By DENISE GRANT
The two Republican candidates for Hancock County commissioner argued about flood control and a variety of other issues Monday at a forum held at the University of Findlay.
Incumbent Phillip Riegle and his challenger in the May 6 primary, former Commissioner Steve Oman, were competitive and combative.
Riegle aggressively defended his record in office, while raising questions about Oman’s performance as commissioner.
Oman was well prepared to answer questions posed about several county issues.
Riegle, of 22525 Delaware Township 184, is an attorney. He is finishing his second, four-year term as a commissioner.
Oman, of 13123 Hancock County 9, is a farmer. He served two terms as a commissioner before losing his seat to Ed Ingold in 2004.
He has tried twice to get it back. He ran for an open commissioner seat in 2006, losing to Riegle. He then challenged Commissioner Emily Walton in the 2008 primary election and lost.
Monday’s forum was sponsored by The Courier, WFIN-AM, WLFC-FM and UFTV at the University of Findlay. The event was moderated by Doug Jenkins, news director for WFIN.
The forum was aired by both WFIN and WLFC-FM at 6 p.m. Monday. It will be aired again at noon Friday; at 4 p.m. Sunday; and at 10 a.m. next Monday.
Flood mitigation was the dominant issue Monday.
Oman said the Blanchard River is “choking” when there is as little as 2 or 3 inches of rain.
“If we lose the battle of the river, economic development and everything else goes right with it,” he said.
Oman wants the river cleaned and dredged. He said $9 million is being spent on a flood-control study by the Army Corps of Engineers, without any money actually being spent on the river.
He likened the river to a bathtub drain. He said if the tub won’t drain, it needs to be unclogged.
“… You don’t replace the drain,” he said.
Riegle said the river is undergoing the most aggressive cleaning in its history. The project is removing trees and vegetation from islands for the first time.
Riegle said dredging is not the answer to flooding. Dredging the river could cost as much as $60 million, he said, and would only reduce the level of a 100-year flood by one-eighth of an inch. Dredging is also prohibited by the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
Oman asserted that permits could be obtained to allow dredging and said the commissioners need to push for them. Oman disputed that two environmental obstacles to dredging, the Indiana bat and mussels, “are more important than the people who live in the Blanchard River watershed.”
On other issues, the two candidates came closer to agreeing, but the forum remained contentious.
The candidates were asked to address these issues:
Riegle said 1,855 jobs have been created over the past few years in Hancock County, and more jobs are coming. He said the current board of commissioners is working diligently to be a good economic partner.
Oman touted his experience at the negotiating table.
“… People want to know what you can deliver,” he said.
City-county health department merger
Oman said the issue has “been going on forever.” He would favor the merger if the city and the District Advisory Council, which oversees the county Health Department, can cooperate.
“The less government and bureaucracy the better,” Oman said. Bottom line, the services must be provided, he said. Eventually, Oman expects the state to dictate the structure of health departments.
Riegle serves on a committee developing a merger contract. The commissioners are expected to offer Findlay a contract that would create a health department capable of serving 75,000 people. Riegle credited the current board of commissioners for making progress where previous commissioners have failed.
Most important job of the commissioners?
Oman said improving infrastructure such as roads and drainage.
Riegle said monitoring the county’s budget. He said the county is in decent financial shape, but another economic downturn would cause problems. The commissioners have established a $1 million rainy-day fund, a first for Hancock County, he said. They have also cut the budget by about 20 percent in recent years.
The opiate epidemic is also an important issue, Riegle said, one which strains both families and the criminal justice system.
Riegle said the commissioners are working to expand the landfill while keeping costs down. The landfill, at 3763 Hancock County 140, should be able to continue operating for another 40 to 50 years, he said.
Oman said the landfill needs to remain competitive in order to compete with other landfills for customers. Oman doesn’t like Hancock County’s policy of requiring trash generated within the county to be taken to the Hancock landfill. He called the policy a “government hammer.”
County office space
Oman said during his years in office, county government had a vision for office space, which included construction of a building beside the courthouse. That land, however, was sold by the current board of commissioners to private developers. His described county office planning now as haphazard.
Riegle countered by saying the county was left to scramble for office space after the flood of 2007, because previous boards of commissioners had failed to insure the county’s properties. He said county office space is now stable and accessible.