GREENFIELD — Republican hopefuls for Hancock County Council met Monday night for a debate where topics ranged from the new jail facility to county finances.
Will Ronan, Jim Shelby and Randy Sorrell tackled several pressing issues currently facing the county as a way to pitch themselves to voters with just two weeks to go before the primary election May 8.
Ronan is challenging Shelby for the District 3 seat, while Sorrell, the incumbent of District 2, is being challenged by Mary Noe, the current Hancock County Assessor.
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Noe was not at the debate. Members of the county’s debate committee said Noe had informed them well in advance of the debate that she had a personal commitment and would be unable to attend.
No Democrats have currently filed for either seat.
Not unlike the previous debates during the primary season, one of the main points of discussion centered around the proposed $55 million criminal justice facility and the referendum question asking voters if the county can raise property taxes in order to pay for part of the price tag.
All three candidates mentioned the criminal justice center and determining how to pay for it were key issues for them.
All three were asked how they might propose going forward if the referendum is rejected and property taxes could not be used to help pay for the center.
Sorrell said regardless of what happens, the criminal justice center needs to move forward. He said if the property tax increase is taken off the table, changes to the current plan will have to be made.
“At that point, you’ve got to start saying, if we’ve lost 50 percent of our funding mechanism, how much do we want to put on income tax?” Sorrell said. “Maybe sharpen our pencils a little bit.”
Ronan agreed that the project needs to move forward if voters reject the referendum or not.
“This is something I want to make sure gets done,” Ronan said. “We’ve got to get it done, we’ve got to work with what we have, what we’ve been dealt.”
Shelby said a no on the referendum would mean at least a 12-month moratorium on raising property taxes to help pay for the jail and other improvements. He said that delay would give the county time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new project that would be less expensive. A plan that featured a robust push toward mental health and addiction rehabilitation would be something he would like to see, he said.
The bulk of the audience questions also centered on the jail, including where the candidates thought the jail should be built and how the new facility should be designed.
The candidates were careful to not step on the toes of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners when it came to where the new jail building should go in light of the results of a recent soil survey, which showed the original site would make the proposed structure cost-prohibitive to build. Sorrell said there were separation of powers in county government for a reason and the commissioners were charged with coming up with a plan.
As far as how the facility should be designed, the candidates said the new jail should be effective but not an overwhelming burden to the taxpayers.
Shelby once again reiterated his desire to see a focus on low-security incarceration, which he said would cost taxpayers less than keeping detainees in higher-security cells. Ronan said the county should ensure the new facility includes plenty of room before the county is hit with a lawsuit for providing poor conditions for the inmates.
The county council’s main job is to handle the county’s finances, so a large number of the questions focused on how the candidates felt about certain financial situations.
Two questions fielded by all three candidates centered on how to promote and entice new businesses into Hancock County and if any of the candidates were in favor of using tax abatements to draw more businesses to the county.
Shelby and Sorrell both said the county needs to be — and is — judicious in how often and to whom they give tax abatements. Shelby said he didn’t want to see Hancock County continue to bring in more box stores, but he would rather see manufacturing jobs come to the county.
Sorrell said it may seem like the council gives out a lot of tax abatements, but the public doesn’t get to see the requests that get squashed on a fairly regular basis.
Ronan said he isn’t much of a fan of tax abatements at all because it diminishes the county’s overall tax base. He said if the right company wanted to build a huge warehouse and bring thousands of jobs to the county, then he would consider a tax abatement.
The candidates closed with one last pitch to voters on why they should receive the GOP nomination and be on the General Election ballot.
Ronan pushed himself as a new, fresh voice in Hancock County, one who knew best how to lead the county into the future.
Shelby told the audience he had the necessary experience from his business career and 17 years on the county council to best serve the county in a fiscally conservative manner.
Sorrell, who has twice been caucused onto the council to fill a vacant seat, said he wants to continue to serve his constituents of McCordsville and Buck Creek Township and work on improving the Mt. Comfort corridor for everyone who takes that stretch of road.