Take the reins

Published 12:43 am Sunday, October 26, 2008

Next month, Lawrence County voters will select two of the county’s three commissioners.

Incumbent Republican Jason Stephens is seeking his third term in office. His challenger is Wayne Pennington, a Democrat and the former mayor of Hanging Rock. Incumbent Democrat R. Tanner Heaberlin is seeking a commission seat in his own right. He was appointed last year to fill the unexpired term of the late George Patterson, who lost his battle with cancer. Les Boggs, who is the county’s sitting clerk of courts, is Heaberlin’s Republican opponent.

Stephens vs. Pennington

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In addition to being a commissioner, Stephens, of Getaway, is a certified financial planner and co-owner of Stephens and Son Insurance. He said there are a number of positive changes that have occurred during his tenure that have improved the lives of Lawrence Countians.

On the economic front, Stephens is proud of the collaborative effort between business and government that has brought new business and has also allowed for the expansion of businesses already here. He pointed out Lawrence County’s unemployment rate is much better than that of neighboring counties.

“When we established the Lawrence County Port Authority three years ago, we set the framework that allowed St. Mary’s and Rumpke and other things to happen,” Stephens said. “And it seems to be working. We have jobs and businesses we didn’t have even a year ago.”

Stephens is also proud of the negotiations that brought Duke Energy to Hamilton Township — and the tax abatement agreement under which Duke agreed to make payments that enabled the Rock Hill Local School District to pay off its school bond early.

Stephens said another positive change made within the past few years — one that impacts quality of life — is the creation of the Lawrence-Scioto Solid Waste Management District and that entity’s efforts to clean up illegal dumping and littering and to promote recycling.

“It was non-existent a few years ago and now, it is getting accolades from the state,” Stephens said.

He would like to see the county step up its demolition of derelict houses as part of its comprehensive improvement effort.

Stephens acknowledged the county’s budget constraints have been a challenge. In spite of this, he said the county has managed to find ways to make government work.

He pointed to the commission’s ability to find alternate revenue streams to pay for services the county needs but doesn’t have the money for. For instance, by consolidating the county’s 911 addressing office, soil and water conservation office and building permit system into one entity, the county was able to get state funding to pay for half of the cost of the new entity.

In spite of a tight budget, Stephens said he is pleased that, even though the federal COPS grant used to hire sheriff’s office road deputies ended years ago, the county did not lay off the deputies hired with the grant.

“We’ve been able to keep deputies on the road and ambulances running at a time when other counties have had layoffs,” Stephens said.

Criminal justice is one of the biggest chunks of the county’s budget and Stephens said the commission has found ways to help alleviate the strain crime places on county finances. Lawrence County has a contract with Scioto County to house overflow inmates at a fixed cost in the Portsmouth jail. He is also pleased the commission and the county’s judges have been able to work together to employ alternatives to jail time for some inmates, such as home confinement, which saves money and alleviates overcrowding in the county jail.

Stephens said in the coming years he wants to pursue federal matching funds for the juvenile court system by pursuing a IV-E contract. He also said 911 is one area where the county can probably save money.

Stephens said his background as a certified financial planner has been and will continue to be an asset in wrestling with budget issues.

Why run for office?

“It’s an honor to serve as county commissioner,” Stephens said. “ I represent 63,000 people. I think we have a wonderful county with wonderful people. It’s an honor to serve and I understand it’s a privilege. I would appreciate the opportunity to continue serving.”

Wayne Pennington, of Hanging Rock, has served on the village council and as mayor. He is a safety and training specialist for Marathon Ashland Petroleum.

Pennington said he understands people are concerned about county finances. He said he has heard their concerns during his visits door-to-door to meet the people he wants to represent.

As for making ends meet at the courthouse, “I think we have to look at every aspect,” Pennington said.

And that includes job cuts if it is necessary. He said he knows job cuts are not popular and he realizes cuts don’t just affect a person but that person’s family. But those elected to serve sometimes have to make tough decisions.

