1-8-16 The Brave New World

          I’ll count it as the ultimate success of our county economic development office. The Times-Bulletin number one story of 2015: “Looking for Job Fillers.” The crux of that story was that Van Wert’s economic problem now is exactly the inverse of 2009’s unemployment problem. In 2016, there aren’t enough workers.

I’ve written several columns about this very issue and they are all available at my website, www.toddwolfrum.com. I’ll refer to those columns here if you missed them the first time around and are interested in reading further.

We created the county economic development office nearly three years ago to answer the question that wasn’t being asked: Why is the county population declining? Our initial director, Sarah Moser, found an answer in a book called “When the Boomers Bail” by Mark Lautman. I’ve gone over the thesis of that book a few times in this column. (Specifically, read: “A Generation Retires” from January, 2015.)

Discovering the demographic problem was the first hurdle. The second was convincing the vast majority of people who were waiting on the Megasite to bring unprecedented prosperity that this problem will be catastrophic for us, not immediately, but in the decades to come. In the spring, we held a stakeholder’s summit so business people, politicians, educators, and other interested parties could come together. Mark Lautman himself came to lead the discussion.

Business owners started talking and most discovered that they all had the same workforce shortage problem. There were plenty of jobs and no one to hire. As discussion continued, the population decline began to rise as the chief indicator of economic health. (Read: “Why Population Matters” – December, 2013.)

What further investigation revealed was that this problem is not local – it’s regional. We talked with people from Defiance and Putnam Counties and with Northwest State headquartered up in Fulton County. Everywhere around us there is this same workforce problem. I always ask people from the region about this when I get a chance and over Christmas I interrogated my sister-in-law who is in management at BF Goodrich. They can’t get people to work there for jobs that pay $30/hour. And all of this before the Boomers even begin to retire en mass.

The adage “If you build it they will come” no longer applies. However, locally, all anyone had talked about for several years was the Megasite. If someone does fill that Megasite with high paying jobs, perhaps that would help. But what would become of all of the factories here that are already having trouble finding people? This problem is unique in the history of our county and our country. (Read: “The Problem” – September, 2015.)

One solution is to grow from within by keeping as many of our young people as we can, otherwise known as the Mercer County model. (Read: “Brining It All Back Home” – November, 2014.) This needs involvement from our schools. We need to convince kids and their parents that, for many, going away to college isn’t the best option. (Read: “The Great Higher Education Swindle” – September, 2013 and “The University of Van Wert” – November, 2013.)

Van Wert High School became the first to take this issue head on. Bob Priest and Kerry Koontz led a forum last month to begin discussion on steering fewer kids to college and more to trades and skilled work. Such an effort would not only greatly benefit our community but would save many kids from insurmountable and useless college debt.

In the meantime, the county had helped Northwest State achieve designation as our community college provider. (Read: “College Arrives” – May, 2014.) With that designation, the certificate training many will need to fill the skilled jobs in our county is available. And more young people can begin college classes at home that will transfer anywhere in the state.

In effect, we can maintain our ties to JobsOhio and other regional efforts, but, because of the demographics, they’ve had nothing to offer rural communities for some time. If we are going to thrive in the coming years, drawing people will be as important and maybe more so, than drawing employers. A few months ago, I offered a comprehensive plan for an economic development effort to address population. (Read: “Science County, USA, Parts 1 and 2” – September, 2015.) Hopefully, other plans will also develop.

The Times Bulletin had not been a fan of the county economic development office from the outset. Of course, we were not mentioned in their number one story of 2015, although each of the columns referenced here appeared in the paper.

That’s more than okay. I think all three of us in the Commissioners’ office as well as Sarah and Sue Gerker, our current director in the county economic development office, are just happy we succeeded in getting everyone on the same page. You could have infinite economic development efforts that prove fruitless if they aren’t directed at the actual problem.

As the county economic development wraps up as a solo enterprise and merges with the city in the weeks to come, we can look back with pride and achievement. It wasn’t easy, but if we’ve convinced even the Times Bulletin that demographics is the county’s top economic issue, we are well ahead the rest of the region in a greater move toward addressing it. This will be a prime objective of the joint city and county effort.

 

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1-1-16 The County Budget

The presentation of a series of numbers makes for poor reading, but when you’re talking budgets, there is really no other way to do it. Balancing these numbers is a big chunk of our responsibility in the Commissioners’ office. Here’s how Van Wert County’s financials look for 2016.

The county budget gets approved at the end of every year following months of meetings with several of the departments. This past week, we finalized appropriations for 2016 and I sat down with Van Wert’s legendary auditor, Nancy Dixon, to better understand all the revenue and expense accounts myself so I could explain them to anyone who cares to read further.

Estimated county revenue for 2016 is in the nature of $28.4 million. Of that, $9.7 million is money the Commissioners actually control, which is known as the general fund. The rest of it, nearly $19 million, is earmarked for the various agencies – it comes in and we approve it going to the agencies, but, in most cases, we have little say over its going. We often must approve how it is spent, however.

An example of an entity that has its own money separate from the general fund is the Engineer’s Office. Kyle Wendel’s department will operate on a $4.4 million budget in 2016. This money comes from gas taxes and license plate registration fees. Thomas Edison is another example and will receive $3.2 million from its levy and other non-county government funding sources. Both Kyle and Thomas Edison Superintendent Jim Stripe will come to us through the year for approval of certain expenditures from these funds.

Also not in the general fund are The Department of Job and Family Services ($2.1 million), Brumback Library ($1 million), Van Wert Solid Waste ($579k), Ohio State Extension ($195k), and a host of other such entities that are financed by levies, fees, and state and federal agencies. These departments make their own budgets and are responsible to the State Auditor as we are.

