By JIM MAURER
Hancock County Commissioner Tim Bechtol will face a challenge from Paul Craun in the May 8 Republican primary election.
Bechtol, 49, of 411 Coventry Drive, Findlay, was appointed in November 2016 and took the oath of office in December 2016. He is now running for a full four-year term.
A Henry County native, Bechtol has been a Findlay resident since 1992 after graduating with a degree in architecture from Ohio State University. He served a three-year internship at RCM Architects, received a second architecture degree from Kent State University, and returned to RCM. He was with Peterman Associates from 2001 until his appointment as commissioner.
He is the only architect serving as a county commissioner in Ohio, Bechtol said.
Craun, 64, of 601 Londonderry Drive, Findlay, has 43 years of experience in construction and property management, including the last 17 years with ACI, formerly Alvada Construction.
He was raised on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, moved to Bluffton in 1974 and to Findlay in 1986.
The winner of the Republican primary may have no opposition in the November general election. No Democrats filed to run. Independent candidates have until May 7 to file candidacy petitions for the Nov. 6 election.
Commissioners serve four-year terms. The salary for the term in Hancock County will be $61,215 annually.
Bechtol said he wants to continue and expand on what has been happening since he was appointed commissioner.
He said the issues include flood reduction, the opiate crisis and the impact it has on county operations, and the relationship between Findlay and county residents.
He said his architectural experience is a benefit to the commissioners’ office.
“Obviously, all the insight and expertise comes without a consultant fee. Over the past 24 years, I was paid to offer that (advice) with two firms. …I have given up a partnership in an architectural firm to do this in the best years of my life, because I think it’s that important. I’m not just doing this as retirement income.
“The public policy we’re dealing with on so many different issues, I’m very interested in helping shape that,” he said. “Whether it be the opiate problem that affects so many different (county) offices. Whether it be the communication between the city folks and the county/rural folks, (or the) flooding control issues we have before us.
“I feel I can bring a unique set of skills from an architectural standpoint to that,” he said. “I wish there were more (architects serving in public office) across the state. Years ago, Jerry Murray (with RCM Architects) was a city councilman.”
Bechtol said he’s been involved in various charitable organizations over the past 24 years.
He has also been dealing with the public over the years, another skill necessary in the commissioners’ office.
“After I got into private practice, there (were) so many times I realized I should have gotten a minor in marital counseling,” he said, “because there were so many times a couple would come in and the husband and wife would have totally different views what dream house they were going to put together, and I would help them work through that, and find something they both like.”
With a full term as commissioner, he would be able to focus more on the flooding and opiate issues, and relationships between city and county residents, Bechtol said.
“I feel I’m just getting started,” he said. “Flooding, we will see the excavating portion of the benching project (in Findlay) scheduled to be bid out this summer. That has a little over a year completion, toward the end of 2019 that should be wrapped up and ready for winter.”
During a March 29 meeting with Citizens United for a Better Blanchard, residents of Hancock and Putnam counties who want river improvements done generally between Findlay and Ottawa, another proposed benching project was proposed.
It would provide additional space at “pinch points” of the river for wider flow during high-water situations. The project would be done after completion of the Findlay work.
“It would make (river) overflow more contained and build an artificial flood plain,” Bechtol said.
It would create a stair-step appearance for water to spread out before it rises over the banks, slowing potential flood damage, he said.
The additional benching would be funded the same as a joint county ditch project, he said, with assessments on the real estate tax bills of property owners in the Blanchard River watershed.
With the river bottom being so close to bedrock, dredging the river is not really an option, Bechtol said.
Removal of debris and sand bars from the river “are what I’ve heard from most people” about as a way to improve water flow.
“I’m an advocate for cleaning the river,” he said. “It’s not going to solve the flooding problem completely, but it will help get more capacity.
“I’m all about finding more capacity,” Bechtol said. “That’s why I’ve been advocating more benching projects, in the city of Findlay on city and county-owned land that we have. I think there’s more potential there instead of having to take more private land, even outside the city limits of Findlay.”
The county’s ongoing purchase of flood-prone properties has meant that “each successive flood we’ve had here more recently has had less houses involved, because there are less houses in the floodway anymore,” he said.
Engineers with the Stantec engineering firm don’t feel additional benching projects “are going to give us the biggest bang for the buck. But that’s not to say they still could not be beneficial to some lesser degree. We still have a lot more smaller floods than bigger floods,” Bechtol said.
