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Roads, spending among key issues in commissioner's race

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GREENFIELD — Commissioner Derek Towle’s two challengers say much more can be done to improve roads and spending in county government, but the incumbent is pointing to success during his eight years in office.

Towle is seeking a third term, while challengers Marc Huber and Richard Walker say change is needed to better the community’s infrastructure and plan for the county’s economic future. In the race for the District 2 Republican nomination, it will be up to voters May 6 to decide who can best serve the community as a member of the county’s executive branch.

Former childhood neighbors, Towle and Huber don’t see eye-to-eye on several critical issues that have come up in the past few years. Huber currently serves on the Hancock County Council but says he’d rather serve in the branch that makes executive decisions before the council has to fund them.

“I think overall Derek’s done a lot for the community in his public service to the police department. I think Derek’s a good person; I just don’t agree with some of his viewpoints on helping guide the county,” Huber said. “There’s nothing personal there; I just don’t agree with a few of the things he went right along with.”

While Towle stands in favor of the roundabout at Mt. Comfort Road and CR 300N, saying it will be a safe intersection to better prepare the area for economic growth, Huber has been vocal against it. Huber says the county shouldn’t be a guinea pig for such an intersection. He said other communities around Indianapolis have grown their commercial corridors just fine with traditional intersections.

“Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t,” Huber said. “But why do we want to put taxpayers’ money in a situation where we … don’t know if it’ll work?”

The roundabout has been the most heated issue in the last few years in county government, not only because residents and neighbors were critical of it, but because several elected officials questioned why so much money was being spent on a new multilane circle when other roads in the county are in disrepair. Proponents argue the expansion of Mt. Comfort Road is the best bet for furthering growth around the Indianapolis Regional Airport; skeptics don’t see the need.

In 2012, Huber said his view on the roundabout cost him his seat on the county’s planning commission, though Towle and fellow Commissioner Tom Stevens were unclear as to why they didn’t reappoint him to the board at the time. Regardless, Huber says it’s too late to change plans for the roundabout. Ground will be broken on the project within weeks.

Meanwhile, Walker, a Jackson Township farmer, is also skeptical about the roundabout. Walker is concerned about truck traffic making its way through the circular intersection, and he says overall roads throughout the county need to be better maintained.

It’s the gravel roads around his rural farm that prompted Walker to sign up to run for the commissioner seat. This week, he said he’s realizing the job is about more than just infrastructure. Commissioners also deal with building maintenance, drainage, insurance, employee policy and more.

“When I signed up for that, I should have got a job description,” Walker said. “County commissioners – you think of them as looking after roads and things like that; drainage. There’s a lot more involved than that.”

Walker hopes as commissioner he can bring better maintenance to the county’s eastern rural communities.

“I’m learning as I go. I won’t know anything about it exactly until I get the job,” he said.

While the District 2 race is only for candidates who live in the central part of the county, all voters may cast a ballot in the race.

All three candidates say they have the professional background needed for the part-time job. A political newcomer, Walker, 67, is a former reserve sheriff’s deputy and part-time hospital security officer. As a grain farmer, he says he has experience in maintenance and running a small business.

“I’m older,” Walker said about what makes him best qualified for the role. “Hopefully I would bring some wisdom and common sense to the board.”

Towle, 49, is traffic safety officer for the Greenfield Police Department and says over the years, public safety issues have been his forte on the board of commissioners. Towle helped set up the Emergency Operations Center, for example, and recently led an effort to upgrade equipment there and throughout the county’s public safety units.

Huber, 39, owns local trucking company Huber Enterprises and has a background in building maintenance, insurance and construction. 

Though roadwork has certainly been at the forefront of county officials’ minds in the past few years, so has general maintenance and spending for government buildings and offices.

Bond issues for county expenses have come up each of the past three years. In 2012, officials debated whether to take out a $2 million bond to pay mostly for new trucks at the county highway department.

Towle voted in favor of the bond, saying it would free up money for road maintenance. Huber, then a candidate for county council, was publicly against the bond and helped form an equipment committee to study when big-ticket items at the highway department should be replaced. The bond was ultimately turned down.

“It’s very tough, and it’s something you have to look at on a case-by-case basis,” Towle said of bond issues.

Towle went on to vote against the bond issue in 2013 that was spent on various county expenses. Huber also voted against it, but the bond was ultimately approved.

Both Towle and Huber said large capital expenses are bound to come up again in the near future, and they advocate for planning ahead to make sure there are few surprises along the way.

“Nobody has a crystal ball, but you’ve got to get out there five years or seven years at least with a game plan,” Huber said.

Towle says he always thinks about his own family when coming to decisions on borrowing money for county expenses. He doesn’t want property taxes to be raised, he said, but he tries to look at the overall picture of what’s best for the community.

Towle argues that the county is in better shape now than it was eight years ago, despite a deep recession and funding woes because of property tax reform. Towle points out that the commissioners are working better now with the county council than at any time in the past eight years. Both branches have been working on a capital improvement plan for the county to prioritize major expenses, but Huber is disappointed at how long the process is taking.

Huber says he’s thought about running for commissioner three or four years now, but people encouraged him to run for county council in 2012. While he’s enjoyed serving on the council, which has seven members, he’s also been frustrated at not being able to bring about enough change toward conservative government spending.

“I enjoy the council and I think it’s very important, but sometimes I feel like you get put behind the eight ball and there’s really been no choice,” Huber said. “Maybe I view myself as more conservative than some of the others, possibly. I try to be open-minded and all, and I don’t want to see progress stopped, but I want to see things done in a responsible and conservative manner.”

But Towle points to many successes over the last eight years. He ran for office hoping to provide a good tax climate for companies to locate to the area and hoping eventually his children would want to come back to a prosperous community with good-paying jobs.

“My goal hasn’t changed any in the eight years, but I still want to continue doing that,” Towle said. “People have asked me, ‘Why am I running again?’ I tell them, ‘I think there’s some unfinished business we need to be working toward.’”

Towle says the downturn in the economy mixed with the high cost of materials has made it difficult to keep up on road maintenance; several rural roads have been turned to gravel under his tenure. Still, he says now the council and commissioners are finding ways to prioritize roadwork.

Roadwork ties directly with economic development, Towle added. The commissioners’ role in business growth is providing the infrastructure that companies need, he said, and officials need to make sure the county’s zoning ordinances are well-suited for growth.

“Hancock County has done a very good job at trying to keep costs to a minimum still without having to raise a lot of taxes,” Towle said.

Huber also wants to ensure economic growth for the county, but he says local officials need to better plan for major capital expenses without turning to a bond issue every time.

“You’re going to spend money, you’re going to have to develop new areas, you’re going to have to look to the future,” Huber said. “But you’re still going to have to stay conservative. You have to take care of your necessities and plan for your wants.”

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