Back to the $9.7 million that we actually control. The county’s discretionary money is gathered from two primary sources: Real estate taxes will generate $1.5 million in 2016 and sales tax is expected to generate a little over $4 million. The State of Ohio provides local government funds of $373k. This amount was reduced five years ago by $200k, probably in anticipation of new money to Ohio counties from the casinos, which are estimated to provide us $330k in 2016.

Payments on the windmill PILOT will provide $303k to the county general fund. We will receive $100k from investment income and $300k from conveyance fees, which are the 0.4% fees paid on the sales price of real estate upon transfer. Then there are a host of minor revenue streams such as treasurer fees ($128k), fines collected from the various courts ($124k), the leasing of county property to the State of Ohio ($96k), income from renting out the county farm ($72k). There is even one kind soul that donates $1,000 to the county every year.

This money gets spread among the general fund agencies. About a third of it goes to the Sheriff’s Department to enforce laws and house inmates. When you include the costs of the Common Pleas Court, Juvenile Court, Prosecutor’s Office, Probation Department and the Public Defender’s Office, which are all maintained largely out of the general fund, criminal activity eats up over half of our discretionary money. We all would be wealthier, especially the criminals themselves, if everyone would just obey the law.

The general fund is distributed, of course, based on how many employees and resources are needed in each office. The Commissioners ($280k), Auditor ($186k), Treasurer ($145k), Prosecutor ($356k), Probation Department ($150k), Juvenile Court ($410k), Clerk of Courts ($173k), Coroner ($63k), and Recorder ($146k), make up only about half of these offices.

We are blessed as Van Wert County Commissioners in that all of our agencies generally return money at the end of the year. In most government budget situations, an agency will be sure to spend all of its allotted money to be guaranteed to obtain at least the same amount in the next year. Not so here.

And when we talk about revenue, that word is really just a euphemism for “taken from tax payers in one way or another”. It has been our goal, all three of us being fiscal conservatives, to find a way to reduce taxes over time. That is a difficult goal. Property taxes are not really ours to lower. Of the taxes on my personal residence, for example, 68% goes to the school, 8% to Vantage, 7.8% to the township, and 7.4% to Thomas Edison. Only 4.2% goes to the county general fund. (I know, that doesn’t add up to 100% – the library, OSU Extension, senior citizens’ fund, and mental health fund also get smaller shares.)

The sales tax can be cut. The sales tax in Van Wert County is 7.5%. Of that 6% goes to the state and $1.5% goes to the county. The problem with cutting the sales tax is that it has to go by quarter percent increments. We have the authority to cut the rate to 7.25%, but that would cut $666k out of our revenue. This would be hugely irresponsible because we don’t have the authority to raise it back to 7.5% if necessary. Commissioners can lower the rate but only voters can raise it.

We’re not on a shoestring budget but we’re not rolling in it either. I would describe the county budget as healthy. In 2015, we had two huge expenses, one expected and one not. Every twelfth year or so, we have 27 employee pay periods instead of 26, which costs the county an extra $220k. We budgeted for that. The unexpected expense was $254k that Van Wert Town Center didn’t pay on its bonds. The county, as guarantor, was on the hook for that payment.

In the end, despite those expenses, we finished 2015 about $150k in the black, a number that fluctuates as money is returned from agencies over the next several months. You should not expect a sales tax cut in the near future, but we are doing our best to maintain costs and not grow government. 2016 looks to be another year where we will be able to do this.

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12-11-15 Guns and Civilization

 

“We don’t let them have ideas, why would we let them have guns?” – Joseph Stalin, on his subjects in the Soviet Union.

I fired a shotgun a few times when I was a kid. A couple years ago, I bought a handgun and shot it just enough to learn how to use it, and then I locked it away in a safe and have barely taken it out since. I’ve never shot at anything other than an empty can. So I wouldn’t call myself a gun “enthusiast.”

But if someone kicks in my door at 2 A.M., I know where to reach and what to grab. Without that weapon, my house would be equal to Paris last month or that San Bernardino office last week, or every other place that has suffered a mass shooting over the past several years – a gun free zone.

China invented gunpowder in the 9th century. If you think modern America is a dangerous place, read more on those ancient times before firearms. It was a far nastier, more brutal place and you usually had to fear your own government more than a foreign invader. As guns developed into a practical weapon over the next millennium, tyranny began a sharp decline.

Our Founding Fathers lived closer to this trend in history. The freedom they fought for would have been impossible without the existence of guns. Prior to firearms, trained soldiers would route any citizen militia and only kings and their armies could protect land and property. A sword is a cumbersome thing requiring years of training before it becomes a deadly fighting weapon. Being able to protect yourself with a gun just takes a few hours target practice.

The experience of the American Revolution led to the second amendment and gun rights. The second seems an oddity among the other more philosophical and less tangible first ten amendments. You have the right to speak, assemble, petition the government, be free from unwarranted searches and seizures and cruel punishment. Oh, and you can own a piece of metal.

But the second amendment is no anachronism. The world is just as full of people who would choose to be tyrants as it always was. Every mass shooting seems to underscore the same point, and that is the only way to prevent gun violence is more guns in the hands of the non-violent.

If there were another answer, someone would have already found it. The President might have mentioned it in one of his sermons. MSNBC might have slipped us the answer.

The Paris and California shootings highlighted this paradox. Where there are the strictest gun laws in the civilized world there are the easiest targets for terrorists and criminals. No laws proposed in the aftermath of either of those shootings would have had any effect on those events, especially the recent call for banning all people on the no fly list from buying guns.

Republicans were vilified in the press for blocking this “common sense” proposal. Why would we allow people on this suspected terrorist list buy guns? But here’s the problem with the no fly list: There is no due process involved. There is no way to appeal being included on the list. Until last year, you weren’t even allowed to know if you were on it. You’d have to go to the airport and try to get on a plane to find out.

