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Published: Thursday, 5/2/2002

7 pursue Seneca County position

BY KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - When it comes to one Seneca County commissioner's seat, Democrats and Republicans will have several choices when they head to the polls Tuesday.

Election officials said the primary race for commissioner - there are seven candidates on the ballot - is the largest in decades. Only one of the three commissioner seats is up for grabs this year.

One candidate is H. Weldin Neff, the county's former troubled-plagued sheriff. He is one of three Republican candidates trying to unseat GOP incumbent Ken Estep, who is serving his 12th year as commissioner.

Besides Mr. Neff, Robert Lee and Dave Sauber, Sr., are the GOP candidates trying to oust Mr. Estep. The candidates in the Democratic primary are Dennis Brady, David Gross, and Joe Schock. The winners in the Republican and Democratic primary will face off for the seat in the November general election.

Most of the candidates in both parties say economic development is he biggest issue facing residents in the predominantly rural county.

Mr. Estep, 64, originally said he would not run for re-election, prompting other candidates to file petitions for the race. But Mr. Estep later changed his mind, saying he wanted to remain in office to see several projects through to completion.

One of them is construction of the new Abbott's Bridge in Seneca County, while another is the future of the Seneca County courthouse.

County residents will be asked Tuesday to support a 10-year, 0.25 percent sales tax to help renovate the aging courthouse - a $7 million project.

Mr. Estep said one reason he should remain in office is because he knows the county's issues and has relationships with other area officials.

“It's going to be up to the voters,” Mr. Estep said. “I don't have all the answers, but I don't think anyone does in this job.”

Another person who's familiar with county government is Mr. Neff, 72, who was defeated for re-election as sheriff in November, 2000. Mr. Neff operates Neff Services and delivers summonses for the courts.

Mr. Neff decided to run for commissioner in November, just after he was acquitted on misdemeanor stalking charges involving a former sheriff's dispatcher. During his term as sheriff, he also was charged with 10 felony counts for wrongdoing in office. A judge found him not guilty on all counts.

If elected, Mr. Neff has proposed setting up a task force in the commissioners' office to help bring industry to the county.

He said he plans to forgo payment as county commissioner. Mr. Neff receives retirement checks but said he would not be penalized for taking the additional income. The new commissioner will be paid nearly $50,000 annually.

“I guess that's the big thing for me personally. If elected, I would serve at no cost to the county,” Mr. Neff said.

Mr. Lee, 58, is attempting another run for office after appearing as a Tiffin City Council candidate twice.

He owns a flooring business called Courtlee Interiors, Inc., a company that's been in his family for 45 years.

Mr. Lee pointed to his experience as a small businessman as a reason why he would make a good commissioner. If elected, he said he would focus on economic development and improving relations with the city of Fostoria, as well as reviewing the county's bidding process.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and bring more businesses to the area,” he said.

The fourth Republican in the race is Mr. Sauber, 48, who has knowledge of county government through his work for the past 12 years as reserve deputy sheriff.

A lifelong county resident, Mr. Sauber formerly owned and managed Sauber's Garage and Mini-Storage. Now he works as a claims adjuster for an insurance company.

Mr. Sauber said he has concerns about Seneca County, namely the loss of industry. As commissioner, Mr. Sauber said he would work to balance the budget without tax increases.

“Over the last 25 years, I've seen the county go downhill,” he said.

On the Democratic side, all three candidates are former county employees.

Mr. Brady is making a second run for public office after being defeated in November, 2000, by Tom Steyer for Seneca County sheriff.

Formerly a jail captain for the sheriff's office, Mr. Brady, 53, was fired by former Sheriff Neff after he testified in the sheriff's felony trial. Since the sheriff's race, Mr. Brady completed a master's degreee in business administration and works as a traveling service representative for Home Depot.

Mr. Brady said he would be a good commissioner because he's familiar with county government. He said he's concerned about retaining jobs and people, especially youths, in the county.

“I think I have to offer the community, the county, ways to improve conditions,” he said.

Mr. Gross served from 1989 to 1998 as the area's emergency management director. Now he's a paramedic and firefighter in Tiffin. The 43-year-old said he would focus on economic development, safety, and government waste if elected.

He pointed to the construction of the Seneca County jail as an example of misuse of taxpayers' funds. Since construction, the county has struggled to fill beds at the facility and has tried to solicit for inmates from out-of-county.

Though raised in Tiffin, Mr. Schock, 56, lived for 17 years on the East Coast, where he operated Schock Construction Co.

When Mr. Schock returned to Seneca County, he began noticing problems within county government. He later took a job as maintenance foreman for the county, where he was in charge of construction projects. He retired in October.

Mr. Schock said his list of issues includes job retention and grant solicitation. He said his past experience as a business owner and county employee makes him a good candidate for commissioner. “I'm familiar with the issues, the people, the buildings,” he said.



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