAC for the lesser amount, but it will first require approval from the county council.

Hinkle said he will take the request to the council when it meets next week.

He submitted a request to the council for $65,000, he said, but the bids came in significantly below that.

“So we aren’t going to need that full amount,” he told the commissioners.

County officials have previously worked with CRNAC; most recently members of the Pantheon Board hired the local company to rid areas of the historic theater of pigeons before it was transformed into a co-working space. That contract was for just over $40,000.

Members of the Knox County Public Library Board, too, hired CRNAC in April of 2018 to rid the McGrady-Brockman House of pigeons during a renovation there.

In other business, the commissioners also on Tuesday awarded a paving contract to E&B Paving in Washington.

Highway superintendent Benji Boyd recently let out for bid the county’s latest project set to be funded through the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program.

Boyd in December announced that he’d been successful in securing nearly $400,000 in CCMG funds, enough — when combined with a 25% match — to repave nearly six miles of Old Bruceville Road all the way from Vincennes to Bruceville.

Boyd said he received two bids from the county’s two most two loyal bidders — E&B Paving and Milestone Contractors.

E&B Paving’s bid was for just under $482,000 while Milestone’s was for a higher $496,463.

“But both are below my estimates,” he said.

Boyd said work is likely to begin in the spring.

Before this contract, in early 2020, Knox County received another $603,000 in CCMG funds. The county matched that with another $200,000 and repaved Hickory Corner Road from Indiana 61 to U.S. 50 as well as the final portion of old U.S. 41, the area south of the CSX rail line.

And Boyd only recently submitted yet another CCMG application, this time for funding to repave five other sections of road.

At the top of the list are two sections of Old U.S. 41 that, if the county is successful, will complete the repaving of the entirety of Old U.S. 41.

On the application this time, Boyd said, is Old U.S. 41 South between U.S. 41 and Brookhaven Road as well as Old U.S. 41 North just north of Oaktown between U.S. 41 and the Sullivan County line.

Also included this time is Old Wheatland Road between Indiana 550 and Vincennes, Newell Road between Old Wheatland and Old Bruceville roads and Memering Road between Indiana 67 and Mine Road.

If awarded fully, it would mean more than $1 million in work. An announcement is expected in March.


News
Health board looks to incentive program for employees

The Knox County Board of Health is looking to offer an incentive to nurses willing to work for the health department.

Board members during their regular meeting Wednesday, held at Good Samaritan, took up discussions of a continuing education reimbursement program, one modeled after another, successful program at the hospital itself.

Board member Heidi Hinkle, a nurse and employee at Good Samaritan, outlined the hospital’s own program for board members to offer an idea of how their own might work.

Good Samaritan, she said, offers half the cost of continuing education — whether it be a master’s degree, bachelor’s degree or additional certification — up to $4,000 per year for a graduate degree or $2,000 for an under-graduate degree.

Employees must apply for the program before they embark upon their education program of choice; once they show they’ve completed it successfully, with a grade of C or better, then they are reimbursed.

Hospital employees, too, then commit to working at Good Samaritan for at least a year.

“Because the idea is that you benefit from their continuing education,” Hinkle told the board.

The hospital’s program, too, covers a portion of the cost of the certification exams that often follow continuing education.

County health officer Dr. Alan Stewart pitched the possible incentive program to the board last month and asked Hinkle to come armed Wednesday with information to share.

The idea, Stewart, said would be to take the funds necessary from the health department’s non-reverting account, one supplied largely with the fees collected as a result of food service violations.

The health department is limited by the county council in terms of what it can pay its nurses, but such a continuing education program could serve as an additional incentive.

“It shows that you care about life-long learning, investing (in your employees),” Hinkle said. “It makes them feel good about where they’re working.

“When you become a nurse, you make a commitment to life-long learning, and when you see that your employer supports those endeavors, those are the types of places you want to be working.”

Hinkle then threw out some numbers to consider — ones significantly less than those offered by the hospital — and board members said they wanted a month to think it over.

Tentatively, however, they discussed offering to full-time employees at the health department half the annual cost of tuition up to $2,000 and the full cost of any certification exams necessary up to $1,000.

Part-time employees would be eligible for up to $750 annually as well as the cost of exam fees.

“And all of this would be paid only if adequate funds exist,” Stewart clarified, adding that, currently, the health department’s non-reverting fund has in it about $30,000.

The board asked Hinkle to do a bit more research between now and next month, specifically in the way of how much exam fees typically cost to ensure that $1,000 is enough.

The incentive program was then tabled until the board meets again on the first Wednesday in March.

In other business, the board voted to offer a promotion to a full-time sanitarian at the health department.

Stewart said since hiring this sanitarian a few months ago, they’ve become thrilled with her work. He called her “excellent” and “dedicated.”

“No job is too menial, no job is too difficult,” he said.

Yet the county limits what it can pay, hourly, to the sanitarian position. Getting around that, Stewart told the board, would be to offer her a promotion to food safety director, which would come with a raise of about $5,000 per year.

The money exists in the health department’s current budget, so it won’t require additional approval from the county council, he said.


AP
Indiana lawmakers push for expanded nursing home visitation

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers are seeking to change visitation restrictions at the state's health and residential care sites amid concerns about residents' declining interactions with loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

A measure that advanced to the full House Wednesday after a unanimous committee vote would require health facilities to allow at least one caretaker to visit a resident during compassionate care situations. Those include if the resident is dying, grieving a recent death, experiencing emotional distress or needing encouragement to eat or drink.

Under the bill, long-term care facilities would also be required to participate in the state health department's Essential Family Caregivers Program during a declared emergency, a public health emergency, or similar crisis.

That program further designates at least two caregivers who can enter facilities and provide residents with support like meal set up, grooming and general companionship, even during periods of restricted visitation. While some facilities in Indiana currently participate in the program, not all do.

“I thought I was having a bad dream ... 10 months later, I’m still having that bad dream,” said Republican Sen. Linda Rogers, who authored the bill. “This is a first step in providing a way that we can visit our loved ones that have been locked away in these facilities.”

Nursing homes across the country have been devastated by COVID-19 deaths as elderly people and those with serious health troubles living in nursing homes are among the most at-risk from severe illness due to the coronavirus.

Indiana has seen at least 23,000 cases in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with more than 4,900 deaths, or about half of Indiana’s confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths, outpacing the U.S. average.

In response, many long-term care facilities across the state have barred or restricted any visitors since the pandemic took hold last March.

Currently, residential care facilities can allow indoor visitation if there is no new onset of coronavirus cases within the last 14 days and if the facility is not currently conducting outbreak testing. Because local officials use community-level metrics to determine when and how many indoor visitors should be allowed, visitation rules also vary across Indiana's counties.

Laura Brown with the Indiana Health Care Association said Wednesday that an immunity provision in the bill should provide peace of mind for facilities that have been hesitant to allow more caregiver or family visitation. According to the bill, facility staff would not be liable for spread of COVID-19 among residents or visiting family members, as long as they're acting in good faith and without “gross negligence.”

Still, should the bill become law, its reach would not override contradictory mandates by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The federal agency issued such measures last spring, directing nursing homes to temporarily restrict all visitors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t think there’s anything we could do if they say absolutely no visitation," Brown said. “We couldn’t get around that.”

A similar bill prosed in the Senate would change visitation restrictions specifically for nursing homes, although the measure has not yet been placed on the Legislature's agenda.

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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This story has been corrected to attribute a quote to Laura Brown, not Laura McCaffrey.


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