Candidates for Kosciusko County Middle District Commissioner are (L to R) Cary Groninger, incumbent, and Travis McConnell. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Candidates for Kosciusko County Middle District Commissioner are (L to R) Cary Groninger, incumbent, and Travis McConnell. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Dollars and cents and how they should be spent was the theme of the candidate forum between Cary Groninger and Travis McConnell Thursday.

The virtual event, hosted by the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Kosciusko County Bar Association, was the second this week for candidates up for election. Thursday’s forum opened with a 30-minute session with Republican Middle District County Commissioner and incumbent Cary Groninger and Democrat opponent Travis McConnell.

Groninger and McConnell both introduced themselves as successful business owners – Groninger as operating G&G Hauling & Excavating as a second-generation business here for 50 years; McConnell as owning his own downtown law firm for the last five.

“I’ve been here a long time, and the reason that I’m running is because I’m passionate about Kosciusko County, and I want this to be a place where my kids want to come back and live,” Groninger said.

McConnell said he chose to make Warsaw his home, having grown up in neighboring Churubusco and he has served on a number of boards while here.

“I think my law background helps with knowing the right questions to ask ... and using the information and critical thinking that all of us lawyers have to help us all. I wanted to show that we all have more in common than we don’t, we’re more united than divided and provide transparency and accountability in our government that’s needed.”

The county budget – and the deficit – were a contested issue between the two, with McConnell saying he “can’t help but think when I look at the lines of cars at the food line about business that we’ve failed and we need to help them more. It doesn’t start with COVID. Over the last five years, there’s been a deficit. It’s something that will have to be addressed, in addition to the complications from COVID.”

“Yes, there definitely is a budget shortfall,” Groninger conceded, “but due to some reduced funding due to COVID because of the number of people working ... I know as a commissioner, I know that there are some things we can cut due to nonessential funding ... but it does fall back to the council to handle the purse strings.”

Groninger said the commissioners are utilizing the COVID CARES Act funds to help the local government operate through the pandemic and working with the county IT department to have the ability to work from home and upgrade the phone systems for when needed.

With the county’s budget totaling nearly $50 million, both candidates were asked about their experience with handling budgets.

Groninger acknowledged that perhaps some major projects or purchases – like upgrading highway department trucks – could wait to help trim the spending. He also said using grant funding to help stretch dollar-for-dollar is important, and a priority.

“There are other things that we want to make sure we stay on top of,” Groninger said. “Like road funding. ... and make sure we try to get those grants and maximize the tax dollars that we do spend, a lot of times it’s dollar for dollar like Community Crossings, to where we can make those dollars go further. But a bulk of the budget does happen at the council level.”

“I have my own staff ...,” McConnell said of working with budgets. “It’s not $50 million ... but with the boards I’ve been on ... I have a lot of experience looking at budgets and familiarity with budgets.”

McConnell said he’s recently “delved into the county budget,” and there’s been a $5 million increase in spending. McConnell said you can do three things to help with the budget problem: raise taxes, cut spending or prioritize economic development.

“The commissioners and the council have decided to use that (economic development income tax) EDIT funds to offset the deficit and general fund,” McConnell said. “What if we would have provided those funds to business owners or new business owners?”

Groninger said when it comes to spending and tightening the belt, yeah, that could be an option, but he also thinks, “We’re right on the cusp of some really cool things that are about to happen in Kosciusko County.” He said he believes people who live in big cities, amid the pandemic, are looking to flock to small towns like Kosciusko County. Building up housing for those folks is key, he said.

“It’s even better if the people live here. If they also have a house, they’re paying property taxes, and work here, paying income tax and putting money in our businesses,” Groninger said.

McConnell pounded down on transparency when the budget narrative began to shift and said he would end “backdoor politics.”

Both were asked about broadband internet in the area and Kosciusko REMC’s recent pledge to make it more available in the county. Groninger said the county is using some of the COVID CARES Act money for towers in the most underserved areas and working on a public safety plan for coverage.

“We’re gonna work with them, not against them,” Groninger said of broadband dealings with REMC.

McConnell said if he were commissioner, he’d reach out to NIPSCO and other players in the game to bring as much competition and access as possible to the underserved areas. He pointed to when the pandemic shut school down earlier this year and school buses were parking in neighborhoods where there was no WiFi.

Using wind energy was also a point of differing views Thursday, with Groninger saying he does think there’s a place for that in the county, but that farmers and planners ought to look at where those wind mills should be placed and not eat up useful agricultural land. McConnell said he believes it should be up the landowners to decide if they want to use wind energy, not the government’s.

Staying healthy and using the county’s greenways and expanding them was something both candidates discussed, with McConnell saying he would implement a park department for the county and provide a platform for that to happen without spending a lot of money.

“We have the Tippecanoe River, we have lots of lakes ... we just need to work to create the spaces that ... would attract more people,” McConnell said.

Groninger said that he looks to the Hometown Chats the Community Foundation performed in the small communities and the comprehensive plan put forth by the county.

“These communities have an opportunity to produce or create ... in their own community, whether that’s a blue way, a bike trail or a water park, I think we’re gonna have a real opportunity to expand those things,” Groninger said. “And with the K21 Foundation making these commitments to small towns ... we’re able to figure out projects that reach these comminutes and use that money to leverage that with other grants to where it’s not a $200,000 improvement in this community, it’s a $2 million improvement.”

The county’s $3.6 million rainy day fund also came into play at the debate.

“I think that we need to use rainy day funds for rainy days, and this year we shut down and had a budget deficit. Instead of shifting funds from economic development, we have rainy day funds. Those people in need in line waiting for food, those business that are closed, those businesses that are back open but suffering, does it seem like it’s raining? I would consider this to be a rainy day opportunity to use those funds, and I would open up that valve and use our funds to expand the revenue and reduce the deficit,” McConnell said.

“It has been rough for everybody,” Groninger said. “But at the same token, we’re very fortunate with the Republican leadership ... we’ve had very little debt. ... We have two small debts ... two bond issues in two different TIF districts is the only debt we have right now ... and some of that is the fiscal conservatism that prior leadership has had. There’s time to use that $3.6 million ... We should save that. ... Even though it could be bad, it could get worse. Save it for a very urgent time. ... There are stringent limits on what that can be used for.”

The final question both were asked was what makes them the best candidate for the job.

McConnell said one concern he’s heard while knocking on doors is the transparency of local government and accountability.

“If you elect me, you don’t have to worry about that problem,” he said. “You’ll get additional transparency from your local government.”?

“I know Kosciusko County like the back of my hand and pretty much dug a hole in every square mile of this county,” Groninger said. “I know dirt, I’m a business owner that has over 50 employees, and it’s a successful business. ... I’ve already been doing it for three years ... I spend time there (at the courthouse), and engage in this community, I feel like I’m giving 100%.”