Sheriff Tom Grills met with Ripley County Commissioners during their regular bi-weekly meeting at the Ripley County Highway Department on Monday, March 4, to respond to allegations of not following policy when using county vehicles to provide escorts for Northern Clearing.
Northern Clearing is the company installing the pipeline in the northern part of the county. Also addressed were the issues of inmates flushing clothing and other items, which is clogging the sewer system, as well as the nepotism policy.
The first issue addressed was the flushing of inmates' clothing, to which Grills said there is no way that an inmate can flush a pair of pants, t-shirt or anything of that nature. He said that what the city is finding in the sewer system must be rags that the inmates use to clean with that were made from old worn out t-shirts.
Grills expressed that Versailles Town Superintendent Kevin Hensley was supposed to have given him quotes on either putting a trap at the end of the building that could be cleaned out regularly or to install a grinder station.
Hensley produced a quote for $158,000.00 from Midwestern Engineers out of Indianapolis to install a bar screen which empties into a hopper that can be cleaned out. He said he had not been able to obtain a quote for a grinder station just yet, but estimates the cost would be around $80,000.00.
Grills questioned Hensley on how much money has already been put into the system over the past 10 years. Hensley stated that it's been rebuilt twice and it has to be cleaned out two to three times annually. He said since the jail opened, the city has spent around $30,000.00 maintaining the system.
Reiners told Hensley to let commissioners know if the problem persists and to give them some ideas so that they know what to do to help him correct it if they choose to follow that route.
"One of the bigger issues we have been hearing about is the use of the county cars as an escort service for the Northern Clearing Company. We'd like to address that. It is in Ripley County policy's handbook that no cars are to be used for personal use and it's happening anyway. How did this come about? Did they contact you, Tom (Sheriff Grills), or did you contact them?" asked Commissioners Robert Reiners.
Grills responded by saying that Tony Deluca of Northern Clearing called him on December 12 of last year and explained the pipeline project and asked for their assistance to provide escorts when they started the job in January.
Grills went on to explain that he met with Deluca who informed him that he had gotten the okay from commissioners and had also been to the county highway department on two occasions.
"The issue that I have is that I didn't have the new policy," Grills said. He contacted Bill Wagner, auditor, on Jan. 22 for a copy of the policy and wasn't provided a copy. Wagner noted that he was told by commissioners not to release a copy of the policy until the changes were corrected.
Reiners told Grills that the only thing commissioners ever discussed with representatives of Northern Clearing was whether or not they were going to cut roads or bore roads. He said they also wanted commissioners to give them a list of the county's better roads. He said there was discussion about the required bond for damage to the roads, but stressed at no time, did commissioners ever talk about any escort service at a commissioners meeting, adding that he was completely surprised when all of the escort stuff started.
Reiners asked Grills if an agreement had been entered into with Northern Clearing to provide the escorts, to which Grills responded that he had not.
"In years past, the sheriff has never had to come to the commissioners and ask for approval on how to keep the public safe," Grills responded. When you're running 12-foot wide lowboys pulling 80,000 lb. track hoes around on a 16-foot wide road and they're 10-12-foot wide, nobody pays attention to their little flashing lights on the trucks."
Reiners expressed that he understood what Grills was saying, but explained to him that there are professional escort services that provide this service without using county vehicles.
Reiners questioned Grills about the fuel being used and asked if he has been keeping track of how much is being used to provide the escorts. Grills said that he was not, because he had asked his deputies to help out with the daily cost.
Reiners stated that it is up to the pipeline company to provide its own service. Grills response was that if anyone gets hit on a county road, the county and the sheriff will get sued.
"So, it's risk management. It's reducing liability. Everyone pays attention to a police car and we're getting people to slow down," said Grills.
Reiners posed the question of what will happen if the county is providing an escort and an accident happens anyway. Grills said it wouldn't be any different than any other crash, because if there is an emergency vehicle trying to slow traffic down to prevent injury and a crash takes place, they're not yielding to that emergency vehicle.
Discussion ensued about changes in the handbook policy. "Did you get input from the elected officers who you don't control?" Grills asked the commissioners. He went on to say, "You have authority over some of the employees, but not the sheriff."
"We have control over the vehicles that the county owns," responded Reiners. Grills reminded Reiners that half of the vehicles at the sheriff's office were paid for out of sheriff's office funds.
Reiners pointed out that it irritates the general public when they see county cars out there when officers are making money on the side and using county vehicles. He again told Grills that Northern Clearing is a company with the authority to hire a professional company to provide the escort service without coming to the county and putting a burden on the county for the use of its cars, fuel and their repairs.
