Never-ending Fayette County Corruption Summarized
By Gary Breitenbach (Fayette County Commissioner)
You know what? It’s time. It’s time for this knuckle-headed county government to be called out. Others have finally spoken. Thank you Russ Sidell for speaking up during the recent budget hearings. Thank you Mark Pflum for your insights, and thank my good friend Rick Isaacs for his clear observations as well.
This is a reflection upon my four years as the “odd-man out” Commissioner. First, some background. I’ve been involved in governance for 35 years, including 35 university governance, 10 years on School Board (two as president), and 4 years in county governance. I know how governance is supposed to work. In addition, for two years back in the mid-90’s I served as Invited Professor of Bioethics in the Honors College at Ball State University. Accordingly, I have completed considerable post-graduate training in ethics from Ball State University and Harvard.
My first observation was somewhat of a shock, in that politics in Fayette County can be relatively uncivilized compared to my other experiences. And let’s be clear, I am speaking of a few elected officials, NOT courthouse employees. My main fallout has been with President Richie Pflum, who essentially nominated himself president in December of 2008, (official action taken in January of 2009). We have a fundamental difference of opinion as to the role of the presidency. As I explained to him, the president runs meetings, disseminates information and various other tasks. Mr. Pflum has a different idea, in that he sees the presidency (and himself) as the King of Urbania. In an argument, he once quipped to me, “…but I am the President”. Wow, the phone is ringing, it must be Freud.
In a recent editorial, Bob Hansen asked us to imagine county governance operated by a single manager as opposed to three commissioners. I used to oppose adamantly the one leader model, but I now alter my position. In a three-person line-up, you are only one sidekick-vote away from a single leader. If you review past generations of Commissioners, it’s usually one with an agenda, a side-kick vote and the possible odd person out. In the current situation, Pflum has the agenda and Barker is Festus.
Pflum has used his position to withhold information from others (years in my case), influence County Council on budgetary matters, and execute a long-standing vendetta on two outstanding employees (their records are without flaws). One was replaced with a more Pflum-Barker-Cox-friendly employee. As for the other position, highway foreman, it was eliminated for “budgetary reasons”. Please. Those two highway budgets were enormous when that decision was made. The fund that paid the foreman’s salary was over THREE TIMES larger than what Umbaugh recommended, even including a 15% positive operating balance! Oh, but I was assured in the public meeting that it was purely a budgetary issue. No way. Before one of those meetings, Pflum stood over council President Ron Cox and said “Are you ready?” Ron, looking up and smiling, said “I was born ready”. The position was eliminated, and their long-time foe got his due, right boys?
Some people have difficulty separating irony from coincidence – here’s a case study. In Union County, the highway supervisor and another employee were the subject of a State Board of Accounts investigation. Ghost employment was the alleged game, and there were arrests, charges, court, and fines for one employee, but the other had a change of venue granted. The case is now being tried by a Fayette County judge. A few years back, Ron Cox, Daryl Cox (his son and highway employee) and two other highway workers were the subject of the same board. They were all named as having committed a class D felony, and prosecution was recommended. Nothing ever came of it. (Click HERE to see the actual State Board of Accounts documents) The report was addressed to the President of County Council, at that time, Richie Pflum. But the Union County case is being tried in Fayette County? Ha! Irony or coincidence? You decide!
Pflum knows the budget, and Council defers to him frequently for direction. He calls it “working together”. If Council were the Beatles, he is Yoko Ono. Council, please, stop listening to him; he’s working you to his own ends. But here is some ointment for the fly. Knowing as much as he does about the budget, there is NO WAY Pflum can claim he didn’t know how embarrassingly high those fund balances were – he had to know. I knew, the foreman knew, I suspect Cox knew. They used this opportunity to fire, yes, functionally fire, a person.
$10,000 fee for budget consultants?
And, what about a Council, who in these drastic economic times, hires a consulting firm for $10,000.00 to help them understand the budget? Are you kidding me?! The firm’s big take-home advice? “You can’t spend more than you take in”. I guess they weren’t thinking about that 10 grand, huh? I could have given the same advice for nothing. Or, was it just an excuse to hide behind when they axed 13 additional positions. I can hear it now – “We didn’t want to fire you, but Umbaugh said…” At the end of the carnage, Fayette County’s unemployed numbers increased by 14.
