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Mending fences

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JONESVILLE — In character and deeds, the fabric of Jonesville appears as alluring and durable as ever. Michelle Rodriquez believes that cloth of community caring has been thoughtfully and lovingly woven by generations of families.

“Some as many as six generations,” the lifelong Jonesville resident said. “That’s where our spirit comes from. Our forefathers. This is our town.”

However, the fabric that binds together the 177 residents of this village on the southern tip of Bartholomew County has been displaying more than a few frayed edges. In this prime example of Norman Rockwell-style Americana, trust seems to have become a rare commodity

Much of the ongoing suspicion stems from economic hardship resulting in large part from a scandal in which a popular town official stole tens of thousands of dollars from taxpayers, leaving financial despair in her wake.

But the financial erosion began decades earlier, when retail giants in larger, neighboring communities killed the town’s business base.

Not surprisingly, the years of turmoil and hardship in Jonesville have only increased the sentimental longing to return to a simpler, more predictable time.

“People here don’t like change,” said Lori Hoene, a waitress at the town’s remaining restaurant and tavern. “It’s part of being a small town.”

The blame game

For those looking to assign fault, the most obvious figure is the former clerk-treasurer. For almost 10 years, Jonesville residents entrusted Melissa Schultheis with the town’s finances.

“I’ve watched Melissa growing up in this town ever since she was a little baby,” town board member John Stacy Bennett said. “Wildest thing she had ever done is go clogging with her grandpa.”

That innocent image was permanently tarnished in November 2008 when Schultheis admitted in court she had stolen thousands of dollars from the town during a period of at least seven years.

“I never imagined in all the world that it would be her,” Bennett said.

Since a number of theft charges were dropped in exchange for a plea agreement, it’s still unclear exactly how much Schultheis took.

During her sentencing hearing in February 2009, Schultheis said she could have taken $60,000 to $70,000, money she used to offset medical bills for two of her three children. Bennett said his financial records indicate the amount taken might be as much as $135,000.

With a pledge of restitution and a sentencing that included probation, Schultheis was able to avoid confinement. However, Jonesville was broke. As a result, the town board did away with municipal trash pickup and assumed the clerk-treasurer’s fiscal responsibilities themselves.

But since the board and clerk-treasurer are the only paid public employees, the town was limited in its austerity measures.

“There was nobody else to get rid of, “ said Rodriquez, who also serves on the town board.

All three current town board members were in office when Schultheis was under investigation. Bennett added that all of them agreed to continue serving their community for free until state officials informed them that a volunteer town board is prohibited by law.

But the board was allowed to take steps to ensure a similar crime by a local official won’t happen again.

Multiple signatures and accompanying paperwork are now required for every purchase. All funds were shifted to a different bank, which offers online banking to allow each board member to keep a close eye on the financial records.

In addition, printed copies of expenditures and accounts receivable are distributed at town board meetings for close examination by cautious residents.

Put on probation for 15 years, Schultheis was ordered to pay $92,475 in restitution after pleading guilty to 10 counts of theft. At $300 a month, it will take until 2034 for Schultheis to make good on the full amount, which would be around the time she turns 60.

Both Bennett and Rodriguez acknowledge Schultheis has fallen behind multiple times on those monthly compensations. For example, the town’s financial records show payments were missed in both August and October of this year.

However, the different reactions to those missed payments reflect the type of divisive opinions that seem to be at the root of the distrust.

Rodriguez expressed understanding and compassion for the Schultheis children, as well as the ongoing financial burden endured by their parents. She believes the theft was the result of desperation, not greed.

But at the sentencing hearing four years ago, Bennett said his town of 77 households was left “devastated,” unable to make needed repairs and improvements. Roads were “in desperate need of repair,” he said. Today, Bennett is still unable to adopt a forgive-and-forget attitude.