“In the next four years, I hope we can be heading down the path where the river is an attraction instead of a detriment,” Bechtol said. “There is no reason for us to be afraid of this river. We should be celebrating it and using it more for recreation, using it for enjoyment purposes.”
On the opiate issue, he said it “is not as simple as just telling people ‘no.'”
He has been involved with the county’s opiate task force, which includes mental health, family services and law enforcement personnel, and the mental health substance use committee.
“We have diversion programs in place in the schools. The key is to stop the start of these prescription drug addictions and that leads to the street drug addictions,” he said.
“After someone’s hooked, then you’re into recovery and treatment, instead of so much prevention,” he said. Prevention “is a whole lot easier than once you’ve started” on drugs.
The drug problem “ties into our jail overcrowding and the higher than normal population on adult probation,” he said.
He said a solution to jail overcrowding is not construction of “more high-security jail cells. The immediate need is for more dormitory housing for the lower-end criminals who need to be contained, but don’t need to have maximum security for each person. There are dormitory accommodations in the jail, just not enough of them.”
He said he would be a “team builder” in regard to the drug crisis by helping get experts together, as it is “very rare for a county commissioner to be an expert on substance abuse.”
Discussing the county budget, Bechtol said, “Sometimes we have to say no.”
“The budget cycle this last year was difficult, with over $800,000 in unmet requests. As we move forward with rising expenses in certain areas that are mandated, that takes away from other unmandated services which would benefit the people and life here in Hancock County.”
Craun said he is “looking at retiring one way or the other early next year. If elected, I’ll retire prior to Jan. 1.”
One reason Craun is running is because he doesn’t feel a candidate should be unopposed and have a clear path to election. He said he and Bechtol are friends, and the pair worked together at Rooney Clinger Murray “a long time ago” when Craun was in construction administration for RCM, and later when Bechtol worked at Peterman Associates.
Another reason for seeking the post is the lack of county leadership, Craun said.
“I believe the county commissioners are not taking strong leadership roles in getting a handle on the issues that they are responsible for,” he said.
An example “is what has been done between the city and the county with the conservancy district. Politically, each of them have pushed the responsibility for the flood reduction onto the conservancy district and consequently onto Stantec (the engineering firm handling the design of projects). Rather than owning that responsibility themselves.”
“…I do believe the oversight of that has been lacking,” he said. “Consequently we’ve now spent about $11 million, don’t really have (an acceptable) plan yet. We have a plan that is prevalently out there, but is not one that is acceptable to either side of the community at this point.”
Craun said he believes “I have some skills to be able to do a better job of that kind of management of projects.”
He also said “the county commissioners need to be much more engaged with the stakeholders in the community — business people, citizen groups — than they are today.”
He said it “goes back to where we started in 2009. We had the floods in ’07 and ’08 and then in ’09 the schools, city and county sought and got approved funding for each. I was instrumental in getting the flood funds on the ballot and approved by voters. Our community did what was unthinkable in getting three levies passed in the middle of a recession.”
Craun said “all of that work makes me prepared to be in the county commissioner’s role and understand some of the needs that are there.”
It will be two more years before voters have another chance to decide county commissioner races, he said, “So I just feel the need is now to be having this discussion about some of the issues and bringing some of the things out in public.”
Flood reduction is the main county issue, Craun said.
“We’re all looking for something which will guarantee it will work, and that may not be the case,” he said about the projects proposed by Stantec, the engineering firm working with the Maumee Watershed Conservancy District to resolve the flooding issue.
He opposes Stantec’s proposal for construction of floodwater storage areas south of Findlay. Those storage areas would be dry except during floods.
“I clearly oppose the assessing of $100 million-plus to watershed or county residents for a project that will entail as proposed over 2,000 acres of land and multiple homes,” he said. “Given the relationship with the owners of those homes and land and the community, most likely (the land) will have to be taken by eminent domain.
“All indications are they (Stantec and the conservancy district) are continuing down the path of a 2,000-acre dry storage project south of the airport,” he said.
Some of the proposed floodwater storage areas are around Mount Blanchard, he said, but the main storage area would be south of the airport and south to the Camp Berry Boy Scout Camp.
Instead of a large dry storage basin, he supports using 300- to 400-acre areas along the river and creeks to construct smaller ponds, on land which floods anyway.
That land can be taken by eminent domain “or wait until it becomes available for sale,” he said.
