6-24-16 Brexit: Imagine all the People

Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too. – from the song “Imagine” by John Lennon.

In the spring of 1990, I was a college freshman taking a class in American history. The textbook, which I read again years later, had a strong liberal tilt. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were the heroes of the story. Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were all elderly dunces and Richard Nixon was . . . well, they got him right, I guess.

At that time, compact discs were new technology. Suddenly you could hear songs in crystal clear sound without having to fast forward or rewind a tape. It made all music new again. To me, those classic Beatles and Led Zeppelin albums seemed almost like magic in such hi fidelity. John Lennon had been dead for a decade, but he became my hero. His ideas fit with the narrative I was being fed in that history class. It all made such perfect adolescent sense – if we could only forget our differences in the world and join together, all problems would be solved.

To the shock of progressives everywhere, Lennon’s country, Great Britain, left the European Union this week. It was the biggest event in European history since the fall of the Berlin Wall which, coincidentally, happened when I was a freshman in college as well. The secession of the British hopefully marked the beginning of the end for the globalist vision of the world.

I hope for this because I kept reading after the indoctrination I received in that college history class and came across other versions of the story. What is certainly true is that Woodrow Wilson, father of global progressivism, was our president from 1913-1921. In 1914, when the European powers went to their trenches for no good reason, Germany and Great Britain were similar countries. They fought with the same codes of honor and similar tactics and weaponry. From the American perspective, there was no reason to support one side over the other and we stayed neutral for a few years.

But eastern merchants had extensive trade ties with Britain and they wanted to continue that in spite of the war, including selling arms to kill Germans. Germany took exception and sank a few of our ships. Wilson couldn’t keep thing under control and the next thing we knew, we were in a war – the first but not last America had ever fought with nothing to be gained. Our presence shifted the balance and the Allies won a lopsided victory.

A top-hatted Wilson arrived in Paris to help settle the peace as well as all national differences for all time with his Fourteen Points. The other allied leaders paid him lip-service and ignored the parts of Wilson’s plan that didn’t suit them, all the while convincing him to agree to the most punitive financial conditions ever imposed on a vanquished country, intended to cripple Germany for generations to come. The League of Nations, the first ever attempt at globalization, was born in the midst of all this.

The crippling of Germany led to the rise of the Nazis and the much more destructive World War to follow. Now let me shift from facts back to opinion: Woodrow Wilson, first father of global progressivism, caused much of this by being duped into a war by business interests and then duped into a punitive peace by his allies. The thesis of my college textbook was a lie. It said that Wilson’s efforts had helped the world along to its next, higher level. Wilson the Great, not Wilson the Foolish, author of nearly infinite human misery.

One hundred years ago so what does it matter, right? Not so. Progressive globalism and its local proxy, socialism, is still continually trumpeted as the path to a more perfect world. Wherever it is tried, it fails, yet it continues to be tried. Bernie Sanders almost became the Democratic nominee for president. John Kerry could be heard recently giving a speech about the utopia that would be a world without borders, the ultimate goal of progressives.

The polar opposite of globalism is the Americanism as envisioned by our founding document which allowed thirteen distinct colonies to be thirteen distinct colonies. The genius of our Constitution was in allowing people their people-ish-ness – pride, greed, love of country and family, hate. All the good and the bad was allowed its most productive use and therein, kept in check. The premise was revolutionary and genius and over time Americans bought into the idea that they were different from the rest of the world. And they were.

Despite what our President has preached for over seven years, America is exceptional. Not that our people are any smarter or inherently more industrious than the people of Zimbabwe. Ture, we were lucky, as he says. We were lucky to be born in a country that itself was lucky to have been born in a time in history when the American experiment could happen.

But because all of this, we are distinct from the rest of the world, and the ways we are distinct has provided untold wealth and comfort.  What plagues our poorest people? Obesity.

Great Britain is different too, in its own way. It once owned an empire on which the sun never set – its people enjoying the highest standard of living of that time as we do now. Shocking to progressives and our President, its people remembered all of that this week and decided they still wanted their country to be Great Britain instead of a conglomerate of whatever free immigration and financially dependent European socialist states was making it.

