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Newly elected county officials settle into jobs

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Six new elected officials have taken office in Johnson County this year, and they hope to quickly tackle issues such as a countywide smoking ban.

On Jan. 1, Johnson County got two new commissioners, a new coroner, a new treasurer and two new county council members. They said they want to take some time to familiarize themselves with their new jobs but hope to soon revisit the smoking ban, create a new court and figure out how to consolidate dispatch centers.

The new office-holders also want to reach out to residents for input and try to save taxpayer dollars, such as by buying more in bulk. They’re making sure the phone gets answered at the treasurer’s office and trying to ensure smooth transitions.

They told residents not to expect any major changes right away but said they’d have to quickly make decisions on a few big matters.

For instance, new Commissioner Ron West said the county should reconsider a smoking ban after the county passed and then repealed a proposal that would have prohibited people from smoking in all public places, including bars and private clubs.

“We could consider something that addresses the issues or problems incorporated in the original ban,” he said.

Commissioners will have to interview more people and gather more facts before deciding what to do, West said. He said that, as part of a new proposal, he wanted to push for a more active smoking-cessation program that would encourage more county employees to quit.

“Something that we’re interested in is a healthier Johnson County,” he said. “We have reason to revisit it and refine it to make it work.”

The commissioners also must set up a new court to handle the county’s growing caseload, West said.

They’ll need to figure out how to pay for $250,000 to $300,000 a year in operating expenses, such as employee salaries. But one of the first decisions will be where the county’s fourth superior court will go.

In 2011, the county spent $1 million to buy a former Key Bank branch in downtown Franklin. But West said other plans are being considered for that building, and the county might have to look at other real estate in downtown Franklin.

“We bought it with the anticipation it would house the court operations, but we’ve since switched gears,” he said. “We’ve still got to keep it close to the courts.”

West said the commissioners should review options for where to put the county’s new court and choose the one that costs the least and causes the least disruption.

The commissioners face a looming deadline to get the court set up and also to consolidate dispatch centers. Both issues have to be resolved with a sense of urgency, he said.

New Commissioner Brian Baird said the three-member board will have to deal with several issues related to the dispatch consolidation, such as where the center would go and how it would be paid for.

Greenwood, New Whiteland, Edinburgh and the sheriff’s office currently have dispatch centers. State law requires that the dispatch centers be winnowed down to one or two by 2014 if the county wants to continue to receive funding for the centers.

“The consolidation will be huge,” Baird said. “There are certainly a lot of moving parts.”

For example, the commissioners will have to decide if they could renovate the dispatch center in the basement of the sheriff’s office to serve as a consolidated dispatch center for the entire county, he said. They’ll have to consider whether it meets regulations, such as being able to withstand tornadoes, as well as the cost and how it would be paid for.

Baird said he’d evaluate what other issues to prioritize as he learns the job.

“In the first few months, as a new member, I just want to learn the ropes as best I can,” he said. “I want to learn the processes and procedures and understand the position as best I can.”

New county council member Loren Snyder also said he’d focus on getting accustomed to the position, by meeting with all the department directors to find out what they’re doing. Once he gets to know the departments, he said he would home in on ways to save taxpayer dollars, such as by doing more joint purchasing with nearby local governments.

Snyder said his hope was to get every department operating as efficiently as possible. The county needs to save as much as it can because of a $500,000 shortfall last year, he said.

“We need to manage the money and understand where we can do better to save money,” he said.

Revenue has been dwindling, so the county needs to be more efficient to ensure it can continue to provide good public safety and keep the roads in good shape, Snyder said.

Snyder and John Myers are the two new county council members. Myers did not return messages.

New Coroner Craig Lutz and new Treasurer Diane Edwards said they were focused on starting their new jobs.

“We’re just trying to make the transition smooth for the taxpayers and keep things flowing,” Edwards said. “A concern for the taxpayers had been if the phones were being answered, and that’s been implemented. I’m not saying it won’t occasionally happen, but it’s something we expect out of our government offices.”

Lutz has been talking to police and fire departments across the county and updating contact information.

He replaced his father, Edinburgh Police Department detective Dave Lutz, as coroner. Dave Lutz is now chief deputy coroner.

“We’re focusing on a smooth transition, and there’s not any drastic changes going on right now,” Craig Lutz said. “We’ll take each day as it comes as we try to serve the community and give people the closure they need.”

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