Candidates weigh in on fairgrounds agreement

HANCOCK COUNTY — The candidates running for three at-large Hancock County Council seats agree that county officials should lead the proposed fairgrounds project but would differ in their approach to building consensus among the groups that have reached a stalemate.

Progress on reaching an agreement among the county council, agriculture association and board of commissioners has stalled as officials debate who should dictate how the $18 million proposed to support the project is spent.

Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, the candidates running for positions on the county’s fiscal body weighed in, offering potential solutions for moving the project forward. At least one candidate called for better communication between elected officials and taxpayers, while another argued it’s too early to make decisions at all when no funding has been generated for the project.

Voters will elect three of the six candidates running for the seats. On the ballot are incumbents Debbie Bledsoe and Kent Fisk and Martha Vail, all Republicans; and Rita Johnson and Randy Jones, both Democrats. Zachary LaFavers is running as a write-in candidate.

Candidates interviewed by the Daily Reporter say they support the county’s plan to increase its food and beverage tax — paid by diners at local restaurants — by 1 percent to help fund the project. The increase would generate an estimated $12 million over 20 years, funding the council would be charged with overseeing.

Johnson said the groups involved need to find a compromise if the new fairgrounds project has any hope of a future. The groups need to be openly communicating with one other and with taxpayers, she said, pointing to a year of bickering among county officials.

“If we don’t communicate and continue to communicate, we’re going to get nowhere,” she said. “We’re fighting each other.”

Fisk said some of the ongoing debates are premature. He said believes decisions about who determines where certain buildings are constructed and when should wait until funding is secured. He hopes the project doesn’t completely stall because officials can’t find a compromise.

“We’re really too early to be squabbling over details,” Fisk said. “We don’t have any funding. That still could be a few years out.”

He suggested oversight of the project be left to the nonprofit board — made up of elected officials and other community stakeholders — originally charged with guiding the project.

Right now, the tentative agreement among the county commissioners, council and agricultural association calls for county officials to lease land to the agriculture association only if it raises $6 million needed to fund the project.

Bledose and Vail said the three groups should share responsibility for directing the project, which 4-H leaders say could be used to support the yearly youth program while serving as a venue for other events throughout the year.

No single group should make all the decisions, Vail said.

“If they’re using taxpayer dollars, the commissioners and the council should definitely have a voice in this,” Vail said.

The agriculture association should be raising the remaining money needed to support the project, Vail said. She doesn’t want to see any additional tax dollars go toward funding it.

Write-in candidate Zachary LaFavers said he doesn’t want to see county taxes increase to support the project. He’d rather the council consider giving $2 to $4 million to the project, rather than $12 million from a tax increase, leaving the agriculture association to raise the rest.

One private entity shouldn’t receive 100 percent of the funding created by a tax increase, he said. Two million dollars to $4 million is a reasonable county contribution since the public does visit the fairgrounds throughout the year for various events, he said.

But the scope of the project is too big, LaFavers said, and he believes a new fairgrounds can be built for less than $18 million.

If tax dollars are going to be used, the council and commissioners need to be involved in decisions in order to be accountable to taxpayers, he said. The council, he said, needs to be directly involved in the planning and construction process.

Democrat Randy Jones did not return multiple calls for comment.

At a glance

County Council At-Large

The Bledsoe file

Name: Debbie Bledsoe


Age: 63
Party: Republican
Office sought: County council at-large
Occupation: Retired
Political experience: One term on the Hancock County Council
Family: Husband Clint, two children, six grandchildren

The Fisk file

Name: Kent Fisk


Age: 53
Party: Republican
Office sought: County council at-large
Occupation: President of Fisk Services Inc.
Political experience: One term on the Hancock County Council; 12 years on the Greenfield-Central School Board
Family: Wife Kim, three daughters, two grandchildren

The Johnson file

Name: Rita Johnson57e05822397fe.hires
Age: 55
Party: Democratic
Office sought: County council at-large
Occupation: Retired
Political experience: None
Family: Husband Randy, four children, 13 grandchildren

The Vail file

Name: Martha Vail57e0562b910f4.hires
Age: 74
Party: Republican
Office sought: County council at-large
Occupation: Retired
Political experience: None
Family: Husband Bill, three children, eight grandchildren

Why do you want to be on county council?

Bledsoe: I feel I give a different point of view than the other council members. Sometimes I agree, and other times, I have a different opinion.

Fisk: Raised in a family where both grandfathers and father served as sheriff reserves and then my father went on to be a county councilman, I learned early in life of the value in serving our community. I have been blessed to serve in the past and now feel that, with my experience, I can continue to be an essential asset to the council and Hancock County. Our community still faces many challenges with income growth, adequate road funding and public safety.

Johnson: As I have become more active in the community, I can see that there should be some balance on the council with both parties represented, along with more women on the council. I want to see a more transparent accountability within the council and commissioners.

Vail: With a better understanding of how the council as a whole operates, I would then be in a position to further my objective of being the voice who listens to issues presented by the voters. I’m not a politician but a Christian first. I have never run for a political office, but my interest in the local and national politics has sparked me to take action and become involved. I have been attending many local town and county council meetings to feel out the community’s desires.

What makes you the most qualified candidate for the position?

