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Published: Monday, 10/18/2004

Seneca County race focuses on jail, tax

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The four people running to replace Seneca County Commissioner Tom Distel have one thing in common: Whoever wins the seat Nov. 2 will hold public office for the first time.

Tiffin fire Capt. Ben Nutter, who defeated Mr. Distel in the Democratic primary in March, and accountant Charles Ardner, a Republican who bested two primary opponents, are joined in the race by two independents, former restaurant owner Mary "Kay" Ranker and Dennis Wickert, a tavern owner and real state developer and manager.

All believe they have the background to solve the county's financial problems and make tough decisions on the future of the vacant county courthouse and other government facilities.

Mr. Ardner, director of budgets at Tiffin University, said his experience handling the school's finances will give him a leg up in tackling the county's books. "We have managers of departments, so I work directly with those managers on building their budgets and how they maintain their budgets, and it's the same way the county is run," he said.

Mr. Ardner said he'd probably oppose repealing the 0.5-percent sales tax imposed last year by the commissioners, but he isn't sure whether the measure should be allowed to expire in 2007.

"Right now, I don't look at taking it off, because the budget's already in place," he said.

The future of the 118-year-old courthouse, closed since May when the county's two common pleas courts moved into a new annex next door, should be decided by the voters, Mr. Ardner said. Whether the courthouse is renovated or razed and replaced, he said it would be better for the county to consolidate its facilities and sell the office buildings it owns in downtown Tiffin.

Mr. Ardner said he'd back the proposed expansion of the county jail if the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement commits to sending a minimum number of detainees. "If it's profitable, it may be a viable solution," he said.

The commissioners decided recently to put off a decision on the expansion, estimated to cost at least $2 million, until after the replacements for Mr. Distel and Mr. Young take office in January.

Mr. Nutter, 37, points to his administrative experience as a Tiffin fire captain. "I've been in the public employment sector for over 10 years, and I understand how contracts are negotiated, what it takes to deal with unions, that kind of thing," he said.

He wants county department heads to begin developing five-year plans to avoid the kind of financial crisis that befell the county last year, when the threat of steep cuts in the sheriff's office led commissioners to enact the sales tax. He notes that the 0.5-percent tax brings in about $2.1 million a year and that the county would have to boost its retail tax base by hundreds of millions of dollars to make up for that revenue.

"There's a lot of things that have to take place before that tax can be allowed to disappear," Mr. Nutter said.

He thinks razing the courthouse and replacing it makes more sense than trying to fix up the old structure. Like Mr. Ardner, he supports expanding the jail if the county can reach a deal with the federal government.

Mr. Wickert believes the county needs someone with lots of business experience who's willing to be a full-time commissioner. He said if elected, he would have his wife and other business partners handle most of the operations at his tavern and real estate businesses.

"My Republican and Democratic opponents will keep their first jobs and treat the county commissioners' office as their second job," he said.

Mr. Wickert said the county needs to cut spending so the sales tax can be reduced or used to repair or replace the courthouse. But the ultimate decision rests with the voters, he added.

As for the jail, Mr. Wickert said he's reluctant to commit to an expansion without federally guaranteed detainee numbers.

Mrs. Ranker stands out from the other three candidates on the jail issue: She opposes any expansion. "I'm against building a new jail, because it wouldn't be profitable," she said.

Mrs. Ranker said county figures show that after costs, the county would net less than $3 per federal detainee per day.

Mrs. Ranker clashed publicly with the commissioners over their decision on the sales tax and has since sued them, alleging that the county's practice of keeping the commissioners' meeting minutes only on tape violates Ohio's open records law.

She said because voters rejected a 0.25-percent sales tax for courthouse renovation in 2002, the county needs to find another solution for the vacant building. If the county can't find grants or donations to fix the structure, the commissioners should wait until they have enough money to demolish it, Mrs. Ranker said.

As for the tax enacted last year, Mrs. Ranker said she'd like to repeal it but doesn't think that's realistic, considering the county's current budget.

Contact Steve Murphy at: smurphy@theblade.com or 419-724-6078.



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