You can google “mistakenly put on the no fly list” and read the stories. Maybe the most humorous was the famous singer Cat Stevens, who had changed his name to Yusaf Islam, being detained and then, the next year, Catherine Stevens, the wife of a Congressmen, being held for questioning because her name was similar to Cat Stevens.

Not that we shouldn’t just trust the government to know best, despite the occasional mistake. Our government would never, for instance, target conservatives for special scrutiny. (I’m looking at you IRS.) Even liberals can be targeted if they cross the military. Jesselyn Radack, a government employee who argued that the terrorist John Walker Lindh should have an attorney, found herself on the list. It’s a great way to mess up someone’s life.

Regardless, and with perfect hindsight, this proposal would have stopped exactly zero of the shootings that have occurred in this country while creating infinite avenues for government abuse. But is this the new normal, a mass shooting several times a year? Doesn’t have to be.

Liberty University, which has allowed conceal-carry on campus by permit-holders everywhere but in residence halls now is looking to allow them even there. Because if you were going to attack Liberty, you would attack a dorm. Better to have a few responsible gun owners available. Do you know what university just became the least likely place in America to have a mass shooting?

There doesn’t have to be a shooting every other week, but more people have to get licenses to carry guns in what would otherwise be gun free zones, which is not only places where guns aren’t allowed but also places where no one has a gun. I’ve made an early resolution to do it myself in 2016. To paraphrase a Chris Rock joke, if gun free zones had a corporate sponsor, it would be Target.

There’s an old episode of The Simpsons where guns are successfully eliminated from the world and then aliens conquer and enslave mankind using boards with nails sticking out of them as weapons. There is always going to be someone willing to use force to impose his will on others, whether with guns or baseball bats. Guns equalize the confrontation and because they do, usually eliminate it. A criminal will rob granny for twenty bucks with a knife if he has nothing to lose. He’ll leave that twenty alone if granny might have a gun.

Guns and the private ownership of them ended mass tyranny and enabled the civilized world. It might be pretty to ponder their total elimination, but it would be just as pretty to ponder every person being a good person. Unlike any other nation on earth, we were born a nation of citizen gun owners. It’s no coincidence that we were also born free.

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Wolfrum Files Petitions for Re-Election

Van Wert County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum has filed petitions for re-election as a Republican candidate in the primary to be held in March, 2016.

“When I ran four years ago, I talked about stopping our population loss, rebuilding our villages, and bringing a higher education presence to the county,” Wolfrum said. “At that time, almost no one was talking about those things as priorities. But we were able to change the dialogue and make good progress in all of these areas and I hope to continue and expand on that work in a second term.”

With fellow commissioners Thad Lichtensteiger and Stan Owens, Wolfrum created a County Economic Development Office to achieve these and other non-traditional development objectives. The first local programs to deal with the “brain drain” and the loss of young people came out of this office in the form of Middle School Physics and the Van Wert Works Website. Other ED entities are now developing their own initiatives to deal with the demographic slide.

Wolfrum points to the new incoming city council and administration as a unique opportunity for the county and the city to combine their resources and efforts. Currently, the Commissioners are working with the Van Wert City Mayor-elect Jerry Mazur on a framework for such an arrangement.

“It’s exciting to be involved in what is being formed and I’m proud to have been a part in how it all came about. Three years ago, the powers that were didn’t want the county to have an ED office and didn’t want any new efforts made. To this day, I have trouble understanding that, but that’s the way it was.

“We maintained our position that more could be done and the county office was able to accomplish the grants and the other programs. None of it would have happened had we listened to the status quo. Now it’s time to bring what we have been working on together with some of the ideas brewing with the incoming city people.”

Growing up in Hoaglin Township and playing ball in Middle Point and the other county villages growing up, Wolfrum has a natural affinity for the county’s small towns. Delphos had always been a second home as his father had taught high school math and coached baseball at Delphos Jefferson and Delphos St. John’s through the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties.

“Prior economic development efforts had totally excluded our villages,” Wolfrum noted. “In each of them, though, there is still that core of people working to maintain that sense of community and vibrancy. I believe it’s the job of the county administration to aid these efforts.

“Healthy communities are healthy throughout and strong rural areas help make the city stronger. I’m especially proud of how we’ve been able to reengage our villages and bring Delphos into the county dialogue.”

The county has helped the villages obtain infrastructure grants for over a million dollars during Wolfrum’s term in office. Just in the past year, the County ED office also obtained a $300,000 revitalization grant to rebuild downtown Van Wert and an $800,000 Community Housing Improvement grant to rebuild homes for low and moderate income people in the county.

Wolfrum, also a practicing attorney with an office in Van Wert, used his legal background to the county’s benefit in his first term. On his and Owens’ first day, they were notified that the State of Ohio was requiring a $365,000 payback on a grant due to some misfiled documents in a previous administration. Wolfrum studied the county’s liability insurance policy and developed a legal theory that the insurance should not only cover part of the bill but should cover it all. The insurer eventually paid in full.

Having learned on a trip to Mercer County that eliminating dilapidated buildings is one of the best things that can be done to foster economic development, Wolfrum also used his legal education to write the contracts and guidelines for the Phoenix Initiative, a program he created to provide cooperation between the county and other political subdivisions in funding the teardown of eyesore properties.

In 2013, Wolfrum’s first year, the Commissioners were facing a tight county budget due to skyrocketing employee health insurance costs. They spent that year talking to any insurer that would give them a quote and eventually found a company that saved the county agencies nearly a half million dollars annually, savings that are scheduled to continue into 2016 and keep the county budget well in the black.