“People are going to have to bear with whoever is elected,” he said. “No one wants to cut anything. I hope people realize job cuts are not made out of spite.”

Pennington said commissioners will have to look at what they’re spending and then decide what action to keep spending in line with revenue.

“There is not any one area that is not going to be looked at,” he said.

Criminal justice, from arrest to prosecution to probation, takes one of the biggest bites out of the county budget. Pennington would like to reduce the size of that bite by perhaps using home confinement to a greater extent.

He questioned why some inmates spend as much as 60 days in the Lawrence County Jail while at other county jails, inmates are incarcerated for as little as 12 days. He would also like to see if the sheriff’s office can charge back some of the services they provide to other entities.

Pennington said he has an open mind and good communication skills. He is also not afraid to make tough decisions, even when those decisions may be unpopular.

“I hope if I had to make an unpopular decision, even though it would be unpopular at first, later, the people could come to me and say that decision was necessary,” Pennington said. “A politician has got to be able to take the heat.”

And he said he is willing to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

“Some politicians go out and tell people what they want to hear just to get elected,” Pennington said.

He wants people to know he is not that kind of person, that he is not out to make a name for himself.

Pennington is in favor of consolidating emergency dispatching.

“I don’t want to lose jobs, but I want to make government run efficiently,” he said.

On the economic front, Pennington said while he would like to see new jobs and new business in Lawrence County, he is just as adamant about taking care of what is already here and building on assets. He pointed out that sometimes, putting one piece of the economic puzzle into place can be the catalyst for other pieces to fall into place. He used as an example the location of the Texas Roadhouse in Ashland. Once that restaurant settled near the Ashland Town Center, other businesses located there too.

Pennington said Lawrence County needs to find a niche it can use and expand on.

“We need to look and see if there is anything unique that we have and then build on that,” Pennington said.

Another idea Pennington has is to draw on the talents of Lawrence Countians by getting input from retired executives.

“I’d like to use them as a sounding board for ideas. Having been in business they have contacts, they know people. We need to tap that knowledge base and see if they can lend a hand,” Pennington said.

Why run for office? Pennington loves his community. He is also concerned about mistakes that have been made in the past and wants to be a part of the solution.

Heaberlin vs. Boggs

R. Tanner Heaberlin doesn’t like to call himself a politician.

“I’m a public servant,” he said. And that’s the way he wants people to see him.

“I want to restore the trust of the people in county government. I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t trust that group at the courthouse’ and, ‘I want to change this,’” Heaberlin said. Lawrence County, he said, is his top priority.

Heaberlin, a Rock Hill High School history teacher, said he is not afraid to challenge the courthouse status quo if it means making government work better for the people. He is proud of his push to have commission meeting times changed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays, allowing working people the chance to attend these meetings without sacrificing part of their work day. He said he is also proud the commission approved his resolution to post future job openings in the newspaper, instead of using word-of-mouth to reach prospective hirees.

“This gives the people who are not as well-connected an opportunity to get these jobs and gives us a better chance to get the best qualified people possible,” Heaberlin said. “I think this takes away some of the nepotism. I would like to see other officeholders do the same thing.”

Heaberlin said the budget is the biggest issue Lawrence County faces and in spite of those who say the county has had the same money problems for years, Heaberlin is confident the problems can be solved with a little time and some hard work.

“It’s not going to change overnight,” he said. “I don’t think there is a magic wand, there is no one thing that can be done (to solve the problems). I think it’s going to take a multitude of things and I think we have to look at everything.”

One entity Heaberlin wants to protect is the entity that protects Lawrence County: the sheriff’s office.

“I think we saw this week how important it is,” Heaberlin said. “I know it’s a big chunk of the budget, but it is there for the protection of the citizens.”

He is in favor of saving money by merging the dispatching for the sheriff’s office and 911 and would like to establish a task force to do exactly that.

Heaberlin said he thinks the county should study the way indigent defense is handled, and make certain those people who claim to be indigent truly are unable to pay their own attorney fees when they are arrested for criminal offenses.

