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St. Joseph County may look for a homeless czar, and the county auditor may want the job

South Bend Tribune – April 16, 2021

By Christian Sheckler South Bend Tribune

St. Joseph County Auditor Mike Hamann is in the running for a proposed new position overseeing homelessness efforts for the county, a move that would require Hamann to step down from his elected post as the county’s chief financial officer.

Hamann and Andy Kostielney, president of the county Board of Commissioners, said Thursday they had discussed the creation of the new position, which would likely be funded through federal COVID-19 relief money, and Hamann’s interest in the job.

They added the creation of the position would require support from the County Council, which holds the county government’s purse strings, and that the county would post the job and invite other candidates to apply.

Hamann’s second term as auditor expires in 2022 and he is term-limited from seeking another four years in the post. He has backed Kostielney politically, even though they currently belong to different parties, but Kostielney said it was “preposterous” to suggest the new position was a form of payback.

Hamann said he planned to go back to teaching full time and was hesitant when Kostielney first approached him about the homelessness position last month. But he said he later decided he would do the job if asked.

“This is not a dream job. This is a job that’s fraught with all kinds of challenges,” Hamann said. “After going back and forth, I told (Kostielney) if the council creates this position, I will apply. I’ve definitely made up my mind.”

As auditor, Hamann oversees the county’s bookkeeping. Since last year, he also has been involved in the county’s efforts to provide housing for homeless people, largely through federal COVID-19 relief money.

Hamann pushed for the county to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal CARES Act money toward Motels4Now, a program run by the Our Lady of the Road ministry that has paid for motel rooms for more than 150 homeless people.

That effort largely came in response to large “tent cities” that popped up in South Bend last summer, first at Michigan and Monroe streets, and later in the Monroe Park neighborhood near the former downtown Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch.

At the same time, advocates for homeless people say there is still a need for “low-barrier” short-term housing to replace the motel rooms, as well as a staffer dedicated to coordinating local government services within the city, county or both.

“He’s been, in essence, doing a lot of this already as auditor,” Kostielney said. “I mentioned to him, since you’re already doing a lot of this stuff now, would it make sense to transition to this and do it officially.”

Kostielney said his first step would be to go to the County Council at its April 27 meeting and outline his proposal for the job. If the council supports the idea, Kostielney said, he would come back later with a salary request, then post the job once the money is approved. He said it would likely be summer before the county could fill the position.

Kostielney said his proposal would be to pay for the position, at least initially, through the $52 million the county expects to receive as part of the American Rescue Plan package Congress passed last month.

If the county goes forward with the position and Hamann takes the job, it would have some ripple effects.

For one, the Democratic Party would have to hold a caucus to appoint a new auditor to serve out the remainder of Hamann’s term.

Reaction among Democrats to Hamann’s interest in the job ranged from mild surprise to accusations of back-room dealing between Hamann and Kostielney.

“Mike Hamann has supported Andy Kostielney’s re-election efforts,” Stan Wruble, chairman of the county Democratic Party, said. “This seems like a payback or quid pro quo to me.”

Hamann said Kostielney had “absolutely not” promised him the job, and Kostielney said the idea he was creating the job as a favor to Hamann was “nonsensical” and a “complete fabrication.”

Hamann served as a Republican on the Board of Commissioners between 1999 and 2002 but had switched parties by the time he was elected to the County Council in 2008.

In 2018, Hamann drew the ire of Democratic officials by crossing party lines to campaign for Kostielney, a Republican, in Kostielney’s re-election race. Hamann helped sponsor a fundraiser for Kostielney and recorded a radio ad in which he said his decision to support Kostielney was “bigger than politics.”

Surprise at mention of new post

Diana Hess, a Democratic County Council member who participates in regular calls on homelessness issues, said she was surprised when Hamann mentioned the proposed new position during a call earlier this month.

“I was kind of startled,” Hess said. “The fact that he’s an elected official and what that would mean moving forward.”

County Council President Rafael Morton, a Democrat, said he hadn’t formed an opinion on the proposal.

“I don’t know enough about it,” he said. “I know Mike Hamann has played an important role with the homeless population, and hats off to him.”

Hamann’s salary as auditor last year was about $64,000. Kostielney said the proposed homelessness position would likely pay about $50,000, though it could be slightly more or less.

It’s also unclear how the proposed county position would affect South Bend’s plan to contribute money toward a similar job.

Mayor James Mueller this year set aside $75,000 to hire a coordinator on a year-long contract to start implementing recommendations by a working group on homelessness. The city still intends to fill that position but has yet to do so, Mueller spokesman Caleb Bauer said Thursday.

But the city also has pledged $25,000 toward a permanent homelessness coordinator that, according to the city’s proposal, would be jointly funded by the county and possibly the city of Mishawaka.

Bauer said the city had not heard any details on the potential county position but remained open to a possible contribution.

“We’ve got that $25,000 set aside to cost-share on a countywide position,” Bauer said, “so we’re open to discussing with the county those dollars going toward this position.”