By KATHRYNE RUBRIGHT
BLUFFTON — Bluffton voters will decide a packed village council race on Nov. 7, with 10 candidates competing for four seats.
Council has been getting “younger, action-oriented and hard-working” in recent years, Mayor Judy Augsburger said, but three previous council members have concerns and are running again.
“Now they want back on, and we really have a great council right now,” Augsburger said.
Four incumbents are up for re-election: Sean M. Burrell, 105 Magnolia Lane; Ralph Miller, 126 N. Jackson St.; Phill Talavinia, 311 Jared Circle; and Roger L. Warren, 499 Cherry St.
Challenging them are Jerry Cupples, 122 Richland Drive; Mitchell Kingsley, 313 Campus Drive; Tony Pinks, 138 W. Riley St.; Benjamin Stahl, 414 S. Main St.; David R. Steiner, 109 S. Main St.; and Deborah K. Weihrauch, 269 S. Lawn Ave.
Cupples, Kingsley and Steiner are the past council members. They paint a different picture of Bluffton’s current government.
“It’s really tense between the (village) employees and the administration and that filters down to how the community is served,” Steiner said.
Augsburger said the village has a “really good staff” and “it’s not tense at all.”
Steiner declined to share specific examples of tension, but provided a copy of former fiscal officer Nancy Kindle’s resignation letter.
Kindle wrote in the Aug. 14 letter that a previous culture of “ethics, high moral standards, and the shared responsibility to act and govern in the best interests” of Bluffton residents had been “displaced” by Bluffton’s current administration.
“Pointedly, in spite of repeated objections and warnings, the current administration has permitted the advancement of decisions that I am concerned may be dubious in both ethical and even legal terms,” Kindle wrote.
She did not specify which decisions troubled her.
Her letter also mentioned a “hostile work environment.”
Such an environment is “just not Bluffton, Ohio,” Cupples said. There is “something going on in the town hall that we need to fix,” he said.
Bluffton must work to “rebuild trust and rebuild a new and better arrangement for village employees,” Kingsley said.
Augsburger said she “was as surprised as anybody else” by Kindle’s resignation, and was not aware of any issues that would lead to that.
Kindle’s resignation came after former village Administrator Jamie Mehaffie was fired in January by the council at Augsburger’s recommendation.
Kingsley said Mehaffie was a “competent employee” and there was “nothing obvious to me” about why the village administrator should have been fired.
Mehaffie was fired on a 4-2 vote with Burrell, Miller, Warren and Richard Johnson voting in favor, and Talavinia and Joe Sehlhorst voting against, according to the Bluffton Icon.
Minutes from that meeting are not available on Bluffton’s website, though minutes from eight subsequent meetings have been posted, with the last update being from July.
Kingsley said he would like the website to be improved and updated.
He noted the out-of-date minutes and said, “It has not been kept current. You can’t really find the Bluffton ordinances there.”
The three former council members all oppose the water surcharge that council approved in June 2016.
A rate adjustment would have been more appropriate, Cupples, Kingsley and Steiner said in a joint letter to Bluffton voters.
The three of them wrote that they asked other municipalities for the cost of 400 cubic feet of water, an average usage amount, and found it was more expensive in Bluffton than in Ada, Bowling Green, Delphos, Findlay, Lima, McComb and Ottawa.
It cost $53.35 in Bluffton, including the surcharge, and ranged from $19.16 in Findlay to $43.89 in Delphos, they said.
But Augsburger said other municipalities are in the process of raising rates, and Bluffton already has, so “we’re ahead of the game.”
And if the surcharge were repealed, water rates would have to go up, Augsburger said.
“Even with the surcharge, we’re still subsidizing (the water fund) from the general fund,” she said.
Council’s “motivation wasn’t wrong,” but a rate adjustment with input from the industrial users who would be most affected would be a better way to stabilize the water fund, Kingsley said.
Other races, issues
Separately, four candidates are running for three Bluffton school board positions.
The three incumbents are Brad Fruchey, 465 Shannon St.; Wesley L. Klinger, 54 Wilhelm Circle; and Ken Lugibihl, 9222 Rockport Road. They will compete with Deborah A. Herr, 9171 Bentley Road.
Bluffton will also vote on a two-question liquor option for Blue Jay Properties, 562 N. Main St. Mustard Seed Cafe operates at that address.
The first question is whether to allow spirituous liquor sales during the week. The second is whether to allow Sunday sales of wine, mixed beverages and spirituous liquor from 10 a.m. to midnight.
Sales tax proposal
Bluffton and all Allen County voters will decide the fate of a proposed 10-year, 0.25 percent sales tax for the Allen County Regional Transit Authority.
The new tax would provide about $4.3 million a year, said Allen County Auditor Rhonda Eddy-Stienecker.
The revenue would be used for “anything to do with transportation for Allen County,” said ACRTA Executive Director Sheila Haney.
That includes continued ACRTA operations, as well as sidewalks, bike lanes, bike share programs and transportation by nonprofit facilities, Haney said.
ACRTA received grants in 2011 from the Job Access and Reverse Commute Program and the New Freedom Program, both administered by the Federal Transit Administration, but those programs have expired.
The ACRTA hired Burges & Burges Strategists to provide a recommendation on whether to pursue a property tax or a sales tax, Haney said.
The firm suggested a sales tax after conducting surveys and public meetings. There was more support for that option because a property tax would be paid by homeowners who are less likely to use the transportation, Haney said.
“If we were to shut our doors, that would cripple Allen County,” Haney said.
The ACRTA has a five-phase plan for cutting services if the tax does not pass, starting with eliminating Saturday service, shutting down the public transfer center for Greyhound buses, and ceasing to provide free community service for the Star Spangled Spectacular and organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters or church daycares.
Phase two would be eliminating Monday through Friday evening service (5:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.) and phase three would be reducing the number of fixed routes from nine to six.
Service outside of Allen County would be cut in phase four, and the final phase would be a reduction in service in the county outside of Lima.
Candidate forum Tuesday
The Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, Bluffton Icon, and local activist group Allen and Hardin for Election Action and Democracy will host a forum for Bluffton Village Council’s 10 candidates from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The event will be at the Bluffton Village Hall, 154 N. Main St.
Each candidate will speak for five minutes, followed by an audience question-and-answer period.
The candidates are Sean Burrell, Jerry Cupples, Mitchell Kingsley, Ralph Miller, Tony Pinks, Ben Stahl, David Steiner, Phil Talavinia, Roger Warren, and Deb Weihrauch.
Four candidates will be elected to four-year terms.