‘Like his country, John Lennon had became disillusioned with the progressive movement as time passed and, according to a biographer with him in his final months, was a supporter of Ronald Reagan. The world can only live as one, as Lennon had hoped in that song, if everyone were equally miserable. Here’s to hoping Americans follow the British lead this fall.

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6-17-16 VWAED

         After months of meetings and planning, the Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation, the entity designed to combine City and County economic development efforts, will take the next step on its path to formality on Monday when elections are held for the three at-large positions to its Board of Trustees.

Not a member of the VWAED yet? No problem. The election is being held Monday night, June 20, at the Niswonger PAC and you can show up that night between 6:30 and 7:00, pay the $1 membership fee, and become a part of the future of Van Wert. If you can’t make it that night, memberships are still being sold during the day at the Commissioners’ Office and the Mayor’s Office and you can vote at those places as well. Memberships will continue being offered after the election.

Several hundred memberships have already been sold. There’s been some interesting blocks of participation formed. But whatever makes someone want to be a part of the process is workable. If you want the windmills or don’t want the windmills and that’s the only thing you care about, being part of all of this will avail you to other things going on in the county that you might find relevant down the road.

I don’t believe we ended up where any of us thought it would be when we started, and ain’t nothing wrong with that. In the beginning, Mayor Jerry Mazur was meeting with myself and the other two commissioners shortly after his election last fall throwing ideas around on what each of us thought was important going forward.

At that time, Ohio State Extension had just inked a one year contract for economic development with the City courtesy of a shady maneuver by the former administration designed to keep us from moving forward after they left office. However, after the new city administration assumed duties, OSU Extension became helpful to what we wanted to do and its possible role in the process. Although it won’t be the lead in economic development anymore, there is still a great deal of utility OSU Extension can bring to the table down the road when things get moving, and I believe it will.

An initial concern was balancing public and private interests.  The effort would not be effective should it be dominated by politicians but, with hindsight provided by the past few decades, it also wouldn’t be effective if it became dominated by a small segment of economic interests either. It needed to be a broad based, inclusive effort.

We came up with a scheme where an interim board would be formed to create a corporation, draft by-laws, design a structure, and basically get things rolling. There would be a Commissioner (myself), Mayor Mazur, and two appointees from each the county and the city. We wanted a diverse representation of the community. The county appointed Stuart Wyatt of Ag Credit and Jim “Rabbit” Bonifas of Kenn-Feld. Mayor Mazur appointed Van Wert High School Principal Bob Priest and Nicholas “Sticky” Rammel of KAM Manufacturing.

A seventh member, Sara Zura of Alexander Bebout, was selected by the six initial board members. Mayor Mazur ran into some trouble early with city council who wondered on what authority the Mayor was appointing members to an economic development board. It was explained that this was only an interim board, more of a committee. It was never meant to be exclusive anyway so council was encouraged to begin attending the meetings and some did.

Much of what we did wasn’t recreating the wheel. We borrowed from corporate by-laws of similar organizations and rearranged them to fit our goals. City Law Director John Hatcher helped us incorporate and Rick Sealscott helped us obtain 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. (Since we didn’t have “Tea Party” or “Pro Life” in our name it went right through.) With that, we are a non-profit organization that can receive tax-deductible donations – hopefully an additional funding source once we get up and running.

We settled on nine members for the final board to balance county, city, and private. Six candidates are up for the three at-large board positions on Monday to be chosen by the VWAED members. Their information can be viewed at vanwert.org and whyvanwert.org by clicking on the economic development and VWAED links. Three of the candidates will be on the Commissioners’ Corner radio show Sunday morning on WERT at 8:20 A.M. – the show will also be available on that station’s website.

Once the three at-large positions are decided, the formal board will meet for the first time in early July. The county’s members on the board will be the same as the interim board and city council will be presented the same nominees for its approval as well. We’ve had verbal exchanges that have bordered on heated on occasion – that happens when people care about a project. But it was understood from the beginning that our job was to get the combining of all efforts on the way to completion and I believe we’ve accomplished the early parts of that mission.

