Though new technology and a new philosophy of local government was rolled out at a Fillmore Town Council meeting Saturday, newly elected officials say they will carry the financial burdens they inherited for years to come.
After the quick election of Jeff Osborn as the new council president, the board commenced to give a rundown of changes to come and hurdles to leap, among them the discovery that the town of Fillmore is carrying at least $1 million in debt.
Since taking office on Jan. 1, the council and new Clerk-Treasurer Wanda Seidler have begun sorting through several decades worth of records that Osborn described as a "mess."
"There is just so much there," he added. "We ask for a little patience while we get our land legs."
Though the board vowed that full financial statements would eventually become available for community members on the town's website, www.fillmoreindiana.com, and at town hall, Osborn said that details regarding Fillmore's debt and high utility bills were still sketchy at best.
He reported that at some point in the past several years, Fillmore defaulted on a bond, though they are not yet sure of the surrounding circumstances. Osborn said he only discovered the situation when he stumbled upon an ordinance detailing a repayment plan. The plan began in 2004, said Osborn, and payments will increase every year until 2043.
In her report to the community, Seidler said she has requested a special audit from the State Board of Accounts to help determine how the town's bookkeeping can begin to come into state compliance.
Though the town is audited annually by the state, Osborn stated that many problems detailed in past audits went unaddressed.
In what may be considered "the great reorganization" of town hall, Seidler has spent her first two weeks in office attempting to convert the Fillmore's pencil and paper recordkeeping to a computerized system. In doing so, she has enlisted help from other successful community bookkeepers, such as Bainbridge Clerk-Treasurer Jason Hartman, who has volunteered as a consultant. The town has also hired a former Bainbridge Deputy Clerk-Treasurer to help Seidler dig through the records three days a week.
Though the organization of town hall was a major talking point for the board in their first meeting, the conversation inevitably turned to the high utility costs that many in the community say led to the ousting of every elected Fillmore official last November.
The first step in lowering sewer bills will be to tackle the system's infiltration problem, said town employee Joe Cash. According to Cash, rain water is leaking into the sewer system in massive amounts, which explains the major increases in sewage bills during rainy months.
The board reported that they have been in contact with Greencastle, who successfully tackled a similar infiltration problem in recent years, to seek advice and assistance in correcting the problem.
Fillmore officials also began investigating billing practices and found that all citizens were not being billed equally for utilities.
"There were gentleman's agreements made about billing," said Osborn, implying that some people who were still on well water were being charged a minimum water rate while others were not being billed at all.
"Some people are charged differently but we can't find any documentation about why," he said.
By law, the town is required to apply the same rates to every resident, and though Osborn said it would take time to sort out, the new board would comply with that law.
In their first meeting as public officials, the new board strived to be open about the town's financial problems and members said they hoped to create a space for a free flow of ideas between community members and the council about solving them. However, council member Wes Terhune acknowledged that it could be many years before their most significant problems are resolved.
Despite their frustration, the council members were unwilling to assign blame to previous elected officials.
"Obviously decisions were made that have brought us to this point," Osborn said, adding that in his opinion, it has been more like a "comedy of errors."
"Was there any wrongdoing?" he said. "I don't think that in this case."
In other business:
* Town meetings will be moved to 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. The next meeting will be on Feb. 7 and Bert and Betty's restaurant will provide refreshments.
* Betty Harrington, Danville, has been appointed as Fillmore's new town attorney.
* The board tabled a motion to allow community organizations to use Fillmore Town Hall as a meeting place. Though each member agreed that it was in the best interest of the community, they will have to create a policy regarding clean up and a possible damage deposit. The board will address a formal policy in their next meeting.
* Council member Wes Terhune agreed to investigate community trash service for Fillmore. The council moved to advertise for bids, but informal bids submitted to Terhune came in at around $10 per month, including totes, with the condition that every Fillmore resident sign on for the service.
* Fillmore fire officials requested that the board take action to force homeowners to comply with the state 911 mandate requiring that all houses have clearly marked addresses.
* Fillmore Town Hall now has an open wireless Internet connection. Fillmore residents were encouraged to use the connection inside the building and told it can also be picked up in the parking lot.
* The town's website, www.fillmoreindiana.com, is up and running. In addition to current site content, the board will be placing all meeting minutes and agendas, and hopes to eventually post all financial statements when they become available.