If there’s anything which needs to change in Howard County government, the candidates at the county council and commissioners debates Wednesday weren’t saying it.
With the county jail paid off and the county’s 1.4 percent income tax rate bringing in plenty of revenue, the seven candidates sharing the stage at Maple Crest Middle School united in praise of the county.
Even where the county government has no role — as in the city’s street and sewer improvements in Indian Heights — the five Republican candidates for Howard County Council at-large seats suggested things are fine.
“Something should have been worked out between the commissioners and the council, but it’s being handled,” at-large candidate Jim Papacek said of what Kokomo Perspective publisher Don Wilson called “the debacle at Indian Heights.”
“I’m not going to say there was nothing wrong, but it’s being done. We’re moving on,” at-large candidate Clee Oliver said.
Ted Cain, the county highway engineer who used construction barrels as permanent traffic controls at the Heights entrance, drew effusive praise from the council candidates.
“He did what he thought was right there for the safety of the people who live there,” candidate Art Fross said, before suggesting Cain was “behind” the city’s reconstruction of the Arrowhead Boulevard/Center Road intersection.
Oliver, Papacek, Fross, Jay Martin and incumbent at-large members Jeff Stout and Stan Ortman are all seeking one of the three Republican spots on the November ballot. Paul Munoz is the only announced candidate on the Democrat side.
Martin was absent Wednesday, while all the other candidates were present at the GOP debate.
In the other debate, former commissioner Brad Bagwell and former Howard County Coroner Brad Bray tilted for the Republican nomination in the Commissioner District 1 race. Incumbent Democrat Bill Thompson has said he won’t seek re-election.
The commissioner debate had a bit of tension early on, as Bagwell made mention of the fact both Bray and Bray’s wife Polly work for the city, in response to a Wilson query as to whether Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight was opposing Bagwell and helping Bray’s campaign.
“I know from past discussions with Brad and Polly that they couldn’t necessarily say what they wanted to say out of fear of what the mayor and the administration might do to them,” Bagwell said.
“Fear of retribution — that’s never taken place. I don’t know where that came from,” Bray said.
“I thought that in an election, spouses were off limits,” Bray added, noting that his wife worked for the city before he did, and has worked under both Democrat and Republican mayors.
But like the previous council debate, the commissioners debate produced little in the way of disagreement on the issues.
Support for the Nickel Plate Trail, a preference for bonuses for county employees, rather than raises, support for keeping all of the county’s roads paved and resistance to cutting the number of county employees were stances shared by all of the candidates.
The biggest issue between Bray and Bagwell might have been the use of county economic development funds to pay county employees’ salaries.
Bagwell was in favor, saying having an efficient county government served as an aid to economic development.
“Economic development can’t happen without people working the system,” Bagwell said.
“We should use it to embrace the amenities we have — parks, trails, the reservoir,” Bray said.
On the council side, Fross stood out from the rest of the pack by questioning the council’s appropriation of money for the Nickel Plate Trail project.
“I’m not sure I’m for it because of the economy of the county, because the city has taken the county’s property away,” Fross said, referring to annexation. “There are lots of other trails to be used.”
Stout probably did the best job defending the county’s “hiring freeze,” which has yet to reduce the county’s employment numbers, despite being in effect for the past three years.
“I’d call it a thaw, rather than a freeze,” Papacek quipped, while Ortman said department heads were still “grilled pretty hard” about each position they argued shouldn’t be subject to the freeze.
“You cannot cut people to where they cannot do their duties,” Ortman said.
Stout estimated the county has eliminated about six positions since the freeze started, although it appears those positions have been more than counterbalanced by new positions added elsewhere.
“Even six employees, at $30,000 apiece, plus benefits ... that’s a quarter of a million dollars,” Stout said.
• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via email at scott.smith@ kokomotribune.com