Reporter Annie Goeller interviewed candidates for Johnson County commissioner on a wide range of issues. Use these pages as a guide to help you make your voting decision.
ABOUT THE CANDIDATE
Name: Ron West
Work: Self-employed business owner
Political experience: Johnson County Council for 12 years
Family: Wife, Gina; five children
Memberships: Masonic Lodge past master, Scottish Rite, Shrine, Farm Bureau, Rotary Club and Elks Lodge
ABOUT THE OFFICE
County commissioner District 3
Represents: White River, Pleasant and Clark townships
Duties: Oversee daily operations of county offices, approve county ordinances and development and oversee employee benefits and rules
Pay: $23,095 per year
Term: Four years
What about your background or experience makes you the most qualified candidate to serve as Johnson County commissioner?
Has been a self-employed businessman since 1961, and manages people and money. Has served almost 12 years on the county council, which prepared him for being commissioner. Has been involved in all aspects of county government through the county budgeting process, which deals with many details of departments and their budgets.
What is the top issue facing Johnson County? How will you address it?
The lack of adequate funding to do what the county needs to do. The county is going to be adding a new court and other needs for services will come up. How the county will deal with those is going to be a difficult task, at least for now. Is still looking into highway funding, and still believes a fuel tax would do more good for highway funding.
What is the role of a county commissioner? What role does a commissioner play in the day-to-day functions of the county?
Commissioner is the executive branch of government, and is in charge of the county’s properties, enters into contracts and has general oversight of employee benefits and personnel manuals. Also sees commissioners as the office of coordination in developing efficiencies and coordinating county office’s efforts. Wants to look at those issues in more detail. Has ideas on how the county can work as a unit more efficiently, including creating a worker pool where offices share employees during down times and avoid part-time and overtime spending.
The person who currently fills this office works at the county almost full time. Would you continue that practice? Is that necessary?
Doesn’t know it would be necessary to work full time. The job will take a lot of time in the beginning and will likely require being there almost daily. The county has two other commissioners, and he will need to see how much time they will spend at county offices. A commissioner needs to develop good department managers, and to get to the point of them doing their job and then just coordinate. As a business owner, he has learned that if he has to be there a lot, then he doesn’t have the right people in place.
Under the current law, the commissioners would make a key vote on the future of White River Township and whether it should become its own town. Do you support forming a town of Center Grove? Why or why not? How should the most populated area of the county receive its government services?
Doesn’t know what services residents are looking for they don’t currently have, except for more control over planning and development. He strongly supports having the issue go to referendum and has talked with state lawmakers about that issue. Was surprised commissioners had that much say over that many people. Residents should be able to oversee how their tax money is spent. What the county is doing now is working well. Right now, all communities are in need of more road and street money. The area doesn’t have a crime issue, has one of best fire department and school systems in the state and is close to hospitals. Development has been stymied now with the future of Interstate 69, but that is where focus is for having more businesses coming in.
How should the county make additional budget cuts? Would you support laying off county employees or offering another early retirement to help balance budget shortfalls?
Early retirement is one option. When the county did an early retirement and hiring freeze, they had some departments that lost four or five people, like maintenance and parks, and weren’t allowed to replace them. That hampers their ability to do their work. Would support another early retirement, but believes there are other efficiencies and savings. The criminal justice system consumes 75 percent of the county’s budget and that area continues to grow, and that is an area where the county has very little flexibility in funding. Society needs to look at that as a whole, and how much taxpayers will pay to support that system.
The county was recently approved to get a new court in 2015. How should the expenses of this court, estimated to be about $250,000 per year, be paid for?
Thinks $250,000 is too low, thinks the court will cost more than that. The cost for the new court might have to come from the county’s savings at first. Once the new court starts, the caseload should decrease in other courts by 15 to 20 percent. The county might save money in part-time and overtime expenses, which could be used to help fund the new court. County has also been talking about more user fees that can be charged for services, such as the county keeping the money from traffic tickets. Maybe some of that money could also fund the new court. The courts do a great job of trying to recover as much money as they can, but so many people are indigent, and have no means to repay, so it is hard to collect.