As stated in a previous article, this board will not be the end-all be-all of economic development, but it is the foundation. Early on, we envisioned the function of this board as approving the finances of the corporation and hiring a director and nothing else. It has grown into a bit more than that, but the real activity will be performed by committees underneath a director where anyone can become a part of the activity going forward. More to come on that.

I’m not a joiner by nature and I’m guessing most people are like me. Don’t think of membership as creating obligations because it doesn’t. Think of it as becoming an independent power broker. You bring the ideas or energy and the purpose of VWAED is to enable your project.  But that is the future. The present is taking five minutes to become a member and vote on Monday.

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6-10-16 The Party of Freedom

            The 2016 election has formed into a contest between two disliked candidates. The media is depicting it as one where voters will have to choose which candidate they dislike the least, although that’s not entirely true. Trump rallies fill arenas while Clinton rallies, at times, would have trouble filling the old Lincolnview North building gymnasium. Trump is extremely disliked but also extremely liked. Clinton is extremely disliked and also extremely begrudgingly accepted.

Nevertheless, amidst the discontent, foraging parties have been sent out for alternatives. It is too late for an independent run and the Green Party is, well, the Green Party. The Libertarian Party may be on the cusp of becoming the center of attention in the great quest for the non-Trump-Clinton. Even though Gary Johnson, the party’s candidate, lists as a recent accomplishment his having quit pot-smoking five weeks ago, he is polling at 10% in some national polls and only needs 15% by this fall to get on the debate stage.

Johnson has no real chance of winning barring a Clinton incarceration and Trump getting into a bar fight with a Muslim Mexican-American. But what if Libertarian support hits 20% and the major parties have to start making some concessions to reach those voters? And that could happen because, like Socialism, Libertarianism makes a lot of sense in theory and those Bernie voters in search of something to believe in just became free agents.

Libertarianism is popularly understood as a combination of fiscal conservativism and social liberalism. It is the belief that so long as I am not affecting you or your property, why can’t you just leave me the explitive alone? A hundred years ago, Libertarianism and freedom could have been synonyms.

Libertarianism has its limits, however. In practice, a Libertarian utopia would struggle to build infrastructure and you wouldn’t know for sure what animal’s meat was in that hamburger you were about to bite. Wall Street would be the Wild West, even more so than now, and corruption would be business as usual. But none of this will matter this fall. What will matter is which candidate is in a position to make a pivot and gain Libertarian adherents?

Hillary Clinton can’t. She is pushing for a continuation of the Obama agenda and trying to find ways to make more things free. True Libertarians have read Ayn Rand and know that the government provides nothing for free, it just taxes and borrows from our children to provide it. This will be explained to the new converts. Progressivism requires bigger government and big government is the Great Satan to this group.

Trump, however, even after a year of campaigning, is still available. If Libertarians become a force, he can adjust quite easily to bring them under his tent. He will certainly be the small government candidate. As a businessman, he’s had to work within budgets and his narcissism will likely prevent him from running up more debt. The question will be whether he can navigate Libertarian social issues while not alienating his conservative base.

Conservatives take their greatest exception with Libertarians on legalizing drugs. This will be an important issue to the Bernie Sanders Libertarians that are on the way. The War on Drugs has been the most unsuccessful battle this country has ever fought. Every law to stiffen criminal penalties and expand enforcement has resulted in not only increased drug use but also an increase in the harmfulness of the drug in use because of the profits available in the black market. The current heroin epidemic is the fruit of all that.

Whether or not Libertarians are right that drugs should be legal because it’s a personal choice what to do with one’s own body, they are wrong that drugs could be legalized tomorrow without catastrophic effects – the networks for distribution are too imbedded and widespread. However, Trump would have an easy sell on this issue by promoting alternatives to criminal penalties like the drug courts that are currently being utilized in many Ohio counties including ours.

Even Republicans are becoming reluctantly open to decriminalization. Expect Trump to push for an end to the mass incarceration of the black population, most of which is the result of nonviolent drug charges. Rand Paul, the Libertarian Republican candidate, was making headway in black communities preaching this message and Trump could do the same.

