Candidates for Kosciusko County Council at-large are (L to R), front row: incumbents Joni Truex and Sue Ann Mitchell; back row: Lori Roe, Noemi Ponce and Kathleen Groninger. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Candidates for Kosciusko County Council at-large are (L to R), front row: incumbents Joni Truex and Sue Ann Mitchell; back row: Lori Roe, Noemi Ponce and Kathleen Groninger. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Concluding the second and final night of the local candidates forum Thursday, five of the six women vying for the three Kosciusko County Council at-large seats provided answers to questions on budgeting, broadband internet and economic development.

Those participating in the forum, broadcast online, included Kathleen Groninger (R); Sue Ann Mitchell (R), incumbent; Noemi Ponce (D); Lori Roe (D); and Joni Truex (R), incumbent. Democrat Itanya Coon-Kauffman was ill and unable to attend. The event was sponsored by the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Kosciusko Bar Association, with a panel of local media and an attorney asking the questions.

Recently, the County Council had to deal with the shoring up a potential $7 million shortfall in the county’s 2021 budget. The candidates were asked what steps needed to be taken to correct the shortfall.

Ponce said that the council needed to work as a team to deal with the shortcomings of the budget and look for innovative and creative revenue streams. She said they needed to figure out what was best for the community by hopefully not eliminating any jobs.

Roe said the question was asked recently if they should do cuts or raise taxes as if those were the only options. “I don’t think that’s the only choices we have. I agree with Ms. Ponce, I think we would need to look at all possibilities,” and cutting jobs would be the “last resort.” During a pandemic, she questioned whether the county should be granting large tax abatements, especially with the county having a budget shortfall. (Louis Dreyfus last week asked for tax abatements totaling around $50 million, which the Council will consider next month.)

Truex said, “Originally, the number that was bandied about was $7 million, and I’d like to back up and explain a little bit of that. No. 1, our auditor was instructed by the state to input 90% of our revenues, rather than 100. That was 10% off the top that we, in fact, will realize and will see. So, that helped make up quite a bit of the shortfall.” A committee was formed, consisting of Truex, Mitchell and Councilman Ernie Wiggins, to look at reducing expenses and possibly increasing revenues.

Continuing on what Truex was saying after her allotted time expired, Groninger said, “I really do think that the County Council has done a good job in trying to bridge that gap.” She said they transferred some employees from the general fund to other funds and took some money from the Economic Development Income Tax to help make up that shortfall.

“It’s pretty much a moving target. We estimate what we think it’s going to be, but we really don’t know for sure,” Groninger said, also noting that there was the Rainy Day Fund which could be used “if absolutely necessary.”

“I think the first thing that everybody needs to understand is why there was that shortfall,” Mitchell said. “Between the highway and the courts that we added, those are huge dollars that had to be provided. The highway money was split, we have restricted and unrestricted money. Restricted money can only be spent on certain things, obviously, so that happened in a year where we were already finished with the budget so we had to live with that. There is also a limit, a maximum levy, that the county can collect. We didn’t just spend a whole bunch of extra money, we had things that were moved into that.”

She said the Council has already started working on correcting the shortfall, including meeting with state legislators about the impact the highway split has had on the county.

The following question asked, “Growth is critical for businesses. What do you think Kosciusko County government can do to attract young families and top talent?”

Roe said the county has a lot to offer young families: outdoors, lakes, activities, greenways, blueways and excellent education systems. “I’m not sure of how to solve the problem of making everyone feel included. It’s a huge task I’m not sure County Council can address, but I think county government as a whole needs to reach out more to the diversity of our county and help everyone feel welcome,” she said.

Growth is critical, Truex agreed, and she said the county attracts top talent already to the orthopedic companies and major manufacturers. “I believe we have a great quality of life here. I believe that is something we all worked really hard on – the Chamber, KEDCO, OrthoWorx, the county have all really tried to improve quality of life to attract and keep people,” she said.

Truex said the county needs a social media presence, which it doesn’t have.

