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Published: Sunday, 12/21/2008

Investing in the future

LUCAS County Commissioners Pete Gerken and Tina Skeldon Wozniak would do well to set aside their knee-jerk tendency to reject out of hand anything fellow Commissioner Ben Konop suggests and examine closely his proposal to set up a college scholarship fund to help keep county residents from seeking greener pastures outside the Toledo area.

Mr. Konop this week outlined a plan to cut the county budget by $4 million and use the money to establish a $70 million scholarship fund for local high school seniors and displaced workers to attend any college in the state for free. In return, scholarship recipients would agree to remain in Lucas County for a minimum of two years after graduation.

This is not entirely an original idea. The commissioner modeled his plan after the Kalamazoo Promise, in which graduating high school seniors from the southern Michigan city can attend any of that state's public two or four-year colleges at reduced cost provided they reside in the school district and have spent at least the previous four years at a district school.

Mr. Konop believes that about $300,000 could be trimmed from the county's annual budget by moving many employees to a four-day work week and turning down building thermostats late in the day. But the bulk of the savings - $3.5 million - could come, he says, from privatizing the county's $9 million emergency medical transportation system.

Undoubtedly, there would be difficult details to work out. The devil is always in the details. But that does not make Mr. Konop's proposal any less intriguing.

One of the most important considerations for businesses considering where to set up shop is the availability of a well-trained work force. That requirement is even more important in high-tech firms such as those involved in the green technologies in which northwest Ohio is gaining an international reputation.

Alternative energy and other green companies will be more inclined to locate in Lucas County if they know that workers with the skills they demand are readily available. Conversely, locally produced college graduates will be more amenable to maintaining their roots in the area if they know that there are good jobs available when they complete their studies.

A local college fund could, with luck and the eventual recovery of the national economy, reap huge benefits for the county and the entire region. That possibility makes Mr. Konop's colleagues on the board appear Grinch-like when their first response is to jump on the proposal's possible pitfalls rather than its potential.

When faced with a new idea, some people can't help but focus on all the ways it might fail. Surely, Mr. Gerken and Ms. Wozniak are aware that these difficult economic times demand wider vision.

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