Other social issues are sticking points. Libertarians are generally pro-choice on abortion, although not always. There is no reconciliation on this issue – if you believe life begins at conception, you can’t bargain that away. Trump used to be pro-choice but now says he is pro-life. To satisfy conservatives and mollify the Libertarians, he could argue that the abortion issue and all other social issues should be decided by the states as guaranteed in the 10th Amendment.

Libertarians, who love the Constitution, have trouble arguing against states’ rights. Gay marriage? Let the states decide, not the big evil federal government. Got a feeling Ohio would come down against it. Allowing transgenders into a bathroom of their choosing? It’s remarkable that this is a federal question and never would have been one if states had retained their constitutional powers. Trump has already flirted with states’ rights on a few issues.

Republicans also have trouble reconciling themselves with the Libertarian view on military non-intervention. Trump has already contradicted the established orthodoxy by suggesting that NATO and Japan should start taking care of themselves and saying that he could work with Vladimir Putin. This is music to the ears of Libertarians who want an end to the silliness of nation building and world policing.

When the Libertarian movement becomes a force, Hillary Clinton has already boxed herself in. Trump has not. In fact, Trump has proven not only flexible but almost totally without ideology. Hopefully, a Libertarian presence can nudge him toward a freedom platform and keep him comfortably distant from the ineffective bastion of concession that the Republican Party has become.

 

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6-3-16 Trumped

“Go away,” she said coldly.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me you’d better go.”

“Why, Dot –“

“What’s death to me is just a lot of words to you. You put ‘em together so pretty.”

This exchange is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and The Damned. It comes after the anti-hero gives a flowery speech to his mistress from the lower class, Dot, on why it would be better if they never saw each other again.

“Go away” is how a strong majority of Republicans nationwide feel about their established leadership in Washington who continually tell them what they want to hear in flowery speeches and then do nothing. Their inaction despite majorities in both houses of Congress and their repeated feckless criticism of President Obama is death to the conservative cause, but just a lot of words to them. They put those words together so pretty.

Donald Trump is saying things we never thought we would hear outside of our own homes or chat circles. Some of it may be alarming from a politician and some of it may sound as charming as nails on a chalkboard. Some of it is funny and most of it is downright entertaining. Some of it doesn’t make much sense. But a good part of it has been unspoken for years and he’s the only one bold enough to say it.

Trump may not be everyone’s cup of tea. He wasn’t mine. I never watched his television show and never paid much attention to him at all until last summer. He was not my first, second, or third choice for the Republican nomination. Having said that, I’m sure glad he came along.

Since the end of Ronald Reagan’s terms, the Republican Party has put forward a string of uninspiring presidential candidates. The elder Bush raised taxes after promising not to and the younger Bush ran up more debt than any other president before him, paving the way for the Obama administration to go bat crap nuts with our national finances. Bob Dole was maybe the most uninspiring candidate for either party in the last century (Yes, I’m well aware of Adlai Stevenson).

John McCain would almost certainly have granted amnesty to all illegal aliens and only had the reputation of being a “maverick” because he went liberal on so many issues while in Congress that he was suspected of being one.

Of the bunch, only Mitt Romney convincingly delivered the conservative message in his campaign. But after destroying President Obama in their first debate and pulling ahead in the polls, he backed off, afraid that the press was beginning to depict him as too mean to be president. If he backed down before he was president, he almost certainly would have backed down after becoming president – the liberal media doesn’t hibernate for a Republican administration, it spends four years preparing one to be unelected.

The feeling of the need for something else was palpable last summer to everyone outside of Washington. If you count Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul as non-establishment candidates along with Trump, early in the Republican primary polling, this group combined for over 75% of the total.

But also early on, the experts were saying that it all was temporary and certainly Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or John Kasich would eventually pull away. As they fell off one by one, the experts also predicted that support would coalesce around the remainders. It never happened. We had trusted the establishment and as it turns out, we shouldn’t have. We had learned.

