For the first time in a dozen years, the Bartholomew County commissioners found themselves serving as judges, rather than county government’s executive body.

The poor relief hearing requested by Melody Arney, 21, of rural Waymansville, is the first conducted before the commissioners since Michael Davidson appealed a township trustee’s decision in 2003, according to county records.

The commissioners are expected to make a decision regarding Arney’s appeal when they meet at 10 a.m. Monday.

Arney, a single mother of two children who are younger than 3 years old, received $450 in assistance from Jackson County Township trustee Bruce Bartells to pay her electric bill on March 11.

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But when Arney asked for similar financial help Aug. 26, her request was denied.

“(Bartells) didn’t even let me set up an appointment,” Arney wrote in her Sept. 11 appeal. “Then he proceeded to tell me he was not supporting me, that I needed to support my kids and get a job.”

In his Sept. 28 response, Bartells listed three reasons for the denial:

Arney had already received assistance within the last six months.

Arney could not produce any evidence that she has made any effort to find gainful employment.

It appears Arney’s employed fiancé lives with her and can help pay bills.

Bartells, who resides on the same road as Arney, told the commissioners the fiancé wasn’t living in the house last March when he approved the initial assistance.

He also said Arney had not made out a personal expense budget as he had requested her to do in March.

While the trustee said Arney did not have anything to show that she cannot work, Arney told the commissioners she is unable to find a job that would both pay the bills and child care.

One factor that seemed to raise a few eyebrows was a 100-acre farm recently acquired through inheritance.

After Bartells brought up the subject during the hearing, Arney replied only that the estate requires her to pay more than $3,000 in property taxes annually.

But on Thursday, Arney said most of the 100 acres inheritance went to her grandfather and uncle, leaving her with only the house and five acres.

“I just got the land,” Arney said, adding she hasn’t had time to investigate selling the asset.

During the hearing, she told the commissioners the only public assistance she currently receives is food stamps.

When the trustee told Bartells in August there was no public financial help available to help her pay property taxes, she replied her fiancé would pay it for her, Bartells said.

“In addition, she has other adult relatives that live on the property with her,” wrote the trustee.

However, Arney denied that statement was true, claiming Bartells was making assumptions based on vehicles he’s seen outside her home owned by visitors.

While Arney said her fiancé lives in the house, she said his job with a local concrete company is only a part-time position.

In the audience during the hearing was Sheila Roberts, the retired mother of Arney’s fiancé.

Roberts said she had to pawn her car to pay the outstanding electric bill to keep the electricity from being turned off due to non-payment.

But that payment to Bartholomew County REMC means there is no longer any reason for Arney to request assistance, Bartells told the commissioners.

Roberts disagreed, saying she requires transportation and needs to be repaid in order to get her vehicle back.

Township trustees are required under Indiana statute to first ask the relatives of those seeking assistance for a second time to help them out, Bartells said.

During Monday’s hearing, Arney told the commissioners Bartells did not give her an official denial letter, which she needs in order to seek assistance from nonprofit agencies.

Bartells did not argue her point, explaining it has been so long since the last poor relief hearing in Bartholomew County that he was unable to find the proper forms in the county’s data bank.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Arney and Bartells agreed to Commissioners Chairman Larry Kleinhenz’s suggestion that they meet to see if they could work out a settlement prior to Monday’s meeting.

Applying for financial assistance through a township trustee is usually undertaken as a last resort, Kleinhenz said.

Those needing cash financial assistance should first seek help from family and friends, as well as use their own resources such as borrowing, working odd jobs, selling assets and trading, according to the United Way of Bartholomew County.

The application process for trustee assistance requires extensive documentation of income and expenses.

While poor relief hearings are quite a rarity these days, a sign above the entrance to the commissioners chambers of “Commissioners Court” shows the hearings were once commonplace, especially during the Depression era of the 1930s, Kleinhenz said.

Single moms in poverty

Bartholomew County ranks 22 out of Indiana’s 92 counties in terms of single parents with children.  According to 2013 statistics, there are 2,482 single parent households, representing 8.3 percent of all households. Most are headed by women.

Many are living in poverty.  According to government data, there were 8,374 food stamp recipients in Bartholomew County in 2013, as well as 5,241 children who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The Bartholomew County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program served 1,752 clients in 2013. The eligibility requirement is 185 percent of the poverty level.

WIC provides residents with food assistance, health care referrals and nutrition education aimed at low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women. Information: 812-379-1557.

Where to find help

Financial assistance provided through various nonprofit agencies in Bartholomew County is intended to offer one-time or limited-time assistance for specific bills. Those agencies include:

  • Human Services, Inc. (utilities) – 812-376-9431
  • Love Chapel (rent, utilities, etc.) – 812-372-9421
  • Hope/Flatrock/ Hawcreek Ministerial Association (financial assistance for residents of Flatrock and Hawcreek township only) – 812-546-4641

Those seeking assistance in finding affordable child care may contact:

  • Childhood Connections – 812-375-2208
  • Child Care Voucher Assistance — 1-866-494-5330

For those seeking other forms of assistance, call United Way 211 for information about community resources. Dial 2-1-1 or 812-376-6666.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.