But the college presence has proved the most elusive of Wolfrum’s goals. “We’ve thought we’ve had it on a fast track a few times and there still is an ongoing conversation with the Starr. Convincing kids and parents to take those first two years close to home to save a small fortune will be part of the future efforts. Hopefully we’ll have the necessary classes all in county soon, if not at the Starr, then maybe downtown.”

The education goals are part of a plan for branding Wolfrum calls “Science County USA” that he hopes to develop in his second term. The blueprint will be to develop and advertise the county’s unique education opportunities in STEM courses and robotics and provide a college “porthole” by bringing in multiple universities to teach their prime classes in a consortium with Northwest State as the anchor.

An emphasis for Wolfrum has been communication with the public. To keep the public aware of what the county is working on and why, he has written columns released periodically in the media and appears weekly on a radio show with Commissioner Lichtensteiger, Chris Roberts and guests that airs Sunday morning at 8:20 A.M. on 99.7 FM. Both the column and radio show have been known to veer off into promoting small government and conservative values.

“The feedback from the columns and the radio show have been a great way to bring more people into the conversation,” Wolfrum said. “It is like having a running dialogue with the public. One of the most important things I’ve learned in my first term is that there is no shortage of ideas out there.

“I hope I’ve changed the job description for Van Wert County Commissioner in my first term. The new challenges we face as a county have required something different of the position than it had traditionally been. Working with Thad and Stan to affect that change and accomplish what we have already accomplished has certainly been a life highlight and we’re just getting started.”

Wolfrum lives with his wife and children in rural Ridge Township.

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12-4-15 Putting It All Together

It had been our goal a few years ago in the Commissioners’ office to combine the various economic development entities in one location. Even before we left the contract with Ohio State that had been in the works. One of Sarah Moser’s first successes as our County’s Economic Development Director was to win a grant to finance such unification.

The recent city elections confirmed that the community wants these efforts unified as well. Both Jerry Mazur and Pete Weir won convincing elections for Mayor and Council President, respectively, running on this issue. Also winning big was Fred Fisher and Warren Straley in the at-large council positions, both of whom had endorsed unification.

With like-thinking minds about to assume office in the city, talks have started on the nuts and bolts of combining not just the city and county, but all efforts in one building. It is a refreshing change to finally have actual discussions on this issue and receive counter-proposals and friendly debate.

Van Wert City and Van Wert County might have competing interests in forming this alliance, but to put it bluntly, so does everybody else. For the city, the interest has always had a natural boundary at the city limits. The county has the villages, townships, and Delphos to consider as well. All involved currently recognize that a healthy county and city are complimentary and not competitive – for whatever reason, that hasn’t always been the case.

In our talks with Mayor-elect, Jerry Mazur, we’re all starting with the presumption that unification is going to happen and whatever ancient obstacles pop up, they will be dealt with as just that – obstacles and not disabilities. Full development of any plan will have to wait until the new city council takes its seats in January and can become involved. In the meantime, we are sorting through the various agencies that will have a part in shaping this brave new world. Beyond the city and the county, these are the other players and what they need out of a combined central building and office for all economic development activities.

Main Street Van Wert – Adam Ries has done an outstanding job in his role as director of this organization which tries to fill the downtown shops, rebuild its buildings, and create events that draw people to the city center. Ries and the Wassenberg’s Hope Wallace put on a wildly successful first-year event last year on Central Avenue for food and the arts (and rubber ducks). For both the county and the city, downtown Van Wert is the heart and a heart needs to be vibrant. Main Street needs to be located on Main Street or close by and needs some level of autonomy.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) – Successful in generating community interest in recent years, the CVB puts on Rib Fest and promotes other county activities and festivals. Larry Lee is the Director of that organization which is housed downtown in the same building as Main Street. The CVB needs to be visible, not merely easy to find but almost impossible to miss for visitors to the community. CVB also needs some level of autonomy.

The Business Development Corporation (BDC) – An organization of business owners who have developed Vision Park and raised a reserve of money for economic development pursuits. They have managed to retain options on a few hundred acres of farmland surrounding the city for possible future development (in addition to the Megasite) and have expressed a desire to be involved in any beneficial way. Being autonomous is not an issue for this group because they most definitely will be.

The Van Wert County Foundation is a charitable organization financed largely by past gifts and bequests. Of all of the organizations, this one has the biggest ongoing pile of cash. The Wassenberg Art Center, perhaps the greatest addition to the downtown in memory, was a Foundation project. The Foundation’s director, Seth Baker, has expressed an interest in becoming involved in the economic development efforts and possibly the rebuilding of a downtown structure to house the efforts.

The Community Investment Corporation (CIC) holds the leases on the Megasite. It is a quasi-governmental organization that can hold title to land and invest without the usual public requirements for hearings and notice. The Chamber of Commerce in any county is an important player and might look at moving to the building with the other offices. Representation at the central location may also come in some form from the villages, townships, and Delphos.

On the periphery are even more players. Ohio State Extension is still involved and with the new management in Columbus and the continued cooperation of its regional director, we hope to have their support in community development. The Airport has its own plans for expansion and any expansion there helps the grand scheme. The Port Authority can provide conduits for financing development projects.

Most importantly our schools’ superintendents have all shown interest in being involved. The grooming of the next generation of Van Wertians will loom largest in any future economic development plan that hopes to turn the tide on our population decline.

And all that before we get to Van Wert’s version of Bruce Wayne, which has taken the form of Scott Niswonger. Niswonger is always looking to help his hometown and thank God for that.

That’s the scope of what we are working on. Currently, the three of us and Jerry are developing a proposed structure of the governing board and looking at buildings to house all offices. Thanks to efforts of the past and the organizations above, we’ll be at a running start when we get there. Thanks to the restructuring of the past few years, we will also be on the cutting edge in our programs and be utilizing the entire county’s resources and mind power.

