By DENISE GRANT
One thing was clear at Tuesday’s forum of candidates for Findlay City Council: Democrats want to be represented in city government, and the Republican candidates are set on stopping them.
It was also evident that the Democratic challengers have different views of the city than the Republican incumbents.
The 90-minute forum, sponsored by The Courier, WFIN-AM and UFTV, was held at Winebrenner Theological Seminary on the campus of the University of Findlay.
All six candidates for three open at-large seats participated in the forum. They included Republican incumbents Grant Russel, Tom Shindledecker and Jeff Wobser, and Democratic nominees Mary Harshfield, Barbara Lockard and Heidi Mercer.
The forum was moderated by Steve Dillon, editorial page editor of The Courier, and WFIN News Director Doug Jenkins. The entire 90-minute forum was recorded by UFTV and can be viewed at www.thecourier.com.
For a city the size of Findlay, Mercer said, it’s highly unusual that there is not more political diversity in city government. At last census count in 2010, Findlay had a population of about 41,000.
The Republican Party holds every elected position in Findlay and Hancock County with the exception of one: Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Reginald Routson is a Democrat.
“So Findlay, it’s up to you now. If you believe in a two-party system, vote Democrat. If you believe we need to consider other pressing concerns in this town, then I urge you to vote Democrat,” Mercer said.
Affordable housing and addiction recovery have been a central theme of Mercer’s campaign.
Mercer, 34, is a human trafficking survivor supervisor at Crime Victim Services, Lima.
“I think that sometimes you don’t see what I see. If you aren’t paying attention to other sides of Findlay, you are missing what being a council person is all about,” Mercer said. “And do you see what I see? I don’t think you see the side where families are so desperate to make ends meet, but still can’t afford rent in this town, because if you did, you’d be making housing a priority,” she said.
“I don’t think you see people struggling with addiction, because if you did, you would be making a priority to include more recovery housing and to help inform the police what they should be doing, which is carrying Narcan, because in fact, all lives do matter,” she said.
Shindledecker, however, choked back tears as he described Findlay as a community that has been blessed.
“It has just been a community that has been blessed by geography, by the forward-thinking people that have built reservoirs, and built bridges and built industrial parks, and we have been blessed economically and culturally and in many other ways, and as a family, we have been blessed, too. I would like to humbly think I had a small part in some of that,” he said.
Shindledecker retired from WFIN, WKXA and The Fox as news director in May 2011. He is serving his second term as an at-large councilman.
He does agree, however, that a shortage of affordable housing is an issue in Findlay, and a contributing factor to the city’s workforce shortage.
Both sides seemed to agree that city government needs to do more long-term planning.
Lockard referred to the city’s mid-year financial report, and said, “Long-term planning continues to be an outstanding weakness of our city. It should be addressed prior to adding recurring costs or new large-cost items.”
Lockard works as an academic marketing specialist with the University of Findlay and is a licensed Realtor for Century 21. She served two terms on Findlay school board.
Wobser, who spearheaded council’s effort to begin strategic planning, said that committee will develop a five-year plan that will look at all of the city’s major investments, and force the city’s administration to produce a budget that will work within that time frame. The strategic planning committee will also develop cash management plans.
Wobser has served on council since Dec. 1, 2015, when he was appointed to fill an unexpired term as at-large councilman. He is an advanced senior business development representative in the Brand Division at Marathon Petroleum Corp.
Mercer said the city’s mid-year report also showed that nearly 20 percent of Findlay’s population is living in poverty, higher than the state average of 14.8 percent.
“Does this mean that we need to be looking at well-paying jobs, affordable housing and an increase to public transportation? All of these things that are keeping people, our community members, our constituency in poverty,” she said.
Shindledecker said city government finances are strong, and it still maintains a $1 million rainy day fund, in addition to a $13 million year-end carryover balance.
“So we have done plenty in regards to what happens in the future,” Shindledecker said. “I don’t want to see our surplus used to hire people.”
Russel said the city is in a strong financial position due to good planning.
“We do have a $1 million rainy day fund. Our health insurance fund is fully funded. We take our budget surpluses and leverage that money for the next year. We’re usually first out to bid in our capital plans and that gives us the ability to get the most done for the dollar, because contractors now know that we are ready to go as soon as the season will allow for work to start,” Russel said.
He said despite the uncertainty in city tax collections going into 2018, City Council has started to respond. For the first time in several years, Russel said, council has capped the percentage of income tax funds dedicated to capital improvements at last year’s level, instead of increasing it.
Russel was first elected to council in November 2013. Earlier, he was appointed to fill an unexpired term, representing the 3rd Ward, starting in June 2013. He is a systems analyst for Marathon Petroleum Corp.
Harshfield said she wonders if the city has done enough disaster planning.
“I’m wondering if people have thought ahead to some of the kind of drastic emergencies that we’re seeing around the whole country, in the Caribbean right now, and other earth-shaking things that are happening in the world,” she said.
Harshfield is a retired French and English high school teacher.