Health insurance for county employees is another area where Heaberlin thinks money could be saved.

Heaberlin said he is pleased with the efforts made by the area’s economic development team and points to the recent announcements regarding Mercier, Chatham Steel, the Liebert expansion.

“We have a good team, everyone is working together and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Heaberlin said his goals for the next four years are to straighten out budget issues, create more jobs that will in turn increase sales tax dollars coming into county coffers. More sales tax dollars would likely mean fewer cuts at the courthouse,” he said.

“I want to keep people in line, but I think it is also important to add to the revenue stream,” he said.

Heaberlin said his greatest strengths are honesty, fairness and his dislike of politics as usual.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because I promised them a job. I want to do what is right. And regardless of the party, I will call people out for doing things that are wrong,” he said.

He said he is not afraid to challenge things he sees that are wrong.

“I’m willing to ask tough questions and I think people appreciate that,” he said. “I’m not afraid to call people on the carpet if I have to. There is nothing wrong in Lawrence County that can’t be fixed with what is right in Lawrence County.”

Besides being clerk of courts, Boggs is also a businessman and former member of the Dawson-Bryant Board of Education.

Why run for office?

“I believe I can help the county out of its bad financial state,” Boggs said, adding that trading his clerk of courts job for a commission seat would be a $7,000-a-year pay cut. “But I believe I have the financial background to help the county out of its crisis.”

Boggs said the biggest challenges facing the county are job creation and the county’s finances.

On the issue of job creation, Boggs would like to promote small business by helping prospective business owners learn the ins and outs of business operation.

“Ninety percent of the people in Ohio work for small business,” Boggs explained. “So it only seems right to focus on small business. A lot of people have a skill or know-how to provide a skill or a service, but some of them fail because they don’t know how to file their taxes or how to keep books properly.”

Boggs wants to provide free classes, perhaps through the chamber of commerce, that would teach prospective business owners how to operate a small business.

The small business start-up class is phase one of Boggs’ two-phased approach to job creation. He would also like to recruit jobs from outside the county and is willing to personally get involved.

“I’m not afraid to go to Columbus and meet with whomever to bring in jobs,” Boggs said. “I will work with the Ironton Port Authority, the Lawrence County Port Authority, the LEDC. Sometimes a cold phone call can get you jobs.”

With an eye on the budget crunch, Boggs has offered a plan he said will save at least $800,000 the first year and $1.3 million over two years on health insurance.

Boggs wants the county to switch its employee health insurance to Central States, the same company that already provides coverage to the employees of four county offices. He said by switching to Central States, the county could save money on its premiums, the employees would contribute less toward their coverage, the employees could keep the physician network they have now and still have the same or better insurance coverage.

“It has a $40,000 life insurance policy, short-term disability, and a peace of mind statement, which says, if I pass away and never get out of the network, my wife could have health insurance for next five years for free,” Boggs said. “And it has a dental plan, which our current insurance doesn’t have.”

Boggs has dubbed his health insurance proposal “The People’s Plan.”

Boggs said saving money on health insurance would free up money to help pay for the rising cost of criminal justice, an area he said should not be cut.

“We’ve got to get criminals off the streets,” he said. “In certain parts of this county, drugs are running rampant and I believe with funding we can get drugs out of our county.”

He is in favor of combining the county’s dispatching entities.

Boggs said his business and political experience would be an asset to the county.

“I’m proud to have created more than 125 new jobs in this county. I feel like I have served the county well, as a member of the Dawson-Bryant school board and as clerk of courts.

He said his other strengths are his employee/employer relations and problem solving and his ability to work with diverse groups to come to a solution on problems.

If elected, what are Boggs’ goals?

“To bring the county budget into a safe area, to incorporate the People’s Plan (Central State health insurance) and to work to bring more jobs into the county and create jobs within the county.”

He promises to “represent them in a way taxpayers deserve to be represented.” He promised to have an open-door policy.