Bledsoe: I’m about to finish my first term as a council member. I have listened to all sides of an issue and made the best decision for the residents of our county. I also know that some constituents do not agree with me. That’s OK. I feel I have been honest with the voters.

Fisk: As a lifelong resident of Hancock County, I have served our community in many ways. After graduating from Ball State University, I spent 10 years as a Hancock County sheriff’s reserve deputy. I served the next 10 years on the Greenfield-Central School Board. During my term, I served as president for two years and worked extensively at creating and maintaining the budget. In 2012, I was elected to the county council and became the fourth generation in my family to hold an elected Hancock County position, all the while managing and operating Fisk Services Inc., our family business of which I am now a co-president with my brother.

Johnson: I have an associate’s degree in public affairs, 14 years as deputy clerk of Huntington County, Indiana. Along with that, I have six years of experience in accounts payable and accounts receivable. I have the ability to make sound decisions for our community by using common sense. In the time I have lived here, I have grown to love this community and want to see it thrive with decent wages for our citizens.

Vail: For more than 28 years, I managed the business side of Vail’s Classic Cars successfully. I led a group of small business owners before the Greenfield City Council to resolve the controversy over the stormwater rates. Working together brought positive results. I come with a new, fresh perspective. I work well with others. Having an open mind is essential when seeking clarity on understanding matters brought to the council’s attention. Communicating back to the voters in their terminology and really listening is most important to me. If I can’t be of assistance, I will lead them to someone who can.

What are your top three goals for the position?

Bledsoe: 1. We have made great strides in the road repairs in the last few years, but we have a ways to go. 2. We have capital improvement that has been put off because of the past economy. The need is there, taking care of the improvements. 3. Overcrowding of the jail. The council and commissioners need to find a short- and long-term fix for the jail.

Fisk: My top three goals as a councilman have been: 1) Focusing more funding toward pavement and repair of all county roads. Since 2012, we have tripled the amount of money spent paving and repairing county roads. 2) We are attacking the heroin and meth epidemic head-on with a newly created task force, which is partnering with all of the cities in the county with one single goal of eliminating all illegal drug activity. 3) Economic development should be on everyone’s list. The county council helps create the economic environment, which allows companies to create, add and maintain secure and good-paying jobs.

Johnson: 1) Making the best financial decision for the overcrowded jail crisis. 2) I want to reach out to all of the communities and openly engage communication for the betterment of the entire county. 3) I want to ensure that tax abatements for businesses are administered in a responsible manner. Companies need to be held accountable for the tax breaks they are given.

Vail: 1) To earn the trust and respect of those who put their faith in me. 2) Work with law enforcement in helping resolve issues to better address the problem with overcrowding of the jail, repeat offenders and public safety. Their input is vital in dealing with this, and the council needs to be the eyes and ears for the general public as they work toward a long-term solution. 3) Common sense prevailing in dealing with the budget. When is bonding necessary, and just how much is needed to keep in the rainy day fund when there are pressing needs now?

What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing the county council?

Bledsoe: The drug epidemic and mental health. We need to help the jail system by allowing them to hire more officers. I also know this won’t end the problems, but I feel this is a start.

Fisk: Some of the most pressing issues facing the county council revolve around public safety. A few things we have been addressing include: long-term funding for the 911 center, increased security and personnel at the jail and courthouse, increased expenses due to a large increase in murder trials, advanced life support ambulance service instead of regular ambulance service for the whole county, aging volunteer fire department equipment and a new drug task force to combat the increase in heroin and meth issues.

Johnson: Staying within the budget they have just set. Infrastructure cost — spending money that we received from federal/state funding wisely. Jail expansion.

Vail: The most pressing issues are what to do with overcrowding of the jail and the existing drug problem encountered by so many in our community. The fairgrounds continues to be a topic of discussion as well. If problems arise on Election Day, we need to re-evaluate if electronic voting (over paper ballots) is in the best interest of the voter. Be more transparent in all matters and truthful when questioned. I pledge to listen more, talk less, learn from the past, plan for the future and live in the present.

How would you plan to address the overcrowding at the jail?

Bledsoe: We are in need of a new jail with work among the commissioners, council and advisers to find the most effective cost of a new jail and a way to use the current jail.

Fisk: Since 2000, the county jail population has been fluctuating. During Sheriff Bud Gray’s term, population numbers at the jail exceeded 200 then fell back and now are back above 200 again. At that time, a plan to renovate areas of the existing jail was discussed. This would expand the permanent capacity, eliminating the need for a new jail. There is a lot of office space and a complete lower level that currently houses no inmates. It is much cheaper to recreate these type of spaces somewhere else than to build a new facility designed to hold inmates.

Johnson: How we move forward together is the real question and not place so much burden on the taxpayers, maybe by using some of the rainy day fund in order to not have to bond the entire amount might help ease the burden. Funding needs to be handled collaboratively by the commissioners to make sound financial decisions.

Vail: Work closely with law enforcement. They are vital when discussions are being held. Take a tour of the jail to see first-hand the problems they face daily. Rehabilitating and providing mental health and substance abuse services is a step needed for helping those on a road to recovery so as not to be a repeat offender, thus freeing up needed space. Utilize all facilities if feasible. Adequate staffing must be provided to have it work properly. Public safety and the respect of our law enforcement should be a priority for all.