 

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10-2-15 An American Original

The Van Wert Solid Waste Management lost its director and a good man last week. Van Wert County lost an icon.

For the last quarter century, George Brake personified conservation and recycling not just for our county, but also for much of the state. Earlier this week, a delegation from a nearby six-county consortium visited our office in a good will effort to help us envision our future without George. Four of five times, they ended trains of thought at “well, George kind of created that program too.” Their final conclusion was that we were going to need a director and a consultant to replace him and that still wouldn’t get us there.

I didn’t know myself until I read the stories about George in the press last week that he had actually started the recycling center from scratch. His wife Kathy relates that the first time she went to have lunch with him all those years ago at the site where the recycling center now sits, there was just a box truck and a pile of mulch. “I asked him where we were going to eat and he said ‘right here’, meaning in the truck.”

Raised by a single mother of six, George Brake had a lean childhood. It is difficult, and maybe unnecessary, to look into a man’s past to try and decipher what made him extraordinary. Growing up with little in the way of material things, though, certainly must have affected his approach to the world later in life. Perhaps in a life of plenty it’s easy to throw things away.

Graduating in 1975 from Van Wert High School, Brake was focused more on music and ideas than a career. In 1977 when he met Kathy, he was working part-time at the Tavern in Convoy, a job he preferred because in the slow times the owner didn’t mind if he played his guitar or read a book.

“When I met him, he was a long-haired hippie and I fell in love with him at first sight. Even the night I met him he had just come from helping someone, that’s just who he was. He had helped pull a Buick out of a ditch in the snow with his 1971 Beetle”

George and Kathy were married in 1979 and, like many young idealists, he soon became reconciled to the fact that he needed gainful employment, first at the old Borden’s factory and then in construction. It wasn’t until the late Eighties that he answered an ad in the paper for a job at the Van Wert Soil and Water Conservation District and began what would be a visionary career in conservation. His efforts at the Van Wert SWCD led to much of the no-till farming and rows of windbreaks set up across the county in that period. “He could have just taken that job and sat behind a desk, but that wasn’t George.”

He had found a calling and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. When a group of politicians in the mid-1990s, including the Commissioners of that day, wanted to start a recycling center, they approached Brake, who initially turned the job down. He liked what he was already doing. But after a few more meetings, his plans for what would become the recycling center began to take shape in his mind and he accepted.

Around that time he also started attending church for the first time. He would become as passionate about his involvement in the Ohio City Church of God as about the recycling center, eventually becoming involved in jail ministries. “He took to heart that we are God’s servants. He was always a servant in his own mind. He always told our kids that. That’s what defined him more than anything.”

Starting with just the truck where he and Kathy had had lunch, he would wait until the truck was filled, mostly with paper, and drive the loads to Fort Wayne after hours, beginning a pattern of putting in unbilled time for the county that would continue throughout. In the last months before his death, unbeknownst to our office, he was working past midnight for several weeks rebuilding the platform on the sorting line. Most people would have just come to us and asked for money to have it repaired and we would pay for it. But George Brake never wasted anything, including taxpayer money.

He grew the recycling center into the multiple building, several acre complex it is today, with the capacity to recycle just about anything you would normally throw away. Van Wert’s Solid Waste District is an oddity – counties of our population are generally in a consortium to save costs. Brake did better with what he had than most consortiums do with twice the resources, finding ways to make money on the products wherever he could but also finding ways to recycle items that didn’t make money just to provide the service and keep as much out of landfills as possible. He was underpaid, extremely underpaid if real value is considered, but I think he knew that if he made any more, that would only be less money available to put towards the overall project.

His shoestring budget required employing people at lower wages, which meant the working conditions had to be made enjoyable. “He always told people he hired that he wanted this to be a first job,” Kathy said. “A way to step up to the next one in a year or two. He tried to give people an opportunity with the jobs he had there. He tried to build employees up like he did his own kids.”

Brake, the father of five children, had to sell his wife on having the first one after eight years of marriage. Kathy joked that in another life George could have been a cult leader because he could very calmly talk anyone into anything. “The guy everyone knew in public, that was the same guy we had at home. In all of those years of raising children, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him raise his voice.”

George Brake’s life was full of odd coincidences. George and Kathy were married on April 22, 1979. Entirely unintentionally, they made their vows on the ninth anniversary of Earth Day, a day to celebrate conservation and recycling. In another strange alignment, Cows and Plows, one of the more public of the many programs Brake helped create, went on during the day of his funeral viewing. There was a certain serendipity to George Brake’s life that leads one to think that the freak accident that took his life on the roadway was part of a larger celestial plan. Really, it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

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9-18-15 Science County USA, Part 2

            If you didn’t live in Van Wert County, what would make you move here?

From the outset, let’s assume we don’t have a lot to offer single people in their twenties. The twenty-somethings that are here now are the ones that want to be here. The ones that are gone, there’s no bringing them back, not until they have families of their own. We’re not going to have the nightlife or job diversity that would attract these people. Not yet anyway.

People over forty-five aren’t moving here, not in numbers. By that age you’ve got your career and maybe your kids are about through school. Retirees are heading south. The people who might move here, and, incidentally, the people we need, are young people with families. Let’s call these people simply the “Target Audience” for the convenience of this column.

            It has been covered several times – the problem we have in Van Wert County is population. And according to current demographics, this problem is going to accelerate in the coming years. As the Baby Boomers begin to retire, we’re going to start losing a larger percentage of our already depleted workforce. The challenge won’t be attracting business, it will be keeping the ones we have, and this is followed by lower wages, less opportunity, and more vacant homes and buildings.

A few months back we met with some candidates who had won Van Wert City Republican primary races to begin talks toward uniting the county and city economic development efforts come the start of the year. We related our demographic concerns and how we were as desperate for people as we were for new business.