Groninger said the county is a great place to live and she agreed with Truex that it does attract top talent. She said what she sees the county really needs is rural broadband. “The internet situation is huge,” she said, adding that housing also is really important.

“We had a housing (study) that was done, and we’re in dire need of housing, and if we want people to put their roots down here ...” the county needs housing.

Mitchell served on the housing committee through the Kosciusko County Community Foundation.

“What an education. It’s been a long process. We’re almost ready to finally roll out everything,” Mitchell said. “But one of the big things that was found, obviously, is that we do not have housing. We can not come here to live. If a house goes on the market, it’s gone tomorrow. Those are critical things to try and get people to locate here.”

If people live here, they pay their income tax here and that helps the county elevate its income. Building homes also increases the assessed valuation, which lowers everyone’s taxes, Mitchell explained. But that part of economic development doesn’t happen unless broadband internet is available to those homes. “In today’s world, nobody is going to buy a house if they can’t have internet. It’s just not going to happen,” she concluded.

Ponce said, “I believe that we can’t grow a community without our constituents. So what better way of doing this than by allowing all of our constituents to feel involved. And how do we do that? I believe we need to address diversity and make our entire community feel included in order to grow our economy here.”

Another question asked the candidates about rural broadband. In light of Kosciusko REMC’s recent broadband announcement, the candidates were asked what should the county do to enhance or supplement these offerings and those of existing providers.

Truex said the county is helping with that. The county commissioners have been in discussions with REMC and are supporting them. There is the possibility of putting up additional towers, in addition to the three they already started, in order to increase broadband and public safety radio transmissions in dead zones. “Bottom line is, we’re doing everything we can to support them,” Truex said.

Groninger repeated that broadband was really important and that the county was working on it. Mitchell said she served on the tower committee and the county is finally at a point where it can address the issue. Ponce said, as a teacher, she understands how and why broadband is important, especially during this pandemic. Roe said she was happy to hear broadband internet was coming as it is an essential utility.

Candidates were asked what they believe the county’s financial priorities are and what would be their role in ensuring the county is fiscally responsible.

Groninger, said, in general, that’s the county’s basic infrastructure – including the sheriff’s and highway departments. The No. 1 priority she sees is broadband internet, followed by housing.

Mitchell said there are many things on the list of priorities for the county, including broadband internet among others. “We do have a lot of other things that are huge, but they’re things that are coming down the road. They’re not things that are an emergency.”

Ponce said, “I believe that our county’s financial priorities first and foremost are our residents. I believe that if we ensure that our residents are receiving a great quality of life, they’re therefore able to output that into our economy.” She said she also believes in nonprofits and treatment for mental health and addition issues.

Roe said the county needs to take care of the bottom base first – health and safety of its residents. Beyond that, Roe said they need to ask their residents what they think the county needs but be fiscally responsible.

Truex said public safety was No. 1.

With $3.6 million in the county’s Rainy Day Fund, the candidates were asked what their recommendation would be for the use of those funds.

Ponce said with the budget deficit, it was important to take a look at where that deficit was coming from and where funding was being allocated. She said she wants to see continued free coronavirus testing sites for all county residents.

Roe said a rainy day fund is kept for emergencies. “So, I’m not sure we’ve had a bigger emergency than the pandemic. So, because of the budget shortfall, due to the COVID crisis, it may be that we dip into the Rainy Day Fund to cover some costs for those basic necessities for the health and safety of our residents.” She said she didn’t have any specific uses for that fund, but she also didn’t want to completely drain it either.

Truex said the $3.6 million rainy day fund needs to stay where it’s at, and it can’t be built back up once used so the county needs to be very careful in using it. Groninger agreed with Truex.

Mitchell said, “It’s not going to be raining in 2021. If we have a serious issue, it’s going to be in ’22 and ’23 when the income tax – because it filters back two years – that’s when we’ll have a problem. We can’t spend everything today not knowing where this whole pandemic thing is going, No. 1, and No. 2, not having any idea of how much worse it’s going to get. I’m pretty comfortable that we have taken care of the budget for 2021. I would have never voted to approve that budget if I didn’t believe we could fund it.”