GOSHEN — Two-term incumbent Frank Lucchese will square off against highway department engineer Rick Easton in the upcoming May primaries.
They're each vying for the District 1 seat on the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners. District 1 covers the townships of Concord and Jefferson 87 and 118. Both candidates are Republicans.
If elected, Lucchese, 48, will enter his third four-year term as county commissioner.
He's lived in Elkhart County his entire life and is co-owner of Lucchese's Italian Restaurant, which frequently puts him face-to-face with constituents.
"I get a lot of instant feedback, which is great. You’re right there with the people. That’s what we’re being paid for," he said.
He said his biggest accomplishments as commissioner are improving county infrastructure and his role in the installation of a fiber optics network that connects county buildings in Elkhart and Goshen.
"They sort of put me as lead commissioner for the IT end of it, so I was involved heavily in that," he said.
He said he doesn't have exact numbers yet, but estimates that the project will save the county thousands of dollars a year.
Lucchese believes it's to his advantage that, after eight years as commissioner, he's overcome the learning curve that comes with the job.
"I have to say it took me a good two years to really start to figure things out," he said.
He said working with commissioners Terry Rodino and Mike Yoder has been easy because they tend to be on the same page about what's best for the county.
"You get a lot more things done when you can work together," Lucchese said.
Politically, he describes himself as very fiscally conservative, "but I also see the big picture."
He alluded to tough decisions that will need to be made by the board in the near future.
"We’re gonna see a big hit this year again. We're still seeing the tax caps taking a huge hit on our revenues, and we don’t see any of that coming back anytime soon," Lucchese said.
Still, he's confident about what the board has done so far to keep things running smoothly.
"We came through one of the hardest times in recent history with the recession, so it wasn't much fun, but we were able to balance budgets without really affecting services to the residents. Outside of this recently with our highway department, that was the first any kind of layoffs we had to do since 2008, and I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment to be able to do that."
It's the first time Easton, 58, has run for political office, but he said plans have been in the works for eight years.
"I just felt that that the climate was right to make my move now," he said.
Easton has lived in Elkhart since 1987, when he moved from Gary. He's worked for the Elkhart County Highway Department for 14 years in various positions, currently serving as a project engineer.
The job takes him all around the county as he manages construction for federally and locally funded bridge and road projects
"By the end of the project, I’m able to tell you exactly where everything is and how much everything costs and how much it took to do it," he said.
He opted not to comment on the recent layoffs at the highway department.
If elected, he said his top objectives would include streamlining overlapping county departments, cutting back on spending and opening lines of communication between himself and taxpayers.
"I’m kind of a people person, very approachable, and no matter’s too small," he said.
Easton acknowledged the county's financial struggles, but believes "there's still some fat that can be cut."
He wants to take a close look at unnecessary spending for things such as vehicle use and building improvements.
"You gotta buckle down and be bare bones. We can wait on a new tree or new car until we get our ducks in a row," he said.
Easton credits the county for its strengths in building infrastructure and attracting jobs, and said as commissioner, he would want to keep that going. He emphasized that open communication would be a cornerstone of his role as commissioner.
"That’s one thing that I really believe in, that a politician or policymaker or commissioner should have that open communication with the taxpayer, because of course that’s what a politician is — the voice of the people."
What do commissioners do?
There are three county commissioner seats in Elkhart County. Together they serve as both the executive and legislative body of county government. The summary of roles and responsibilities supplied by the county describes the board as "collectively the equivalent of the mayor and board of works."
Their responsibilities and duties include (but aren't limited to):
- All county-owned real and personal property
- The receipt of bids and the authorization of contracts
- The supervision, construction and maintenance of all roads and bridges
- Oversight of election functions
- Preparing their portion of the annual budget
- The adoption and maintenance of zoning, roadway development and building construction standards
Commissioners maintain offices at 117 N. Second Street, Goshen. That's also where they hold meetings every Monday at 9 a.m.
The base pay for commissioners in 2014 is $40,034, according to Elkhart County Human Resources. They each get additional pay ranging from $600 to $1,440 for additional duties, depending on what boards and committees they serve on.