GREENFIELD — Ten of the 11 Republican candidates for Hancock County Council squared off Wednesday night in a debate in hopes of gaining support ahead of the May 3 primary.
The candidates hope to win their party’s nomination to advance to November’s General Election, when they’ll be challenged by local Democrats Rita Johnson and Randy Jones.
Incumbent Kent Fisk was unable to attend Wednesday’s debate at Greenfield-Central High School because of a previously planned vacation.
George Langston, a local tea party member who is retired from the United State Air Force, told the crowd the council needs to reprioritize its spending to protect the county’s most vulnerable residents, including senior citizens and struggling families. He stressed the need for ethical decision-making, with leaders who acknowledge conflicts of interest.
John Priore, a local tea party member retired from the United States Army, said his educational background — he has an undergraduate degree in business management — has prepared him to oversee county spending. He promised to vote against tax raises on vehicle registrations, which were approved by state lawmakers this year.
Martha Vail, a local tea party member who is retired from Vail’s Classic Cars, stressed that she is not a politician but a Christian woman who wants to serve her neighbors. She said the size of the council race shows residents are ready for change. She prioritizes transparency in local government and cited the need for an open-door policy that gives voters a voice.
Incumbent Debbie Bledsoe, who is serving her first term in an at-large seat on the county’s fiscal body, said her service on the council has been rewarding. She said she is comfortable making hard decisions and casting votes that will benefit the community, even if they aren’t popular decisions.
Steve Craney, a local auctioneer, pointed to his longtime investment in his community as a county native and local business owner. He said new council members will need to face county challenges with common sense and a drive to bring community members together to tackle big issues.
Bob McDaniel, a retired firefighter, said as the current Jackson Township trustee, he’s familiar with setting budgets and has worked for years with the state departments that oversee county spending. He said tax breaks for businesses considering locating in Hancock County should be considered more carefully to ensure they’re benefiting the community.
Mark Lozier, a first party claims practitioner, has lived in the county for three years and said Republican blood runs in his family. He touted his ability to network with people of different backgrounds and said he’d bring a fresh perspective to local government.
Dave Roberts, a local attorney, said he wants to strengthen the community he calls home as Hancock County continues to grow. That’s accomplished by responsible budgeting and a commitment to promoting economic development, which he promised voters to bring to the council.
Ed Moore, owner of Moore’s Repair Service, said he’s eager to serve the county in a new capacity, having spent most of his life giving back to the community through nonprofit boards and other volunteer opportunities. He said it’s important the council protect taxpayers when considering major projects on the table, including a new fairgrounds and jail.
Scott Wooldridge, a local attorney, said he will lean on the expertise of others when making decisions that impact the county. If elected, he said he would work to lower local tax rates, which he said are too high compared to surrounding counties.
Across the board, candidates promised to spearhead responsible spending. Among the most hotly debated topics was the council’s history of borrowing money to fund county projects.
Bledsoe defended the council’s policies on borrowing and denied council members have taken on debt to support routine expenses. Instead, the council has borrowed to bring county facilities and projects up to date after putting off spending during the economic recession.
Craney echoed Bledsoe’s sentiments, saying he believes the current council and commissioners have borrowed money conscientiously, bonding only when it’s necessary.
Lozier defended the council’s borrowing history, saying the bond council members voted in favor of in 2015 was necessary to pay for more than $17 million of needed repairs in county buildings.
But other candidates argued the council has relied too heavily on borrowing to pay for everyday expenses county leaders should be planning and saving for.
McDaniel and Moore said county leaders shouldn’t borrow money for everyday expenses, especially when the county has healthy savings. Borrowed money should be used for funding major improvement projects.
Priore sided with McDaniel, saying the council “needs to get a backbone” and crack down on borrowing to pay for expenses that could be covered through existing funds.
Vail also echoed that sentiment, adding that borrowing often carries hidden expenses.
Langston compared the county’s borrowing practices to “a duck nibbling the taxpayers to death.” The county should leave bonding decisions to their constituents, allowing voters to have their say through a public referendum, he said.
Wooldridge and Roberts promised to consider borrowing on behalf of the county much like they do in their personal lives. They won’t vote in favor of borrowing for items that lose value over time or when the council has enough cash to cover expenses.