Warren Straley, uncontested Republican candidate for City Council, asked what were our marketing efforts? We started in on some of the things we knew that the city had been doing to market the Megasite. Straley said something to the effect of, no, I mean what are we doing to market Van Wert to draw people if that’s what the concern is? Hmm … Good question.

I had a friend when I was a young man a few decades ago who moved to Denver. After moving back to the area I remember asking him, “Wow, Denver, what was that like? Must have been pretty cool.” He shrugged and said, “After a few months it’s like anywhere else. You go to work, you go to Wal-Mart and McDonalds, and you go home.” That friend, who had a wife and a newborn at the time, is the Target Audience in our coming marketing scheme, and there’s literally millions of him.

First and obviously, why would anyone in the Target Audience not want to live here? We have outstanding, modern schools. The cost of living is dirt cheap. If you are handy with tools and can remodel a property, you can have a home for your family for a tenth of what the same home would cost in a big city. For a fifth even if you can’t operate a hammer.

We are within forty minutes of Lima and Fort Wayne and a few hours of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Columbus. Chicago is within driving range for a weekend trip. We are almost perfectly situated. With the money you save living here, you can easily afford two weekends a month in one of these places to take in all of the culture you think you’re missing by not being in a suburb.

This may be the safest place in the world to raise children – far enough away from the big city to escape gang violence and potential terrorism yet close to high quality American medical care in case of emergency. And although there is a drug problem there is also a drug problem everywhere ever since heroin became cheap and available. Overall, crime is low. Locking the door at night in this county might be a common practice, but waking up in the middle of the night worrying about whether you remembered to isn’t.

But these things are also true of many of our neighboring counties. Before we could develop a marketing plan aimed at people, we needed an edge and a catch phrase.

I covered See the Change and the middle school physics program being implemented in our county last week. Considering that we’re talking about kids up to seven years away from high school graduation, it would be fair to call that a long-range strategy. The short game is to market that program along with the other innovation that is happening here in science education.

It had already been percolating before we brought in See the Change. Bob Spath’s robotics team at Van Wert High School is a regional force and a local wonder. You might have heard about this program, but you can’t grasp the thrill of it until you see the kids on the team in action. It’s incredibly unique, and, in fact, so is the rest of the science education available at Van Wert High School.

Our county schools are catching up with the city school. On our radio show this week, our guest was my old schoolmate and current Lincolnview Superintendent Jeff Snyder who talked about that school’s new pre-engineering and pre-biomedical classes. Also, the school is working on expanding the middle school physics downward into fifth grade and developing its own robotics program. I am not familiar with Crestview’s programs (their super is our guest next week), but I am very familiar with the rivalry. Neither of these schools will be outdone by the other in the end, not without a fight.

Filling the Starr with a college presence has been evolving over the past several months and there could be news on that front in the coming weeks. The form that higher education will take there will also be a new model when it happens. It will be a way to overcome the great American financial hoax that higher education has become, and we’ll be on the forefront of that.

So instead of asking the Target Audience why wouldn’t you want to live in Van Wert County, the better question is how could you deprive your kids of being raised in Science County, USA? We’re going to turn the mantra from Columbus on its head. If people will drive forty-five minutes for a good job, it would then seem they would drive forty-five minutes from their job for their kids to live in a post-modern science utopia. With the power of the internet, we can market this nationally to people who work from home, can bring business with them or just want to come here and fill the jobs we already have open for their kids to have a better chance.

And we’ll only be attracting the people who care enough about their kids to make that jump. It won’t take a lot, just enough to stabilize our population while we build the next generation, a group of people who won’t know anything other than that they live in one of the most interesting places in the world.

Moving away from Science County, USA? Well, I guess you could, but then you’d just get bored.

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9-11-15 Science County, USA

“You can make something big when young that will carry you through life. Look at all the big startups like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They were all started by very young people who stumbled on something of unseen value.” – Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.

Steve Jobs is widely considered the genius of the Apple Company and of the modern computer. His genius was really in design and in creating the experience of using a personal computer. The genius in making a personal computer work belonged to his partner in Apple, Steve Wozniak.

In fact, all of the companies referenced above by Wozniak were not only founded by very young people, they were founded by partners. They were all the result of a conversation put into application by young minds. It could be argued that technology has advanced to such a point that the days of the individual innovator are, if not over, past their prime. Innovation today seems to demand collaboration.

This fact is not missed by See the Change USA, the non-profit company that is helping implement a physics program in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades of our county schools. Van Wert, Lincolnview, Crestview, and Delphos Jefferson will begin teaching middle school physics this year. Some are teaching it in just the sixth grade and some are implementing the program instantly and full-blown in all three grades. Delphos St. John’s, a private school not located in our county, caught wind of our doings and paid its own separate fee to join in.

See the Change is based out of Colorado Springs. Currently, its program is in a handful of schools in Colorado and New Mexico. We are the first place east of the Mississippi to adopt the program and we are doing it immediately and countywide. Being unique will be a subject of next week’s column, but it is certainly worth noting here that no one anywhere near us is doing anything like this.

The founder of See the Change is a physicist from the Ukraine who, while teaching at a Colorado university, couldn’t believe what little aptitude college freshman here had for physics. In Europe and in Asia, physics is a prominent middle school subject but in America, besides some cursory reviews of gravity and the motions of planets, it is not taught until late in high school. At that time, the math of physics is thrown into the mix making the entire subject, especially to the generation that grew up on video games and smart phones, off-putting.

