GREENFIELD — Public safety issues, including the county’s drug epidemic and overcrowded jail, dominated the discussion among county council candidates at a public debate Tuesday.
Five of the six council hopefuls — Republicans Kent Fisk, Debbie Bledsoe and Martha Vail; Democrat Rita Johnson and write-in candidate Zachary LaFavers — debated the issues in front of a small crowd at the Hancock County Public Library in hopes of securing votes in the Nov. 8 General Election. Democrat Randy Jones was unable to attend.
The candidates — three of whom will be elected to fill open at-large seats on the council, the county’s fiscal board — stressed the need to address space concerns at the county jail, citing finding a solution to the problem among their top priorities.
Johnson, who said taxpayers would be best served by a council with both Democrats and Republicans weighing important issues, suggested county officials should exhaust other options before moving forward with building a structure estimated to cost some $25 million. Incumbent Fisk, who told the crowd he has spent the last four years being a conscientious steward of taxpayer dollars, agreed; he pointed out the overcrowding is not a new problem, saying the inmate population tends to fluctuate from year to year. He questioned under-utilized space in the current facility, saying office and recreational space could be converted to house more inmates, a recommendation first made during former Sheriff Bud Gray’s administration (2007-10) that never moved forward.
LaFavers, a county native who said he wants to bring new leadership to the council, said local efforts should focus on the underlying problem — treating those whose drug addictions have led them to commit crimes. He questioned whether nonviolent offenders should serve jail time.
“We put away petty drug-users for two-plus years,” he said. “They have a problem; they have an addiction.”
Vail, a first-time candidate who stressed she is not a politician, echoed those sentiments, saying an increase in drug rehabilitation programs would decrease the stigma associated with addiction. Many crimes committed in Hancock County are related to drugs and have led to overpopulation in the jail, Vail said.
Bledsoe, also an incumbent, said it’s up to the county commissioners to determine the best course of action to alleviate overcrowding, with the council debating funding options only after being presented with a plan.
How to take steps to address county problems while protecting the taxpayer dollars put toward solutions was an overarching theme of the night.
The candidates discussed the council’s borrowing practices, debating when the county should seek loans.
Fisk and Bledsoe defended the council’s record, saying current members have borrowed money only to pay for large projects the county didn’t have funding to support. Fisk said the county’s debt has dropped significantly since he took office nearly four years ago, while the council has provided funding to maintain the county’s buildings.
“We do have a lot of large assets,” Fisk said. “We don’t always have cash available.”
Johnson and Vail said they want to see the council invite taxpayers to have more input when the council is deciding whether to borrow. The county has historically borrowed less than $2 million, the threshold for sending a proposal to taxpayers for a vote, when funding county projects. Vail said she’d like to see all bond proposals go before taxpayers for approval.
LaFavers said he supports borrowing for projects that make the county better.
Another debate for contested candidates in the Nov. 8 General Election is scheduled for Friday.
Hancock County Commissioner District 1 candidates Republican John Jessup and Democrat Brandon Perry will square off starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Hancock County Public Library, 900 W. McKenzie Road.