GOSHEN — Tears, accusations and frustration were part of Saturday morning's Elkhart County Council Meeting, which lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours.
Ex-employees of the Elkhart County Highway Department addressed the council repeatedly about what they feel are injustices and wasteful spending at their former workplace.
The group of about 10 — some of them drivers who were laid off in March — sat together in the back of the room. Their first wave of challenges to the council came when Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers requested an ordinance change to increase hourly pay for corrections and patrol officers.
He called the current situation “a crisis,” with 66 employees leaving in the past year to find better-paying jobs.
Paul Osowski, one of the drivers laid off in March, told the council he didn't see the fairness in giving sheriff's department employees a raise when 10 highway workers were just let go.
"The timing of it really, really is unpalatable," he said.
After several other ex-highway employees spoke against the ordinance, councilman John Letherman expressed sympathy for their situation.
"What happened to you guys is kind of happening all over the country in highway departments," he said, explaining that the highway department is largely funded by decreasing dollars from the gas tax, while the sheriff's department gets funds from property and local option income tax.
"We can't spend from one pot to the other whether we like it or not," he said.
The sheriff's ordinance was approved unanimously by the council.
Later, a request from the highway department to add a truck driver to its staff was ultimately tabled by the council after a string of ex-highway employees spoke against it.
Jessica Miller addressed the council through tears and called the request "ironic."
"I was the lowest paid (driver) that was kicked out on March 21, and for them to hire somebody back in at my pay that I was at, I don’t see why I was let go. I never asked for a raise, I was happy with where I was at," she said.
Several audience members clapped when Councilman David Ashe motioned to deny the highway department's request. County Commissioner Mike Yoder cautioned the council against "trying to make management decisions for your highway supervisor based on former employees."
Throughout the meeting, some ex-drivers criticized the commissioners for not listening to their concerns.
“The sad part of this is, when a taxpayer contacts a county commissioner in regards to what's going on at county highway and it’s laughed at, it’s a joke," Randy Tony, a former worker, said.
Later, a request was submitted from the highway department to replenish its overtime fund due to a work-intensive winter.
Mitch Sailor, one of the drivers let go in March, urged the council members to deny the appropriation until they look at the daily logs, claiming he and other highway workers were encouraged to take advantage of overtime hours.
Councilman Dave Foutz said it wasn't up to the council to evaluate how those overtime hours were used.
"Budgetarily, the hours were worked. We have to pay for them. The discussion about where we go from here is another matter, but on this particular item, I don’t see that we have any choice."
The request was ultimately approved by the council.
Throughout the meeting, several ex-workers placed blame on Jeff Taylor, transportation manager, for inappropriate use of county vehicles, time and money.
“I will say it’s not going to go away if Jeff Taylor isn’t going. You haven't heard the worst of this yet," said Donal Rumsfelt, a worker released this year.
Taylor was not at the meeting and his offices were closed Saturday.
At one point, Rogers told some vocal members of the ex-highway group to follow procedure or he would have them removed.
"We understand you've got a problem," Letherman told the former county employees at the end of the meeting. "We'll talk to the people involved and see if there isn't some way we can make things better. That's all we can offer at this point because we're not the administrators," he said.