Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton and commission clerk Mary Remsing. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton and commission clerk Mary Remsing. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy met with Highland County sheriff Donnie Barrera to discuss recent changes at the sheriff’s office and heard an update on Arc of Appalachia news from director Nancy Stranahan during the Jan. 9 commissioners meeting.

Sheriff Barrera was invited by Abernathy to address commissioners after Barrera sent an email that the sheriff’s office will be without a K-9 unit, as current K-9 handler Craig Seaman has asked to step down from that role.

Barrera said that Seaman has served as the K-9 handler for 11 years and told Barrera that “after 11 years of chasing the dog around in the woods, he was ready to hang it up.” Seaman’s K-9, Django, will be retired and will remain with Seaman’s family.

Barrera said there are no current plans to replace Django.

“I’d like to have another dog at some point,” Barrera told commissioners. “With the workforce the way it is right now, to train somebody – it’s a costly expense to send somebody to training and to purchase another K-9.”

Abernathy asked Barrera about Django’s impact on the office.

“[He did] tracking, drugs, article searches,” Barrera said. “There were several things that he was trained to do. Since October 31, 2014, the sheriff’s office had a total of 96 combined uses.”

Barrera said the K-9 program “is very expensive to run and operate.”

“[Seaman] has to work with [Django] constantly,” Barrera said. “He not only trains at work, but he trains with him at home. He got with his other K-9 handlers and trained all the time.”

Barrera added that other area law enforcement agencies, including the Hillsboro and Greenfield police departments and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, have K-9 officers.

"So if you need them, you could get mutual aid, mutual assistance, from them?" Abernathy asked.

"Yes," Barrera said. "We have outside resources for local areas around the county, until we get our K-9 program back again – which, someday, I'd like to see it back."

Commissioners thanked Sgt. Seaman and Django for their service to the sheriff’s office.

“It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week project,” Britton said.

Another item of discussion was the county’s plans to change from paying sheriff’s office employees’ salaries out of the 911 budget line item.

“We wanted to move everything into the Salaries line item and reserve that 911 money for a 911 upgrade,” Abernathy said. “This is something that started in 2009, when things were really, really tight in the county, and Sheriff [Ron] Ward was in office. Everyone was scrambling to find some way to pay enough deputies, so the decision was made – and a resolution was passed, which the law allows – to pay two dispatchers out of the 911 fund.”

Britton said that the county pays an annual fee and maintenance agreement out of the 911 fund, and any money remaining in the line item will be “basically a savings account for when we have to upgrade the 911 [system].”

“I know the last time we had to upgrade that, it was about $240,000 we had to pay out, all in one chunk,” Britton said.

Barrera said that “to be honest, doing away with that fund, to me, is going to be a blessing.”

The sheriff also checked with the commissioners on the status of a request for a body scanner as well as on the tip411 anonymous tip hotline. The hotline was originally funded from the Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Project (ASAP) funding through the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“I got a tip411 bill yesterday,” Barrera said. “If we want to upgrade and continue with it, it’s $4,100.”

“That’s an annual fee?” Duncan asked.

“I think it’s two years,” Barrera said. “We’re just now getting ready to run out in February on the contract on this.”

Highland County auditor Bill Fawley asked how much the tip hotline is used.

“We get a lot of tips, and we try to follow up on them,” Barrera said. “If we get a tip that says ‘they’re dealing drugs in Hillsboro,’ we forward that to the Hillsboro Police Department. Same with Greenfield. We forward it over to them and they can check it out.

“If we get [a tip of] drugs out in the county or something domestic or theft or whatever, we forward it to an officer, detective or road deputy to go out and check it. It has helped – I couldn’t tell you the number of times that it’s been truthful information that has led to an arrest.”

Barrera said that the tip hotline is nice for callers who are wary of calling the sheriff’s office.

“I think it’s well worth it,” Britton said. “I think we just need to find out a way to take care of it.”

Commissioners heard a proposal on acquiring a body scanner for the Highland County Justice Center in December. Abernathy said that commissioners were still awaiting a price quote, “then we’re ready to move on it.”

• • • 

Commissioners also spoke with Arc of Appalachia director Nancy Stranahan, who requested permission for the nonprofit organization to apply to acquire property and provided an update on some recent Arc of Appalachia upgrades.