Deluca, with Northern Clearing, told commissioners that he came into attorney Ertel's office and explained to him and commissioner Reiners who he was, what they do, showed him the routes, talked about bonding and explained at that time that they hire off-duty sheriff deputies to escort their guys around, adding that everyone in the room said it was a good idea.
"You did not tell me anything about escorts. We have never discussed any escort service and we would never discuss an escort service, because that's not our department," said Reiners.
Deluca told him that commissioners gave him a bond of $100,000.00 during that prior meeting. Reiners told him that they did give him the bond, but maintained that at no time did he or commissioners discuss an escort service and told Deluca not to stand there and tell them he did. Deluca maintained his position and said he didn't like being called a liar, to which Reiners replied he will call him a liar and fingers started pointing. Deluca said that he has gone through several other counties and had not had any problems until he came here.
"I'm coming in here as a concerned citizen. I don't appreciate getting yelled at number one. Number two, I explained everything that we do. And I was told in exact words ‘that's fantastic,'" said Deluca. This prompted Reiners to ask other commissioners if they had ever met with Deluca, to which they said they had not. Deluca said that he had not seen anyone except for attorney Ertel and Reiners.
Reiners explained to Deluca that he doesn't have the authority to come right out and say that Ripley County is going to provide an escort service.
Deluca said the county officers are doing such a fantastic job, that when the main pipeline comes in, they plan to hire them and their cars at anywhere from $8-$10 per hour.
Reiners again stated that the county doesn't want to use its own vehicles for an escort service. Attorney Ertel said that the State Board of Accounts will say that a contract needs to be entered into in order to profit privately. He said that the county would need to be reimbursed a sufficient amount of money to cover the cost of the cars.
"There's certainly nothing wrong with off-duty officers making extra money on the side," said Ertel. But with the way the new policy is set up, I'm not really sure that it's going to allow for the vehicles to be used in that manner."
Reiners asked Deluca if Northern Clearing ever provides vehicles to its escorts. Deluca said they have, but have found that it is unsafe as opposed to using a sheriff's car. Reiners referred to an email sent to attorney Ertel from Northern Clearing saying that a deal can be worked out to where there is mileage reimbursement. Deluca said that he wasn't aware that this could be done until recently.
Grills went on to say that the county policy is rules that govern the employees, but the sheriff has the supreme authority on how the sheriff's office is run.
"From a public safety standpoint, I made the decision," said Grills. You can yell and scream at me if you want. Now, if the State Board of Accounts wants to get involved, we'll cover that bridge as it comes. But, if the State Board of Accounts is going to get involved in that, then they're going to be all over the state of Indiana with all this mess."
Reiners again asked Grills if the fuel or mileage was being kept track of. Grills told him that it's difficult to keep track of all of that because the deputies are taking care of details to and from the worksite, explaining that even though a deputy is technically off-duty, they are still considered on duty when they are in their vehicles.
"If they are going to the pipeline detail or are coming from the pipeline detail, they're still working. So, you're not going to get an accurate mileage count. What happens if they're escorting a truck and they come across a crash. They can't just drive on by. I can go back through the fuel logs and tell you how much fuel the guys are using on those days. But if they run the pipeline and they don't go anywhere that day, then they're not burning county gas."
Ertel stated that he has never seen any cases where a sheriff's office has been sued over liability if they are not out there on the road. However, if deputies put themselves in the middle of things, it increases the possibility of a lawsuit if something should happen. He also said that if the county is going to provide these services, they need to come up with an accurate way of tracking that mileage. Ertel also raised the question of whether or not insurance covers these cars when they are being used in this manner.
Deluca thanked commissioners for allowing Northern Clearing to come into their county and apologized for any inconvenience they may have caused. He also thanked the Ripley County Sheriff's Department. He apologized for his behavior during the meeting and said that his behavior should be no reflection on Northern Clearing.
Reiners told Grills that an agreement should have been entered into over the mileage and fuel before the escorting took place. Deluca said that if they had been approached with a contract, it would not have been a problem and will not be now.
The next issue discussed was the nepotism policy. Grills told commissioners that state law says that he has to provide them with a signed copy on an annual basis stating that he is complying with the nepotism policy. He said he should not be required to do this every time someone is hired. Ertel explained that for each person hired, there is a paper the sheriff must sign stating that he is not related to the new hire. This is not a policy created by the commissioners, but rather the state and took effect on July 1 of last year and a copy was emailed out to all elected officials informing them of the change.
"I don't read county policy all the time," said Grills. "I have more important things to worry about. I got the policy back in June, because I save all that stuff, but did I really read the email and know about the whole hiring process thing? I didn't pay much attention to it, because I'm busy. So, now that the new policy's in effect, I understand what you want and from here forward, we'll work on that."
The meeting recessed to the annex for other commissioner business to be reported on in next week's paper.