He supports an effort to improve roads that cross the river, so people can get back and forth during floods. One such project would require an upgrade of the approaches to the Martin Luther King overpass in Findlay, so traffic would travel up toward the overpass instead of down at both ends of the bridge.
“The drug/opiate issues and the jail are linked together, but on the other hand, they have completely divided the community,” Craun said.
“We have very sincere people on both sides of the issue,” he said.
Some say the opiate issue is a medical/health issue, and it is a disease. “I do not deny (that),” he said.
“Others say, ‘let’s build the facilities,’ if you are dealing in drugs you need to be in jail,” he said.
“Those two groups have drawn their lines, much like the agricultural community and the city community over the flood issue … and are not particularly willing to listen to the other side.”
He said he has talked to both sides.
“At this level, we need more beds to put more people in jail,” Craun said.
In addition, “We need more response to the health issue with more recovery homes, because that’s where people end up,” he said.
“I’m more inclined to say we need to start at the bottom,” he said. “We do not have adequate facilities for someone being picked up for mental health or drug issues off the street today, what most people would call a detox center or safe home, a place for those individuals to be held so that they can get the (necessary) services. We don’t have the money either to get them the resources to help them and their family to avoid going the other way.”
When voters rejected a proposed jail expansion last year, “I do not believe that was because the community felt we did not have a need, it was because the community felt we did not have a plan,” he said.
“There was no described public plan, it was simply asking for a blank check,” he said. “Give us 25-30 million dollars and we will figure out what to do with it. This is not a community that responds well to being asked for a blank check.
“Again, I give the commissioners credit for trying to get something out (to the public),” he said. “My perspective is we did not bring the people to the table. I think the community said, ‘Where are the people, where are the judges, sheriff and the other people saying this is precisely, exactly what we need, beyond the juvenile court.'”
He wonders if a regional jail, to house prisoners from multiple counties, could be the answer.
“We are not alone (with this problem), every county around here has the same problem. So are we cooperating with the potential to do a regional jail and share the cost, or are we seeking to become the regional jail and everyone else will pay us to house their prisoners here?”
“We have none of that in place,” Craun said. “I’ve talked to the sheriff. Yes, we are looking at some of those, behind the scenes. But is anyone ready to come forward and say, ‘Here’s what we need to do.’ I don’t think they are.”
Hancock County can continue to send prisoners to other jails as an alternative, he said.
There are similar jail overcrowding concerns at the federal and state level, he said, and some of the solution has to come from those levels.
“We don’t know what that will be at this point, or how much money will follow to do that.”
On the issue of renovating the probate/juvenile court, Craun said, “I think we have to be doing what we’re doing. Would it have been preferable to have this conversation five years ago, done something specific to that need? In the scope of the need and security today, we just have to do it (spend $1 million on improvements) to protect the individuals moving through the process with our county staff and justice center staff overseeing the process.”
A reduction of duplicate services by the city and county governments should continue to be considered, Craun said.
“Again, I have a little bit of a level of frustration,” he said. “We have two governments that seem to work together in a lot of ways, behind the scenes the two governments work together well. Why not expand the municipal building? We have a security point at the courthouse and one at the municipal building. Why build a third security point, 30-50 feet away” in the probate/juvenile court entrance.
On the issue of workforce development, he said the county’s “Raise the Bar” program is doing a good job.
“We have a low unemployment rate, have businesses that are aggressively growing, and we have a lot of very, very successful businesses in the community. That’s the wonderful, good news about our community,” he said.
However, “At this point, our businesses and community cannot grow without bringing more individuals from somewhere else, keep high school graduates in the area, bring people in from outside to build homes,” he said.
“The Catch 22 in all that,” he said, is that many of the jobs being created locally don’t pay enough to allow people to live here. “The pay to employees is too low and cost (of housing) is too high,” he said.
The workforce development effort is trying to keep high school graduates local, he said, and job opportunities for them are improving.
“Soft skills” such as showing up for work, learning what is expected of an employee, and being prepared to work, are discussions in middle school now instead of high school, he said.
Residents in surrounding counties are finding jobs closer to home, and not as many need to travel to Findlay or Hancock County for work. Part of the worker shortage locally is caused by a reduction in workers from surrounding counties, he said.
“At a larger level, I would ask the question, like in 2009, what do we need to do to make this community the type of community we want it to be in 20 years?” Craun said. “Make sure we have a wage level which supports the cost of living in Findlay.”
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