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In debate in which candidates mostly agree, they clash over road maintenance

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Goodwill gesture: Brad Armstrong (left) and Mike Merlau shake hands at the conclusion of their debate Wednesday night at Hancock County Public Library. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Goodwill gesture: Brad Armstrong (left) and Mike Merlau shake hands at the conclusion of their debate Wednesday night at Hancock County Public Library. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Candidates for Hancock County Commissioner don’t see eye to eye on how to repair roads over the next four years with decreasing state funding.

Republican Brad Armstrong and Democratic challenger Mike Merlau debated on economic development, infrastructure and transparency in an hour-long debate at Hancock County Public Library Wednesday.

The pair agreed on most issues, but when it came to one of the toughest subjects elected officials have had to face in recent years, incumbent Armstrong defended his efforts to oversee roadwork while Merlau said not enough has been done.

“I haven’t really seen a (road maintenance) strategy myself. It’s kind of happy-go-lucky, I think,” said Merlau, a 49-year-old farmer.

Merlau said he’d like to implement impact fees on new residential buildings to put more money into road repairs.

“I just think there’s a lot of waste in how we fix our roads, there’s a lot of slop in how we do things,” he said.

Armstrong, a 42-year-old businessman, acknowledged that roadwork is something he’d like to get a better handle on. Still, he defended the fact that commissioners have set up a citizen advisory committee on how county roadways should be maintained. Roads are also rated on a five-point scale, but he said for every $1 for the highway department, 75 cents goes to salaries, buildings and equipment.

“I think the alarm bells have rung; people realize we need to find more funding,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong promoted a plan to change income taxes for next year. By keeping the total amount of income taxes the same but switching where the money goes, Armstrong said that could have meant a $900,000 boost in funding for roads.  The Indiana Department of Revenue did not approve that plan, but the county council Wednesday decided to draw $600,000 from cash reserves for roads next year. Armstrong said that will help with paving; many county roads have been maintained with chip and seal as a way to save money in recent years.

Candidates are vying for the third district seat. Both ran for the seat four years ago for the first time. Armstrong won and is hoping for a second term.

The third district seat represents citizens in the southern part of the county, but all Hancock County voters vote on the position. Commissioner Tom Stevens, R-District 1, is unopposed this year and Derek Towle, R-District 2, won a four-year term in 2010.

Both Armstrong and Merlau oppose the roundabout project on Mt. Comfort Road, saying it’s too expensive.

Armstrong said while originally he thought plans for the multi-lane project “looked pretty shiny,” the more research he did and the more opponents he talked to, the more he realized he would have to vote against it.

“It’s your job to listen,” he said. “You are a representative of your constituents. You need to do what you deem best, but when that loud of a voice weighs in you have to listen.”

Merlau said more money should be invested in Mt. Comfort Road south of U.S. 40. He thinks another interchange on Interstate 70 would alleviate traffic congestion on the north side of Greenfield.

Both also opposed the proposed $2 million bond issue which would have purchased new vehicles for the highway department. The issue was voted down Wednesday by the county council.

On the agribusiness ordinance and how to balance the rights of property owners with neighbors, Armstrong said the new rules were set up to help businesses that attract visitors to the community.

The issue has become controversial lately because of activities proposed by Piney Acres that have been turned down by the county. A haunted loft, for example, was denied because it does not relate directly to agriculture. Armstrong was one of the two commissioners earlier this month that said the ordinance needs to be revisited.

Merlau, however, said officials must consider everybody in a neighborhood when it comes to when to allow activities. Because it is a new ordinance, he doesn’t think it should be changed right away.

“The way it was handled was done right,” Merlau said. “I’m pro-Easter egg hunt too, but I’ve never seen a rabbit lay an egg so you can’t see that on a farm.”

Both candidates vowed to be accessible and transparent. Armstrong said he was against a proposed Republican caucus last month that would have shut out the public to hearing a discussion on government finances.

“Morally and ethically, that was not the right thing to do,” he said. “You have to be transparent in county government.”

The meeting was eventually opened to the public.

Merlau acknowledged that he could be the only elected Democrat in county government. He said he doesn’t think it’s ever a good idea to meet in private, regardless of whether a caucus allowed as a loophole in the state’s Open Door Law.

“I really have problems with political parties strategizing against other political parties at the expense of taxpayers,” Merlau said. “I truly wish we could work together as hard as what some people think we work apart…. At the end of the day, it’s not about the party, it’s about the people.”

About 25 people came to the event, mostly friends or family of the candidates.

A few, however, showed up to learn more about how to vote for the Nov. 6 election.

“I’d like to vote for both of them, but unfortunately I can’t do that,” said Dietrich Wodarz, who said he doesn’t like how Hancock County is mostly a one-party community.

Jan Brown, a local tea party member, said she supports Armstrong for his conservative stance on spending, but she also wants to see more out of the candidates. She said recently it seems like decisions are made at the county level without a lot of research. She would also like to see more communication with constituents.

“We’re not averse to spending money, but we want to see it be done wisely,” Brown said.

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