And how did we get into such a financial crisis? Sure, the tax caps, unemployment, etc. But how about this – both Pflum and Barker have served on County Council for a decade. So the very culprits that helped get us here are going to save us? Male bovine scat. For example, Pflum was Council President when the money came in for the Manlove Park tree sale. Within weeks he was Commissioner and chose not to follow through and use the money for the mandated dam inspections (he tries to argue he can account for all the money, but that’s a non-issue). The issue is that he defied the State mandate and receipted the money into the general fund.
If a one-time revenue is receipted into the general fund, the general fund grows by that much, but it often goes un-noticed. Redirecting other revenue streams into the general fund from elsewhere have the same impact. The money builds, has no impact on the budget, but we are still broke, right, oh deceptive ones? I tried to explain this in a public meeting, and I had to tolerate smart-mouth from the Auditor, Debbie Shaw- Kidd. As I tried to explain the concept, she snipped “well, we don’t put it in a shoebox”. Why bother to explain when all three officials to my right are ensconced in this good ol’ boys (and sometimes girls) club. Further indication of Pflum’s and Shaw-Kidd’s sophomoric behavior can be found in an apologetic e-mail from the Auditor, dated May of 2011. It’s been downhill ever since.
Now here’s where the public needs to understand the difference between “budget” and “fund balance”. The budget is merely a tool for spending, allocated by the Council. The fund balance is what we actually have. For example, in our last meeting we were discussing some equipment to be purchased. The budgeted amount was about $21,000.00, but the Auditor stated, and repeated when I asked, there is over $100,000.00 in that fund! Get it folks! Pay attention.
And here’s another good one, after eliminating 13 positions, Council gives the highway secretary an extra $1,000.00! Did I mention the employee is the daughter-in-law of Council President Ron Cox? Yeah, don’t spend more than you take in – Ha! Oh, and guess what? The Commissioners and Council did not take pay cuts and they still have access to full-time benefits. What other part-time job do you know of that offers full-time benefits? My, my, my.
Political Juncture …
Think about all the effort we’ve put into cleaning up our community. It looks great. Bud Whipple, the Garden Club, the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses….the list goes on and on. But we are not going to attract prosperity here unless we clean up our people, beginning with the old guard politicians who have brought us to this juncture. Four more years of the Pflum-Barker-Cox era will kill us. Even our eternal optimist Mr. Whipple, in a letter to the editor (NE), asked if we were going to get some of the money back from the Carbon project.
And what about EDG? The current revenue situation at EDG is the illegitimate offspring of our EDIT tax (I’ll argue this with anyone, including the “best lawyer in Indiana”). It is staffed by the Executive Committee, wait, who’s that? Barton Barker? Hasn’t he been on EDG since the beginning of time? Yup. Isn’t he the one who voted for the County to pay for his first class plane ticket to China even when EDG was about 1 million in the black? Yup. That’s an insult. (Click HERE to see the actual minutes of the meeting) And who is Pete Bell? He’s not elected, yet he is the President of the EDG executive committee. Yeah buddy, he was in the limo with the Carbon Crew, you bet. And isn’t he the one who said in a public meeting that the China project will likely not bear fruit? Yes. And now a spec building? Who gets that bid, the usual skeet-shooting consultants? Pull!
But wait, Pete is in the railroad business and has purview over the RR right-of-way north of town on SR 1. And whose political signs line that strip? Well, well – it’s Richie Pflum getting in with EDG. He’s changing his stripes like a good little politician. That makes sense, right. Bell, Barker, and Pflum trying to preserve that revenue stream from the County to EDG. Mr. Bell may have conflicting views on the success of Whitewater Railroad as well. I hear Mr. Bell would like to back his train’s caboose up to the scrap yard down south.
And who else’s signs recently graced the RR? Mayor Urban. That represents even a new dimension for voters. Barker is good friends with Urban, you know, one of the cabin boys. This election could bring together an unprecedented bunch of Urbanites. Then how will the votes line up? Unigov, here you come. County residents should be wary.
Our future is water. But, in what the Secretary of State called “the curse of natural resources”, our potential prosperity could evaporate. She was referring to the African nation Sudan, characterized by, poverty, human misery, etc. She pointed out that in that situation (i. e., an impoverished area with a strategic natural resource), the community at large is ripe for picking. Usually, a few politicians will sell the resource, make huge economic gains, and leave the community even worse off than they were. And what are we? Impoverished? Yup. Are we in a system with a few greedy, unethical politicians? Yup. As Hunter Thompson might say, “Smell that? That’s right Bubba, we are a Hoosier Sudan ripe for a pluckin’. Get your feet set”.