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Newcomer challenges council president

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GREENFIELD — The president of the Hancock County Council is being challenged by a candidate who vows to never vote for a tax increase.

Bruce Fleming says taxation is his primary concern in the race against incumbent councilman Bill Bolander for the GOP nomination for the council’s fourth district seat. But Bolander, seeking his sixth term, is defending his stance on spending and says the county’s fiscal health is strong.

Both are New Palestine residents; the district covers Sugar Creek and Brandywine townships. If there are no Democratic or minor party candidates slated this summer, the winner of the May 6 Republican primary election will serve the next four years.

Fleming, a political newcomer, acknowledges he doesn’t have all of the answers, but he knows one thing: He won’t vote for a spending measure that will mean higher taxes.

“I just want to get on the council; at least for four years I won’t vote for a tax increase, a bond issue, anything for four years,” he said.

When it comes to bond issues, the two couldn’t be more different. Bolander has never voted against a bond issue but says there’s a logical reason: The county needs to plan ahead for spending and prepare for a rainy day. Taking out a loan on expenses – especially when interest rates are relatively low like they are now – means the county can build up its coffers, even though county debt means higher property taxes.

“There are some people who think we should raid our funds and pay for that, but if a true emergency comes up, we are unable to meet (county needs),” Bolander said. “I’d like to think if my furnace blows up, I can write a check for it. I feel the same way (about county government): We should have reserves and financing makes more sense because you don’t want to deplete your reserves.”

Bolander, 66, has served on the county council 23 years and has been president the last four.

“I’d like to continue the work we’ve been doing,” Bolander said. “We’ve made a lot of headway coming through tough times, and we’ve got our finances in order, and I’d like to see us maintain it.”

But Fleming, 74, says his opponent has been in office too long, and it’s wrong that somebody gets re-elected time and again without having an opponent.

The last three years the council has voted on bond issues to pay for miscellaneous expenses. Bolander said the 2011 issue to pay for a lawsuit settlement and telephone services for the dispatch center was needed, as was the 2013 bond issue for miscellaneous county expenses. Bolander said the county was able to earmark more money for road maintenance by paying for other items out of bond issues.

“We were accused of moving stuff around: That was exactly what we did. We moved money around to take money on bonds, and we put more on roads,” Bolander said.

Bolander also voted in favor of the 2012 bond issue that ultimately failed. The bond would have been spent mostly on new trucks for the county highway department. Bolander was among the minority of officials who said borrowing the money would have freed up funds for road maintenance.

Overall, Bolander says he’s trying to be conservative with county expenses, while at the same time preparing a cushion for the future.

“It hasn’t been for a recreation center in the Bahamas or anything like that,” he said. “I think we’ve been pretty conservative with our money over the years.”

But Fleming has a different outlook.

“How about cutting spending?” Fleming said. “Let’s reduce government. Do we need 100 people in this position, 60 in this department? Whatever. Let’s take a look at things before we just arbitrarily vote for a tax or a bond.”

Fleming has attended only a few county council meetings in recent years, and acknowledges he doesn’t have all of the answers.

“I don’t know (where I’d trim the budget) because I’m new,” he said. “I’m learning. I don’t really know. I think you’d have to be there to know what needs to be cut.”

Fleming says though he would only be one of a seven-member board, he hopes he can work with other fiscally conservative members to make a difference.

“I’d like to go in there for four years and see what goes on, see if I can stop tax increases and see if I can help people in this county who are on a fixed income, like me.”

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