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County council candidates divided on debt issue


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ELECTION 2012

ABOUT THIS STORY

This is one in an occasional series of stories profiling races that will be on the Hancock County ballot on Nov. 6. See comments side by side in our candidate grid; you can also hear the candidates' comments in their own words by watching the videos at www.greenfieldreporter.com; click on the "Video" tab.

 

GREENFIELD — All four candidates running for Hancock County Council are against a controversial $2 million bond, but they have different philosophies on whether the county should take on additional debt in the future.

The proposed bond has caused a divide among Hancock County council members and commissioners. The bond would take the place of a $9.3 million bond that will soon be paid off.

The county highway department had originally planned to lease 12 new dump trucks over a seven-year period. But proponents of the bond say if the trucks are bought outright at $1.7 million, it would free up $260,000 every year in the highway department’s accounts to buy asphalt and maintain roads.

Opponents, however, argue that debt is debt, and taxpayers deserve a break.

“I’m not going to say I’m necessarily opposed to bonding things,” said candidate Marc Huber, who has spoken against the bond in two recent meetings. “Bonds are probably as cheap as they’ve ever been, but I just think they need to be well-thought-out and (be) for… projects that are really needed.”

Huber, a 38-year-old owner of a trucking company, is one of three Republicans vying for the three at-large spots on the council. Republicans Kent Fisk and Debbie Bledsoe are also running, having secured the GOP nominations in an eight-way race last spring. Democrat Earl Smith is also on the ballot; all four candidates are seeking countywide office for the first time. Fisk has served 2½ terms on the Greenfield-Central School Board.

No matter who wins, the makeup of the council will change significantly with three new faces. Leaving the council will be Brian Kirkwood and Rosalie Richardson, who did not seek re-election; and Joe Skvarenina, who lost in the primary.

Huber was the only candidate to speak at recent public meetings about the bonds, though all four were at the Aug. 23 joint council-commissioners meeting where the idea was first publicly brought up. The bond, which would also pay for new aerial photography, a vehicle for the county surveyor and the paving of the annex parking lot, is back before the county council for approval.

Huber says a couple of trucks should be bought every year with the funds the county already has. This is the second year in a row a bond issue has come before county officials and members of the public have balked at it. Huber acknowledges that even if the council votes on the bond before he would take office, the county’s debt levels will probably come up again.

“The money is about as cheap as you can get right now, interest rates and all,” he said. “I know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get more money on the roads. But the items they’re wanting to bond, does it outweigh the reduction the taxpayers would see (in their property tax bills) vs. reinstating a $2 million bond?”

Fisk said he, too, is not keen on the idea of a bond for new trucks. Still, he’s not against bonding altogether and says overall the county’s debt is decreasing as officials borrow less money after the more expensive bonds are paid off.

“It’s unrealistic to think there are no new projects that need to be done by bonding in the future,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that would never happen, because there are things that have to be done. Whether that’s buying trucks so you can free up other money to pave roads, that’s one way to do it. But I’m probably right now not in favor of doing a lot of extra bonding.”

Fisk, 49, is vice president of Fisk Services. He says the people who have spoken against the bond in public meetings – mostly those associated with the tea parties – don’t carry a lot of credibility with him. Several of them spoke against building projects during his tenure on the G-C school board.

“Those people are just unreasonable in what they expect for you to provide,” he said. “They’re going to be there complaining about everything, even things that are most necessary, and that’s why it’s hard for me to look at some of them as having a lot of credibility.”

Bledsoe, a 59-year-old housewife, said she would look into other options, such as leasing or a loan within county government, if she were on the county council.

She said the county does not need to increase spending, regardless of whether the plan would free up money for roadwork.

“I need to look a little further, but I think we have monies that can be used for asphalt,” she said. “We don’t have to do the whole county in one year, but I feel like there’s money there somewhere that we can do roads.”

Smith, a 51-year-old dairy farmer, says the county shouldn’t be bonding.

“We should work within our own budgets,” he said.

A bond is expensive with interest rates and legal fees, Smith said, and the expense doesn’t justify the few miles of roads that could be paved if the highway department funds are freed up.

“(Bond issues) are going to come up, and it just depends on the projects they try to do,” Smith said. “There’s a right time to do things, and there’s a wrong time to do things. It’s just something that’s going to have to be weighed out.”

Smith, the lone Democrat in the race, acknowledges his stance is conservative. Still, he said his farming background gives him the philosophy to buy new equipment on an as-needed basis when the money is available.

All four candidates are gearing up for the election. They all plan to meet voters at the Riley Festival next week, and all four also have a list of priorities if they are elected to office.

Smith says he will make it a priority to move the county toward a merit-based pay system for employees. Highway department employees, for example, could be rewarded if they take care of their vehicles, which could reduce the frequency of purchasing new ones.

Smith also wants to make sure old ordinances for planning and businesses are updated. While he acknowledges that’s not a primary responsibility of the county’s fiscal branch, he says he will look into it as an elected official.

Bledsoe said her No. 1 priority is keeping an eye on spending.

“(I want to) be fair to taxpayers, and that includes the employees,” Bledsoe said. “We just need to be honest with them and find some way to cut back on spending. For instance, these bonds. I need to look further into what’s happened in the past and see if the bonds are really needed.”

Fisk said finding money for road maintenance is a priority. He also wants to research where Hancock County stands as far as the number of employees and efficiencies compared to other counties of similar size and income. He said that will give the council a good starting point in deciding whether the county can become more efficient.

Huber’s goal is to make sure government is “100 percent transparent,” and he encourages people to attend meetings and get involved. He also wants county officials to work better together, and also plan ahead in planning how to spend the public’s money.

“It seems like we’re always just putting out fires,” Huber said. “I’d like to see more of a plan.”

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