The debates for Howard County positions took place last week, and the county hopefuls turned out to discuss numerous topics, including public safety, solar farms, and a female work release program.
The debates, which were streamed live from Inventrek Technology Park, were organized by the Kokomo Perspective, Kokomo Tribune, the League of Women Voters, and the Greater Kokomo Chamber of Commerce. Candidates seeking the county council at-large, commissioner, and treasurer positions spoke to viewers on their credibility, experience, and the issues facing Howard County.
County Council at-large
Newcomers Warren Sims and Daryl Maple faced off against long-time county councilman James Papacek and incumbent auditor Martha Lake.
One of the topics they were asked about was the possibility of an industrial park coming to Kokomo, and all four candidates supported the idea, albeit in different ways.
Sims cited the necessity of the park. He focused on economic diversification and said that Howard County couldn’t be a one-trick pony when it comes to its economic health.
“I absolutely support an industrial park of some sort,” Sims said. “I also support the idea of having a diverse workforce. We have rested our economic value on the backs of manufacturing for many years. We’ve seen Continental Steel come and go. We’ve seen the ups and downs of GM in the community. We’ve also seen the ups and downs of Chrysler. I also support that we build and engage and bring a more diverse workforce to the community. It’s not just manufacturing in the community anymore. It’s a lot of tech. It’s a lot of medical. The industrial, those things are always going to be prominent in our area. But I support diversity as well.”
Lake concurred but added that a focus needed to be placed on retaining students graduating from Ivy Tech, Indiana University Kokomo, and Purdue Polytechnic Kokomo.
Papacek, a longtime proponent of the park, said that such a park was one of the first things that companies ask if the county has when looking at opening their businesses in Howard County.
“When companies come into look at Howard County, one of the first things they usually ask is, ‘Do you have an industrial park?’ If you don’t have one that is site-ready to go, they a lot of times go on to somewhere else.”
Female Work Release
Another topic was the female work release program, which the county has worked to secure funding for since 2016 but to no avail.
The candidates were asked if they support the female work release program and what they would do to see it enacted. While all four supported the program, Papacek instead used his time to discuss jail expansion.
“When we built the current jail that we have now, we built it for 30 women. And we wondered at the time if we weren’t being silly building it for that many women. I see we weren’t and that we really need to, even though it’s unpopular, to build another women’s pod to hold the women that we have that we have to send out of county at the cost of the county to keep these women incarcerated. It’s going to cost money, and if we started today, it would probably be a year before we could even start to do a building.”
Papacek emphasized that teamwork between the council, commissioners, and auditor was needed to see such a task accomplished.
Sims, though a supporter of the program, suggested focusing on other avenues that are available to the county for criminals as to not be a burden on taxpayers, such as ministry work and other recidivism programs.
The cost of public safety
The candidates also broached the subject of the price tag that comes with an increased focus on public safety. Earlier this year, the council approved a grant of $625,000 that allowed the sheriff’s department to hire up to five more deputies. The grant requires the county cover salary and benefits of the deputies for at least four years, meaning the county will have three years to procure additional money to pay for the increase in staffing.
Maple raised concern with the potential consequences of the increased staffing, particularly for other county departments.
“Maybe there’s some extra funds that the sheriff has to market to that, but it’s a hard topic to figure out. We need to make sure we’re taking care of it. My challenge is is that if we start arresting more people, does that bring more of a burden to other departments as far as having more inmates, more people having to go through the prosecutor’s office? It’s a good thing, but it has potential consequences as well, so we got to watch that,” Maple said.
Sims too had an issue with how to procure funding and emphasized transparency in the council. However, neither had a specific strategy on how to procure the funds that will be needed to maintain deputy staffing levels after the grant runs out.
Commissioner District Two
The two candidates for the District Two seat of the commissioners, Democrat Rick Emry and incumbent republican Jack Dodd faced off, with much emphasis on overdose deaths and solar farms.
Both candidates addressed the need for treatment for those struggling with addiction, though they differed in their solutions to the problem.
Dodd addressed the problem directly, saying he would like to “make Howard County a place where drug dealers say, ‘This is not a good place to do business.’” And despite staffing increases to both the Kokomo Police Department and sheriff’s department, he said more staffing was needed.
Emry, on the other hand, said more connections should be made with mental health experts in order to better assist those with addiction problems.
“We need to get out in the community, walk the streets, and just observe ourselves the anguish that our community has. And we need to work with the health department, the mental health experts, to see how we can give them the resources they need. I see too much of a revolving door in the newspapers of people being habitual offenders with drug-related offenses,” Emry said.
The commissioner candidates also discussed the possibility of a solar farm in Greentown. Engie, an international power company, is seeking to build a 2,000-acre solar farm near the town, much to the opposition of farmers who live near the proposed build site.
Neither candidate was in support of such a project.
Emry in particular said he didn’t want to allow an “outside entity, especially a foreign entity” to build a project of that caliber and said that if the company would be operating on the land for 30 years, they should purchase it instead of leasing as they proposed.
Dodd cited his experience as a farmer for his skepticism of the project.
“That is prime farmland,” Dodd said. “I was a farmer for 10 years. That land will never be returned to prime farmland.”
However, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the land used for solar farms can be converted back to agricultural use after the life of a solar farm. The proposed project in Greentown would last for approximately 30, meaning that during that period the soil rests, maintaining the quality of the land that is used.
Ed Foster, the Democratic candidate for county treasurer, was alone at the table as his opponent, incumbent Republican Christie Branch, did not attend the debate, citing an illness.
Primarily, Foster said, if elected, that he would focus on an “investigation” of the treasurer’s office and county finances as a whole to determine if and where changes were needed, but he said, “Changes just to make changes would not be my focus.”
Foster also said that due to COVID-19 some Howard County taxpayers are unable to pay their bills, leading to an increase in foreclosures and tax sales that the treasurer’s office will have to deal with.
State level debates
This week, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m., the candidates for the Indiana House of Representatives will debate.
Incumbent Rep. Tony Cook will discuss issues alone as he is running unopposed, while incumbent Republican Reps. Heath VanNatter and Mike Karickhoff will face off against their opponents Tom Hedde and Dylan McHenry, respectively.
The debates will once again be live-streamed via Zoom and Facebook.