Those aren’t the only two reactions in Jonesville regarding the scandal. Bennett said some residents actually expressed envy that Schultheis managed to pull off the crime without doing the time.  And then, there were others who seem mostly angry at the highly publicized investigation and subsequent court proceedings in Columbus.

Rodriguez explained the airing of the town’s dirty laundry for outsiders to see was contrary to the heritage and values of her hometown.

“We protect our own, we deal with our own, and we take care of our own,” Rodriguez said.

What subsequently emerged was a blame game for past and current woes that contributed to what Bennett described as “lies, drama and neighbor tormenting neighbor.”

Sense of pride

But former town board member Wayne Lee said if there’s much wounded pride, it’s only because Jonesville has much to be proud of.

“There are a lot of very, very good people who live in this little town,” Lee said. “We also have a lot of smart people and a lot of rich people who own their businesses elsewhere but choose to live right here.”

A number of businesses that provided the town with its identity began to close due to rising inflation in the mid- to late 1970s, according to Rodriquez.

“The prices just started going up,” she said. “It just got too expensive to sustain our mom-and-pop operations.”

Bennett said local commerce was further weakened as retail giants such as Walmart moved into nearby Columbus and Seymour with the buying power to sell goods cheaper than local merchants could obtain them.

“This town used to have two grocery stores, a gas station, a hardware store, a mill, a blacksmith shop and a bank. We ain’t got none of that anymore,” Bennett said.

Another piece of identity was lost a year ago when nationwide cutbacks prompted the U.S. Postal Service to close its mobile home that served as the Jonesville post office.

After the post office was dismantled last spring, town board members said they wanted to turn the land into a park area with basketball courts and picnic tables. But due to a lack of funds, that project is indefinitely on hold.

While the Jonesville Volunteer Fire Department once sponsored an annual festival and parade, that once-cherished tradition was tossed by the wayside about 10 years ago. Rodriquez said the festivities ended after the state demanded both sales tax and extensive paperwork from the organizers.

Census figures showed a 19.5 percent drop in the town’s population between 2000 and 2010, a loss of 43 citizens. As some established families moved away, those who arrived to take their place weren’t always greeted with open arms.

Lee says the mistrust in newcomers stems from the fact that they haven’t invested the time or money that more established families had placed in the town. Bennett said it’s also because new residents neither understand nor respect local customs and traditions.

That’s more perception than reality.  In truth, the financial health of Jonesville is slowly improving.

Financial recovery

“Right now, I think we have $60,000 in the bank,” Bennett said.

He expects to spend only about $10,000 before the next installment of money from a variety of state funding sources are placed into the town coffers in late February.

This year, Jonesville received $33,000 from those funds. The town board has requested $72,000 for 2013 but will have to wait until late winter to find out how much it will receive through the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

While Rodriquez estimates the town would have an additional $100,000 if it weren’t for the Schultheis scandal, she believes her community is now able to financially stand on its own.

Despite all the problems, Lee said he’d be happy to call Jonesville home and plans to live there the rest of his life.

“I lived in Columbus for two years, and I didn’t even know who lived in the next house,” Lee said. “But here, I’ll get on my bike and visit everyone to chit-chat. It’s such a close-knit town. You know everyone. We all help each other.”

And there’s evidence the residents of Jonesville remain quite capable of reaching a consensus, which may be the first step toward regaining trust.

The proof emerges whenever the town’s remaining restaurant and tavern is brought up.

“Nothing has changed at The Brick, and I think that’s why a lot of people come here,” said Hoene as she waited on several smiling customers on a busy Tuesday night.

“The best thing in town, I’d say, is the Brick,” Jonesville resident Bob Moore said.

“I’ve worn my Brick shirt in Florida and California, and people there walk up to me and say: ‘The Brick? Jonesville, Indiana? Yeah, I’ve been there,’” Bennett said.

“People tell me they come to the Brick because it’s their comfort zone,” Lee said. “That’s kind of how I feel about this place.”

In terms of consensus building, it’s a start.

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