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Courthouse, tech upgrades highlight commissioner careers

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VERNON ­— When Democrats Jeff Barger and Jeff Day were elected to the Jennings County Board of Commissioners in 2008, Barger was amazed at what he saw in the offices of the county highway garage.

“They had this old Tandy computer,” Barger recalled. “They had no Internet access. All the record-keeping was done with pencil and paper in a spiral college notebook.”

Barger said bringing modern technology to the Jennings County Highway Department is just one of the accomplishments he’s proud of as both he and Day prepare to officially step down Tuesday.

Barger was defeated in the general election by Republican Bob Willhite. Day did not seek re-election. He will be succeeded by Republican David Lane, who won last month after a challenge from Democrat Jeff Gee.

One of Day’s proudest moments was funding necessary renovations for the Jennings County Courthouse.

“The cumulative building fund was down to $25,000 four years ago,” Day remembered. “As of this year, we were up to about $300,000.”

Some of that money was the result of renegotiated bonds for the county’s 13-year-old jail. According to Day, lower interest rates on the reissued bonds resulted in an additional $135,000 for building construction and renovations. About $90,000 was spent on the courthouse.

Barger believes his top accomplishment was obtaining $1.6 million in stimulus funds during his first year in office. He also noted that one of his final acts as commissioner was obtaining $500,000 in federal aid for the rehabilitation of the James covered bridge.

Day said his only regret over the past four years was his inability to stop the Jennings County Council from transferring cumulative building funds to the county’s general fund.

“I wish they would have done it differently,” Day said. “But I stand by the decisions I’ve made during the last four years.”

Barger said one of the first thing he discovered after becoming a commissioner was that many people in county government seemed to have an inferiority complex.

“We always felt like the state is not letting us do this or that because they think of us as second-class citizens,” Barger said. “I think that since I was an employee of the Indiana Gaming Commission, I knew exactly what the state wanted and expected. Yes, you have to jump through a few hoops. But you jump, instead of throwing up your hands in defeat. They just want the paperwork done right.”

Day’s advice to both Willhite and Lane is to attend conferences with other county executives and maintain their contacts.

“When you are dealing with county government, you need to find knowledge from other commissioners,” Day said. “It seems that all counties in Indiana have some of the same issues we have, such as funding road maintenance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Barger said similar contacts also must be maintained with officials on the state and federal level.

“The contacts I’ve made have really helped both me and Jennings County a lot,” Barger said.

Day said one issue Willhite and Lane may have to deal with is keeping their jobs. He cited efforts by the Indiana General Assembly to replace the three commissioners found in all of Indiana’s 92 counties with one county executive. He described the proposed government restructuring as an example of political strong-arming.

“There are political leaders who try to pressure the three commissioners into doing certain things, instead of doing what’s right for a community,” Day said. “If you go to one person, one county executive, who will it be that’s controlling that person?”

Barger said the current three-commissioner system serves as a deterrent to potential corruption.

“I don’t think the proposed change is that popular, especially in the rural areas.” Barger said. “But if they do it, it’s just going to be a bad deal.”

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