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Polk adds part-time position to Ag Development

A few residents express opposition to the need for a new position

COLUMBUS—Polk County decided to eliminate its services with Ameri-Corps for agriculture economic development services and instead add a part-time position. 

That decision had some residents expressing concern. 

Commissioners met Monday and heard from three area residents against the request as well as agriculture economic development director Dawn Jordan on why the position is needed. 

Erika McMillan, who managed the Columbus Farmers Market for 14 months for Growing Rural Opportunities said she came forward regarding the potential mismanagement of taxpayer and federal funds within the Ag Economic Development Office. She said she asked for a job description for the director and was told one was not available. 

“How is it possible, gentlemen, that the director of the Ag Economic Development department is incapable of running the farmers market by her own admission, and your human resources director can’t begin to describe what she does,” McMillan said. “Yet, the citizens of Polk County have been funding this department to facilitate the tailgate markets in this county for the last six years.” 

Pittman said there is a job description. 

“I’ve taken the existing job description and am working with board to revise it to make sure it’s what it needs to be for where we are right now in time,” Pittman said. 

McMillan also said she made an open records request from the county and she was ignored. 

Pittman said the county delivered a packet of information to McMillan’s home that included all the records that Polk County has. Some of the request she made was information Polk County does not retain, he said. 

McMillan was suspended by the county earlier this year and the county announced it would take over management of the Columbus Farmers Market. The county also said it was investigating the potential mishandling of funds. 

“Along with the board of directors of Growing Rural Opportunities, Polk County government unjustifiably slandered and defamed by character, causing irrefutable damage to my 15-year long career with nonprofits,” McMillan said. 

Jessica Foster Clark said the AED director has been paid the past six years a hefty salary to do a job that someone else was being paid to do. 

Clark also said no one has asked what the AmeriCorps interns have done nor the total cost to the county for the interns versus the hourly cost of a new employee. 

Clark said Jordan is asking for a position without a job description. 

Clark, who is a former farmers market vendor and former chair of the committee, said she resigned as chair because she refused to work for an AED director that would not do the work herself until she was told by the county manager. 

“12 vendor and I felt so strongly about the take-over by the county and putting the AED director in charge of the market, that we left and have taken our product to other areas,” Clark said. 

“The Columbus Farmers Market consistently has 24 vendors week after week at the market and we are very happy with the direction it is going and encourage people to reach out and support our farmers market,” Pittman said. 

“I guess in conclusion we had hoped that you would table the request and take a deeper look into the AED department before you just handed them another position paid by our tax dollars without an actual job description,” Clark said.
Gay Barefield said she was a long-time customer of the market and said it is now in crisis. She said no one has reached out to vendors who have left the market and no one has issued a statement to retract that there was any mishandling of dunds. 

Barefield also questioned grant money that has to be returned. 

“Farmers want to be heard,” Barefield said. “And appreciated. And I think that is where we need to be right now instead of hiring somebody part time.” 

Jordan said for about 10 years her staff support has been through AmeriCorp, which has been fantastic. She said some of the issues are the interns come in September and they are gone in July. She requested that the two AmeriCorp positions be transitioned to one part time position, adding that it would reduce the cost to the county. The county matched funding for the positions and paid for travel expenses, which will no longer be needed. The new part-time position will not receive major benefits. 

“It seems like it’s a good logical step at this point in time,” Commissioner Ray Gasperson said. “I see the value in doing this.” 

Commissioner Myron Yoder was the sole vote against the new position. He questioned what the employee would do and said he feels working with the farmers market should be part of their job. Jordan said her office has put in a grant application to fund a farmers market position. 

Gasperson said he sees the part time position as being a major support to the farmers market. He said there’s a lot of preliminary work prior to the Saturday market and the position will likely be doing a lot of that work behind the scenes. 

“The anticipation will be to get funding for the farmers market,” Jordan said. “I love the farmers market. That’s how I got here. It’s an engaging opportunity to talk to not only the farmers but the citizens as well. It’s certainly a community space to highlight a lot of things that go on in Polk County. This specific position, yes, it will most definitely support that.” 

Commissioners said they already have the funding for the new position, which is up to 25 hours per week at $15 an hour, or $22,756.50 per year. The position does include retirement, but no other benefits and does not include the 5-percent salary increase in January 2020.