GOSHEN — On the campaign trail, certain issues seem to come up over and over, and as the candidates vying for a seat on the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners are finding out, two of the biggest topics are the economy and road projects.
Incumbent Mike Yoder said the economy was much different when he joined the board eight years ago. But despite a slump in the recreational vehicle industry in recent years, he said things seem to be looking up.
“So, we’ve suffered through another RV downturn, and my sense is that we are clawing our way out of this recession slowly but surely, and it’s nice, steady growth,” he said.
During the past few years, Yoder said companies that supply the RV industry were forced to diversify while businesses in other sectors grew. This was a positive step for the county, he said.
Yoder said the county made significant budget reductions between 2009 and 2010. Department heads pitched in by spending less on supplies and cooperating with a hiring freeze, he said.
“In the midst of that recession, a lot of those cuts came by restructuring our medical insurance programs for employees,” he explained. “We also began not filling empty spots as employees retired or quit.”
The county has between 20 and 30 unfilled job slots, according to county administrator Tom Byers.
“Generally speaking, we are running very lean right now, and as this economy begins to get back closer to the 2007-2008 level, we’re going to have to replace some of those employees,” Yoder said.
Yoder’s challenger, Darryl Riegsecker, is a member of the Elkhart County Council, which annually approves the county’s budget. He questions how much funding the commissioners give to certain groups.
“There’s a lot of good entities that the commissioners give money to, and they deserve the money, but do we have the money to give them?” Riegsecker asked. “I would want to meet with those entities to see if there’s other ways they can do fundraising and try to raise money without going through county government.”
For example, the commissioners gave $450,000 to the Association for the Disabled of Elkhart County this year. The money is part of grants and public assistance, which falls under the county’s general fund, Byers said. Byers noted that the commissioners used to fund several nonprofit organizations with grants for specific programs and stopped to save the county money.
“At one time, that number was as high as $350,000,” Byers explained. “That was about three or four years ago.”
Riegsecker was the only councilman to vote against approving this year’s county budget. One of the biggest reasons, he said, was because the budget included a 1.5 percent raise for county employees. Riegsecker said they deserved a pay increase, but the timing was wrong.
“I don’t think we should be giving raises while we’re balancing the budget with EDIT funds and rainy day funds when we have county roads that need to be repaired,” he said. “I think that’s something that shouldn’t have been pushed through at this time.”
Riegsecker said the county could also become more efficient by exploring ways to consolidate departments that serve individual cities and towns into countywide divisions.
Riegsecker said Elkhart County is “one of the healthiest counties in the state.”
“We’re able to balance our budget,” he said. “We’re still able to do a lot of stuff that we need to do in Elkhart County and not charge a lot of fees. I think Elkhart County is healthy, but we need to keep moving, so we can continue to be healthy.”
Riegsecker said he would like to see the county work with the cities and towns to attract new businesses and jobs while continuing to support the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County.
“Somebody made the comment the other day that they would rather have 50 $20-an-hour-paying jobs instead of 200 $12-an-hour jobs,” he said. “I’m kind of the opposite. I would rather see 200 people working for $12 an hour than seeing just 50 people get jobs.”
CANDIDATES TALK ROADS
Road maintenance is another issue that Yoder and Riegsecker have run into several times as they try to rally support for the May 8 Republican primary election.
Once the C.R. 17 extension project to C.R. 40 is complete, Yoder said the county needs to take a rest from building four-lane highways. Construction on C.R. 17 is on schedule to be completed in October.
“We need to rebuild some reserves and our EDIT dollars,” he said.
Yoder noted, however, that the county needs to keep an eye on other road and bridge projects for the future.
“The Kercher Avenue Bridge needs to be replaced, so we’re working with the city of Goshen right now on that and sequencing the improvements they intend to make with the improvements at C.R. 38 and S.R. 15,” Yoder said.
Riegsecker said the county should prioritize road projects by looking at the areas with the most traffic first, like the stretch on C.R. 17 from C.R. 6 to C.R. 10.
“A lot of companies look at our infrastructure when they’re trying to decide where they want to build their company, so we’ve got to clean up that area in order to build more and expand in that area out there,” he said. “Subdivisions are important, but I think right now where the businesses are and where the roads are heavily traveled, it’s important to get those taken care of.”