I’m not a holier-than-thou on the subject of being off-put by difficult math. Perhaps, like me, you’ve read a Stephen Hawking book or two and maybe throw a science book into your reading list on occasion. The first three chapters, where it is explained in broad terms how things work, are always engaging and make you feel smart to follow along. Then, there’s no way to get to the complex ideas later in the book without some extreme abstract thinking. Even though you might struggle through the last half of the book, you’re just going through the motions. No mind can hold it all in short term memory and there isn’t enough time to really learn it all.

Kids have time. Middle school physics is the first three chapters of those books presented in ways that engage and captivate kids and draw them into collaborative exercises. I sat through most of the introduction at Lincolnview for the teachers this week. It would take another column to explain how it works, but I can tell you, this is something different and it will fascinate kids of that age.

The idea is to start learning the principles of physics when young enough to apply it in an already over-active imagination and without the complicated math. If you are already thinking about how light travels or electrons flow and find it of interest, then the math is just the math, something you get through to think more fully on the subject. It’s like studying all the chords after learning the first few songs on an electric guitar – it’s not work as long as you learn to play a new song or two along the way.

Physics is, after all, how everything works. On our radio show, the Commissioners Corner, Chris Roberts has pointed out that there is a Physics Day at Cedar Point and that all of the rides there are physics exhibits if you understand the engineering behind them. Think of it, your kids pondering the magnets and propulsion of the Top Thrill Dragster during that hour wait instead of watching those stupid music videos they now play in the mazes. They will too, because once it’s in their heads and they begin to notice all of the real world applications around them, it will never leave.

This seems like an educational effort but it is really economic development. There is no shortage of engineering jobs locally but the kids who are currently interested generally seek higher pay in the big cities. We simply need more interested high school graduates.

More importantly, we could be creating a generation of innovators, and it only takes a few. We’re never going to be Silicon Valley. But we can be the closest thing that a rural Midwestern community can be to it. Steve Jobs, if he grew up in Van Wert County, would likely have been an interesting character, but he never would have created the experience of the modern computer. Steve Wozniak would have been a tech guy in a back room somewhere – everybody knows one.

Is it a miracle that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, or Bill Gates and Paul Allen, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin were in the same places at the same time? Probably not. There were probably a good number of people who could have filled a half of those partnerships had they been there. The miracle isn’t that these partners met, the miracle was the places that created the conditions for these people to have something to talk about and a common language with which to speak.

It’s not too much to think that over the next decade, we can create those conditions here. Innovators don’t have to leave town to innovate, they only need a partner in creation. Google, Apple and Microsoft are all located where the partners met and had the idea. That’s part of what is being attempted here in Science County, USA (copyright to name pending, Todd Wolfrum, 2015).

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9-4-15 The Problem

The first step is admitting that you have a problem. Then you have to figure out what the problem is.

Economic conditions here are not good, but most of you already know that. According to the 2010 census, Van Wert County had the lowest per capita income of any county in Northwest Ohio except Hardin County. That’s right, Paulding County is richer than us. Even counting the south side of Lima, so is Allen.

Wages are stagnant and have been. Find me a business established in the last ten years that is making someone rich. Farmers had a nice bounce for a few years but now crop prices are down and property taxes are up – way up. In the middle of this, another generation of bright young people are in the process of finding greener pastures elsewhere, mostly in the big cities where jobs are plentiful and wages are anything but stagnant.

In the Commissioners’ Office, we created a new County Economic Development office to answer one primary question: Why are our best young people almost all moving away and can anything be done about it? This is really the ultimate question – if the intelligent and motivated young people decide that leaving is a better choice than staying, it’s only a matter of time until bad economic conditions become permanent.

Director Smith eventually found an answer at a seminar and in a book. Suddenly, all of it made horrifying sense. We don’t have a jobs problem in our county, or even this region. We have a demographic problem, something infinitely harder to solve.

In a previous column, I did what was basically a book review of “When the Boomers Bail” by Mark Lautman. I won’t retread that whole column here and you can get that book on Amazon. (All of my columns are on toddwolfrum.com.) The crux of that book was that the Boomers were the first generation in history not to sufficiently replace themselves with children and there approaches a massive workforce shortage as that generation reaches retirement.

Our county demographics are ahead of Lautman’s thesis. The kids had already been leaving here for a few decades. Now, as the Boomer generation begins to retire, there is not only no one to replace them from the Millennials now entering the workforce, but, because of the population loss in our county over the last twenty years, there is also a shortage between the retirees and the beginners.

And because we lack people of working age, we also lack sufficient numbers of kids in the county that are going to be reaching working age over the next ten to fifteen years who are likely to stay here and be productive.

The problem is unique in history. You might see our unemployment rate in the paper. I’m here to tell you that those numbers mean absolutely nothing. Most of our county employers have job openings, some have high-paying job openings. The trouble is finding someone willing to get an education or just a warm body that can pass a drug test and show up for work. If there are open jobs not being filled, the actual unemployment rate is zero.

At zero unemployment, the problem is not attracting business, the problem is keeping the ones you’ve got. How long can a company last if it can’t find employees? What company is going to locate here if the businesses that are already here can’t find workers? Funny thing about successful businessmen – they’re not stupid.

This all makes the adage “If you build it they will come” obsolete. Not to say that someone filling the Megasite would not help. If a large employer paying premium wages filled that 1,600 acres north of town, we can work with that upside. But if it happened tomorrow, it is difficult to see how our existing businesses would survive. Premium wages would effectively draw away all the good employees from our existings who are already short workers. How long could they last?

Further, the Boomers retiring is a regional problem – we’re not going to be able to draw very much from our neighbors’ populations. Our former state representative Jim Hoops was recently up to our office. He now works for Northwest State in Archbold and I asked him if the workforce problem is, indeed, national as Lautman suggests. He affirmed for Northwest Ohio and said that both Sauders and Campbell’s Soup, two big employers in that region, are having trouble finding employees.

