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Published: Wednesday, 12/27/2006

Departing Graf calls budget top challenge

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAUSEON - One of the last votes to be cast by Jack Graf as president of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners will be on the issue that he says has been his biggest challenge: balancing the county budget.

This morning, at what is expected to be the last meeting for Mr. Graf as a commissioner - his term ends Sunday - the county's 2007 budget is on the agenda, with recommendations for significant cuts to conservation, extension, and the county museum.

"The biggest challenge is always the budget," said Mr. Graf, who has been a county commissioner for eight years. "The last four years, at least, it's been really tough to try to get everything to fit. Things that you really can't control are what drives the budget sometimes."

Those rapidly growing line items in Fulton County have been costs for holding inmates in jail, caring for increasingly troubled foster children, and covering county employees' health care.

If such costs continue to spike, the commissioners say they might ask for a 0.5 percent county sales tax increase on the November ballot.

And that's a challenge that Joe Short, who will take Mr. Graf's seat next week says he would rather have forgone for his first year as a commissioner.

"Nobody wants to ask for it and nobody wants to do it, but it may be a reality," Mr. Short said.

Commissioner Dean Genter promised last week that the board of commissioners will not implement a sales tax on its own. Any question of a sales tax increase, he said, would be put before the voters.

"This is going to be a very challenging year," said Mr. Short, who has been sitting in the audience at the commissioner's meetings since he was elected in November.

Nevertheless, Mr. Graf predicted that Mr. Short might be surprised - as he was - by how many county operations the commissioners oversee and how varied they are.

"It's unending," Mr. Graf said. The commissioners' purview ranges from children's services to ditch maintenance.

On the other hand, he said, one of his biggest frustrations was in areas in which the commissioners had no control.

"You find out real quick you can't do a lot of things you thought you would be able to. You don't have the authority," Mr. Graf said.

The county's closed landfill was one of those examples.

Mr. Graf said he felt the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency dictated expensive procedures, and the commissioners had no choice but to pick up the bill.

Meanwhile, the commissioners couldn't attempt to use the landfill to generate the funds to cover those expenses because it was closed.

One of the changes Mr. Graf said he's most pleased with from his two terms as a commissioner is in the county's work-force development programs.

When Mr. Graf took office, Fulton County residents who were unemployed or underemployed were often referred to a Job Training Partnership Act office in Bryan. Now the county has its own offices with General Equivalency Diploma classes, job training, and job postings.

"That's been kind of fun to watch that evolve," said Mr. Graf, who is on the governor's workforce policy board.

Work-force development might be one of the areas for which Mr. Graf is most remembered.

"He took his job very seriously and understood local government and understood work-force development," Mr. Genter said.

Mr. Graf's terms as commissioner are his only experience in elected office.

He was the high vote-getter in a field of three Republican candidates - including Mr. Genter, in the 1998 GOP primary and easily beat his Democratic opponent, Jim Meyer, that fall.

In 2002, Mr. Graf was unopposed in both the primary and general elections.

This year, he ran for county auditor in the Republican primary against incumbent Nancy Yackee and was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1.

He stumbled for words last week when asked if he wished he had run to keep his seat instead.

"I don't know. I did what I did and I can't go back," said Mr. Graf, who at 59 says he is too young to retire and is looking for work.

He didn't rule out running for commissioner again, but said that campaigns are expensive and he abhors asking for political donations.

"I'm leaving it thinking I did the best I could and I did what I thought was right," Mr. Graf said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.



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