Last summer, commissioners gave the organization permission to apply for a Clean Ohio grant, which is due March 8. In that proposal, the organization expressed a desire to purchase the Burchett farm property on Spargur Lane and the “God’s Country” campground on state Route 753.

“That property got sold while we were negotiating,” Stranahan said of the God’s Country property. She added that Arc of Appalachia is negotiating with the new owner, an investor from Columbus.

Stranahan said that she was seeking permission to include additional properties, both on Browning Road, to the proposal: .525 acres, more or less, of land and a cottage in poor condition, appraised at $7,500; and four acres, more or less, of vacant land out of a 5.5-acre parcel that is still being appraised. The Arc of Appalachia is seeking access to the creek that runs behind the properties.

Combined, the two properties would take $289 per year out of county real estate taxes, Stranahan said.

“Because the deadline is so close – March 8 is coming right up – and we have to write the grant, do the title work and appraisals and everything, I thought I’d better come in and ask you first,” Stranahan said.

Paint Township trustees already approved the proposal, Stranahan said, and Clean Ohio also required approval from the commissioners. Commissioners voted 3-0 to allow the organization to move forward with the proposal.

Stranahan also provided handouts with information on recent Arc of Appalachia news, including the following:

• An improvement project at the Highland Nature Sanctuary museum added two new murals, skylights, new electrical system and visitor safety measures. The $100,000 project was funded by a state grant.

• Private foundation-funded, hand-poured steps descending into the gorge at the Barrett’s Rim Trail have been completed, with the project costing $12,000.

• McKimmie’s Cave will be open to the public and is estimated to open this summer, thanks to a donor who contributed $18,000 to the project. The cave will open after safety measures of steps, railings and metal railings are installed.

• An interpretive kiosk and educational chestnut farm are open at Ridgeview Farm.

• Destiny Bryson of the Highland County Visitors Bureau has applied to be a member of the NRAC 15 Committee, which reviews Clean Ohio applications for the region.

“We’ve been really working on safety measures to get all of our trails open to the public,” Stranahan told commissioners. “We’ve gone through and built bridges and steps. We’re on a mission.”

• • •

Commissioners also voted 3-0 to approve two contacts: a subordination agreement between the Highland County Commissioners and Cecil and Maria Burns; and a satisfaction of mortgage contract between Highland County and Babington LLC, Emerson Babington and Margo Babington.

In other action, commissioners approved the following resolutions, each by a 3-0 vote:

• A request to transfer from County, Transfers Out, to EMA W-75 in the amount of $30,000.

• A blanket resolution to cover all travel of Recorder Chad McConnaughey to all state and district meetings as deemed necessary for 2019.

• A resolution for the Engineer to establish alternative schedules of vacation leave and holidays for employees of the appointing authority for whom the state employment relations board has not established an appropriate bargaining unit pursuant to Section 4117.06 of the Revised Code.

• A resolution authorizing the Engineer to use the existing county employee forces and proceed by “Force Account” in the construction, reconstruction, improvement, maintenance, or repair of roads, bridges and culverts as determined by the County Engineer in Highland County during the year 2019.

• A blanket resolution to cover all travel of P. Dean Otworth, P.E., P.S., Highland County Engineer, to meetings for 2019.

• A request to pay an earlier advance from T-04 Block Grant PY17 to T-03 Block Grant FY 13 in the amount of $1,000.

• A request from the Engineer for an additional appropriation from unappropriated funds in the amount of $21,603.67.

• A request from the Probation Department for an additional appropriation from unappropriated funds to PIIG Incentive Expenses in the amount of $44,711.23.

• A request from the Probation Department for an additional appropriation from unappropriated funds to T-58 Program Expenses in the amount of $73,098.23.

• A modification within County from Transfers Out to Commissioners Salary-Officials in the amount of $2,449.

• A resolution releasing funds to the Alternatives to Violence Center.

• • •

Commissioners were also scheduled to meet with Highland County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Kevin Greer Wednesday. According to commissioners, Greer asked to speak with them regarding proposed upgrades to the Highland County Courthouse, which may be funded out of Greer’s court budget.