Voters turned down an expansion of the county jail, but overcrowding is still a problem. What should be done to address jail overcrowding? Do you support a jail expansion?
That is a need the county is behind the curve on. The jail will have to be expanded at some point in the future, but he is not sure how soon. Wants to concentrate on expanding community corrections and finding a more suitable facility for the work-release program. The program has a lot of cost savings compared to locking people up in jail. Hopes that will also bring some relief to the jail. Sheriff is doing well at keeping numbers in the jail low, but eventually the county is going to have to do something to add more bed space. The project will not necessarily have to cost $10 million or more.
A committee of county officials is discussing a new or renovated facility for the community corrections building, which mainly houses offenders on work release. Do you believe this program should be expanded? Why or why not?
Believes the program should be expanded. That is an area where all governments will need to look going forward. Work release incorporates training and getting the people a skill level so they can be a productive part of society. There will always be some people who have to be locked up. Society is dealing with so many crimes today; somewhere down the line they will have to do a better job of trying to rehabilitate people.
Are you in favor of an income tax increase to pay for county services? Do you favor increasing the county income tax or any other tax? Why or why not?
Does not favor a tax increase. Is opposed to a local income tax for lots of reasons. Under state law, the county has to approve a tax for property tax relief, but the big question is who gets the relief. The relief can go to homeowners, renters and businesses, and some will benefit more than others. That becomes a problem, and the county has struggled with that question since the tax was introduced. The law also requires the county to start charging the tax at a higher level in order to have a reserve. With people struggling in the economy, higher gas prices and utilities and the cost of living, it’s not wise to do that right now. People are already taxed too much. In between local, state and federal taxes, that is a lot of money coming out of people’s pockets. We need to be better stewards of that money, and make sure it is going where it should.
Do you support the wheel tax? If not, how else should road work be funded?
Is adamantly opposed to the wheel tax because it is punitive and discriminative. Taxes the people who don’t use the roads a lot at the same rate as someone who does use them a lot. The tax applies to vehicles like light trailer or recreational vehicles that are hardly ever on the road. Once the tax was adopted, it stymied any other option the county might be able to come up with to get adequate funding for roads. Used to talk with lawmakers about the fuel tax, but now they say the county already has the wheel tax. Supports a 2 to 5 cent gallon fuel tax. With gas prices fluctuating daily, the tax is not noticeable and is not enough to deter people from buying gas in the county. A fuel tax would also capture money from people passing through at the truck stops off Interstate 65. The fuel tax would bring in more than the wheel tax, and taxpayers would pay less. A fuel tax is also a user tax, which he supports.
What parts of county government could be consolidated or eliminated or privatized to save money?
Wants to sidestep that a little bit now. Needs to get into office and spend time at the county each day election before he could make that kind of determination. There are some ideas to look at, but is easy being on the outside looking in to say what should be done. Once you get inside, you see the issues, and it may not be quite as easy. That is an area that needs further study.
Should Johnson County Park remain open and paid for by taxpayers at its current level? Why or why not?
Is a big park supporter. Said park needs to stay open, and be supported with tax dollars. Argument for years has been that taxpayers deserve something viewed as recreation or something they can participate in for their money. Johnson County Park is a major asset; people in the county don’t realize it. The park has good potential to raise revenue. The county could spend a little money to enhance that facility, and had considered borrowing money for that work. The park board along with the department manager made some major changes in the budget and significant reductions. Taxpayers still get the benefit of that facility with fewer tax dollars. If people haven’t been to the park, they need to tour it. Is great for equestrian activities.
What should the county do with the land left after the houses in the flood buyout are torn down? Right now, the county has asked neighboring landowners for help with mowing the properties. How will maintaining that land be paid for long-term?
That comes out of the maintenance budget. The county is contracting to have that work done. FEMA requires the county to keep the land perpetually. That doesn’t make sense. Makes logical sense to have the neighboring landowners buy the properties. The county would get whatever money it gets, and it is better to let someone have the land, maintain it and use it, than to have the county pay to maintain it indefinitely. First wants to talk with neighbors and see if they want to use the properties and maintain them.