With only a few days in his new office, Ben Jackson is focused on his first major responsibility as Columbus Township trustee: Getting the township budget in order.
That means filing the budget on time and having it advertised correctly, problems that tripped the township in the past.
Jackson, a Republican, was chosen June 28 to replace Fred Barkes as trustee. Barkes stepped down for health and family reasons, but he’s also the subject of a sheriff’s department investigation, which has been referred to a special prosecutor, and an ongoing Indiana State Police investigation.
The township budget process starts July 15. With such a short time to analyze the $1.8 million budget, Jackson said he plans to keep the budget largely the same next year as this year. But over the coming year, he plans to dig more deeply into the township operations to see where things can be run more efficiently and where taxpayer money can be saved.
RESIDENCE: Laurel Drive, Columbus.
PREVIOUS OCCUPATION: Lead driver and dispatcher for FAB Express at Rock, Tenn.
FAMILY: Wife, Amy; three children.
EDUCATION: Columbus North High School graduate; majored in political science at American University.
PREVIOUS OFFICES: None.
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Fifth-generation member at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, former president and member of the St. Bartholomew pastoral council, former Court Appointed Special Advocate for children volunteer.
He came into his new office for the first time Monday morning to a staff eager to hear the direction he plans to take the township and worried about their jobs. Johnson said he will not make any immediate personnel decisions and will not replace the office staff with his friends or family members.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Carry on, as you were,’” Jackson said. “I didn’t come in with an agenda. It is not the ‘Ben Jackson friends and family’ office. My friends and family all have well-compensated jobs. I didn’t run so my friends would have jobs.
“I have absolutely no personnel decisions in mind down there. They have been doing a good job. It wasn’t the trustee’s office staff that needed to be replaced. It was the trustee,” he added.
The township has 16 employees, not including the trustee or the members of the township advisory board. Barkes’ wife, Sandy, is still on the payroll until September as a part-time office manager but is using more than 10 weeks of banked paid time off and is not expected to return to the office, Jackson said. Sandy Barkes had been job-sharing the office manager position with Allen Smith, a city firefighter and former county coroner, who also sought the trustee’s job.
Jackson said that the office manager position does not need to be a full-time position, and he likely will not fill it again full time.
“It is data entry and payroll and paying the bills,” Jackson said.
However, Jackson said his biggest frustration so far was learning that there was only one person on staff trained to calculate and run the township payroll. One of his priorities will be to begin cross-training so that he and other employees can cover each others’ duties, if necessary, he said.
“As a supervisor, my philosophy has always been that I can’t do everything but I need to make sure that I know how to do everything, and I’m willing to do it,” Jackson said.
Township trustees have a list of duties that include poor relief, fire protection and abandoned cemetery maintenance. Jackson said he must master all of those, but he expects the township poor relief and the fire department to each take up about 40 percent of his time, with the remaining 20 percent of his energy to be focused on all the other duties. For example, he already has discovered a fence dispute that will need the trustee’s office to get involved.
Jackson said he views the township as being the poor relief of last resort — where people must turn when all other options are exhausted. He said he would work to maintain good relationships with community agencies.
Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown has approached Jackson about being involved in the mayor’s council on safe and affordable housing, he said. Barkes had been a good partner in those efforts, Brown said, and she expected to also have a good working relationship with Jackson.
“The township trustee and their poor relief activities and their emergency services are such a critical service to the community,” Brown said.
The trustee’s office provides the funding for emergency shelter for the homeless and helps people with rent and utilities to keep them in their home in the first place, the mayor said.
Jackson said he will not micromanage the township fire department. In addition to six paid firefighters, the township contracts with the Columbus Township Fire Rescue volunteer department for fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the township, spread out roughly in a ring around the Columbus city limits.
Barkes was a longtime fire chief and firefighter, who also served on the fire department board before being elected to the trustee’s office. Two of the township advisory board members are also closely affiliated with the fire department: Doug Hollenbeck is a city firefighter and volunteer with Columbus Township, and Ken Greenlee is a longtime volunteer.
In contrast, Jackson said he has no firefighting experience, but his middle son is excited that he will be issued a firefighter’s helmet. Jackson said his responsibility is to make sure the department has the gear, equipment and training it needs to protect the public and to supervise the fire chief.
“Columbus Township has a paid fire chief, he is the head of the fire department, he is in charge of the day-to-day operations,” Jackson said. “My job is to make sure (Fire Chief) Rodney (Ferrenburg) is doing his job. I have no intention, no expertise, to micromanage a fire department.”
Jackson said he has met with the members of the advisory board individually and expects to have a good relationship with them. Their first meeting with him as a board will be Monday afternoon.
Hollenbeck said he thinks Jackson is going to be good for the township.
“We are glad to put the other stuff behind us. Fred had been a good trustee, he just made some bad judgments. You have to pay the price,” Hollenbeck said.
“We are very pleased that we got a person who is interested in the job and wants to do the best job he can. I think, all in all, that this is going to work out very well,” he added.
Jackson said he intends to seek a full term as trustee in the 2014 election, a pledge he made to the Republican caucus that selected him for the position.
Columbus Township Trustee
Term: Four years.
Duties: The Indiana Constitution requires a township trustee to:
- Keep a written record of official proceedings
- Manage all township property interests
- Keep township records open for public inspection
- Attend all meetings of the township legislative body
- Receive and pay out township funds
- Examine and settle all accounts and demands chargeable against the township
- Administer township poor assistance
- Perform the duties of fence viewer
- Provide and maintain cemeteries
- Provide fire protection except in a township that is located in a county having a consolidated city or has consolidated the township’s fire department
- File an annual personnel report
- Provide and maintain township parks and community centers
- Destroy detrimental plants, noxious weeds and rank vegetation
- Provide insulin to the poor
- Perform other duties prescribed by statute
Columbus Township employees: 19, including:
- 3 advisory board members
- 1 fire captain/medic
- 2 cemetery maintenance workers
- 1 chief investigator
- 1 fire chief/medic
- 4 firefighter/medics
- 2 investigators
- 2 mechanic/firefighter/medics
- 1 office cleaner
- 1 office manager
- 1 scheduler
2013 Township budget: about $1.8 million, including:
- General fund, $210,000
- Township poor assistance, $635,800
- Fire department, $538,475
- Emergency fire loan, $320,000
- Cumulative fire fund, $148,000
Columbus Township trustee 2012 salary: $45,320.08
Columbus Township office: 1333 Washington St.