I’ve heard it said that, whatever else we do, we need to keep a strong connection with Columbus because that’s who’s going to help us land the big fish in the end. Here’s what Columbus is preaching: That a worker will drive 45 miles for a good job so anything that happens within 45 miles of Van Wert is good for Van Wert.

Read that carefully with the understanding that Columbus is also encouraging regionalization and has only been successful in attracting business to Ohio’s largest metro areas or near them – the places where all of our kids are moving. Sure, they would love to help the small towns, but they know they can’t because of the demographics and workforce shortage.

The best Columbus can do is try to convince us that a win for Findlay is a win for us. But follow that line of thought to an obvious conclusion: Will the next generation stay here and drive that 45 miles too? Not a chance in hell. A win for Findlay is a win for Findlay. For us, it’s just buying time as our population continues a downward spiral.

It’s not all gloom and doom. The local economic development strife over the last few years that brought this issue to the forefront actually puts us ahead. Other communities have the same status quo issues as here – successful people who want to do things an old way because it worked for them. But times have changed. We had that fight already – everyone else will have it a few years from now when someone notices they also don’t have enough young people anymore.

We might have a deeper hole to dig out of, but we also have a blank slate. If you’re looking for someone to come and save our community, brother, that just isn’t going to happen. We are on our own and so is every other rural community. But, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand. Over the next few weeks, I’ll tell you how. Stay tuned.

 

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8-28-15 Trump: The Dark Knight or The Joker

You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’ But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!” – The Joker in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight.

Heath Ledger gave, arguably, the greatest movie performance of last decade in his portrayal of Batman’s clown nemesis. It’s one of those – when you see it on cable, you can’t turn the channel. You can’t stop watching that character. Ledger, better known as a handsome leading man, was unrecognizable as The Joker, perhaps so immersed in the coherent insanity of that role that he died of a drug overdose shortly after the movie’s release.

It’s a tad too cute, maybe, to say that Trump is doing to politics what Ledger’s character did to Gotham. But he is giving the best performance of this decade and, just like Ledger, you can’t turn the channel when he’s on. Trump, at a minimum, has created some constructive chaos and for this all Republicans, at least the conservative ones, should rejoice.

Think where we were just a few months ago. Did anyone really doubt that we were sleepwalking toward an inevitable Clinton-Bush contest where, whoever came out on top, the real winner would be the establishment? Changing things is messy and bad for business.

Everyone was going through the motions and playing the parts. There would be some twists and turns on the campaign trail but that too was all part of “The Plan”. In the end, like every time since 1988, the Republicans would roll out the establishment candidate in hopes of winning that great unwashed middle. Should that candidate win the general election, he would pay lip service to the conservative cause while negotiating away any political capital in the name of compromise. All of it, part of “The Plan.”

And there was no greater protector of “The Plan” than the press. The ground rules limited all speech to a closed language that made conservative arguments impossible. Anything outside of that language and you were either crazy or involved in some clandestine war on something sacred. Abortion is wrong = war on women. Balanced Budget = crazy. Immigration a problem = war on Hispanics. Police allowed to defend themselves = war on blacks. Honest people having guns to defend themselves against armed criminals = crazy.

To cut it some slack, let’s assume that there is no intentional liberal bias in the mainstream media – which is likely the case. The press is centered in New York, Washington D.C. and California and is perhaps only reflecting what it believes to be the national norms based on local dialogue. All politics is local, after all.

Trump’s brashness and the massive rallies that have followed have already changed all of that. Through blunt talk and downright incivility, Trump and his early adherents – the only adherents turning out in the tens of thousands – have proved that the accepted dialogue does not reflect the nation and the press has blinked. And just that blink has opened the floodgates, maybe long enough to get in a few arguments based on logic instead of political correctness, even if Trump isn’t the one making the logical arguments yet.

Can you imagine if the Climate Change alarmists would actually allow an honest debate instead of just claiming the debate is over? If there really is nothing to debate, how long would that take? They would have a better chance of winning over the skeptical half of the public with a comprehensive exchange of facts. But what’s the point of winning over that half when you already have in your half the ones that can force policy through moral coercion and guilt, which is what the press has become? So it has been with every issue.

Trump is the singular figure able to change that. He was a reality star for a decade before reality TV existed, and then he became a TV reality star. He has fostered the character he plays in real life for thirty years. He has success outside of politics – intimidating and overwhelming success, much greater than any member of the press could hope to achieve. Normal politicians only have success on par with media anchors. Who else could tell reporters to “Sit down and shut up?” Any other candidate would be forced out of politics within a week.

I’m not on the bandwagon yet, but, probably like many conservatives, I’m running along the side cheering for now, hoping that all the ballyhoo can transform into actual policy. Deporting all the illegals doesn’t seem likely. Balancing the budget will take more than “good people”. There’s plenty of time to fill in the blanks so we can all just enjoy the show for awhile.

If the policy never comes, there are several candidates waiting in the wings to reap the benefits of the service Donald Trump has provided this country. Through cracking the establishment façade, honest debate is developing. Illegal immigration a problem – well, maybe. Let’s talk. Government spending a problem – that’s certainly possible. When the Republican candidate opens his or her mouth in a future debate (with Joe Biden), the moderator likely won’t be on a side, and for that he or she can thank Trump.

Feel free to argue the other side without the language constrictions of the past, national liberals. Make sense of twenty trillion of debt, a quarter of the work force choosing not to work, killing babies for spare parts, a country without borders, and buddying up to countries who brutalize women and want to kill us. I’m guessing you’re going to feel very free to make these arguments, almost unprotected.

Maybe he is more the Joker than the Dark Knight, who knows? But there is no arguing that Trump upset “The Plan” in the summer of 2015 and injected a little chaos into the system. And do you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.

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