Which brings us back to the words that our Republican leaders put together so pretty. Trump doesn’t put words together pretty at all. One wonders if he’s serious listening to him talk about Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, and Crazy Bernie. (Crooked Hillary is apt.) He changes his mind, sometimes twice on an issue in a day. He calls reporters names and makes off-color remarks about Megyn Kelly, McCain and Mexicans.

But try this: Stand in front of a mirror and talk from the gut for five minutes on any issue. See how long it takes until you say something that you wouldn’t want to say to a newspaper reporter. That’s why some of us prefer the written form. Trump is an entertainer at heart working without the script and the well-rehearsed talking points that other politicians use. He is what politics never is at the national level: authentic. And authentic is almost always rude to someone.

A good part of Trump is blatant showmanship. Consider that a third of people are conservative and third liberal and every presidential election is about the third in between.  To be of this third in between, an independent, in most cases means you haven’t given much thought to the issues yet.

Last week, Trump entered into, backed out of, entered into, and backed out of a debate with Bernie Sanders. That debate would have served no purpose but by doing what he did, Trump stayed the lead in the news cycle with absolutely nothing going on. The great indecisive middle doesn’t remember any of this a month from now – it’s not their nature to care. But the name of Trump never leaves their mind in the meantime. Genius.

Not to guarantee that Trump will fall in line with the conservative agenda ever. But he is, politically speaking, a free agent and has proven he can handle the media. No one else can. If he gets a handle on immigration, appoints three conservative Supreme Court justices, uses his business sense to eliminate the national deficit, and keeps us out of needless wars through projecting strength, he will have done more than all of our silver-tongued establishment types in the last thirty years combined.

Couldn’t you live with a few off-color remarks in exchange for these things? Or would you rather hear some pretty words?

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5-27-16 What a Nice Place To Live

There is an old Chevy Chase movie called “Funny Farm” where Chase’s character retires with his wife to the country to live outside a quiet small town and write a novel. It being a comedy, of course the town is not what he had expected, full of oddball characters including a drunk mailman who delivers the mail every day by throwing it out his truck window as he speeds by and honks.

Chase decides to sell his house but he knows that no legitimate buyer would be willing to live next to the misfits of this town. So he pays the town folk to act normal for a few days while he shows the prospective buyers around, giving the townies Norman Rockwell pictures to help them envision how they should be. Chase was doing temporary community development.

Community development, short and simple, is creating a place where people want to live. For decades, economic development has been bringing in industry and employers, offering incentives and anything else that might get a business here. In an area that lacks people and workforce, community development is an alternative approach.

Every community in the Midwest is offering incentives. We all have land and industrial parks and we all have arranged access to necessary utilities and highways. And we, this “we” being basically every rural community in America, are all vying for the same ever smaller slice of the pie – most companies find the people they need in the big cities and most of our young people are finding the fun and the companies to employ them in the big cities.

To attract both employers and young people here, we need to be a more interesting place to live than the communities around us.

In the new Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation (VWAED), a focus is being placed on subcommittees to achieve the goals of community development. The VWAED will have a governing board and eventually there will be a director, but all of that is unimportant without a countywide buy-in to the effort. The buy-in can happen through membership in VWAED and involvement in a subcommittee.

To illustrate, consider Main Street Van Wert. That program focuses entirely on downtown Van Wert. It has never really been part of the economic development offices in town. It has its own board and, although it receives funding from the county and the city, it sets its own budget and acts independently. This is a prototype of a VWAED subcommittee.

Not everyone is interested in Main Street and not everyone needs to be. But the people who are have a conduit to become involved and support the effort with energy, ideas, and investment. The subcommittee concept promotes the principle that there is no greater effort a person will put into something than when they personally believe that their involvement is important.

The Business Development Corporation could be seen as a subcommittee that pursues traditional economic efforts, something that will always be needed. There are already networks between schools and business being formed that resemble a workforce subcommittee. Our villages would be well-suited to join forces for mutual support in another such association.

But think smaller. I’ve heard hundreds of times how we need more and better restaurants. But are there people who want to work on that project? Perhaps a group could form to court investment and franchises and maybe meet to eat at one of our existing restaurants once a week.

My personal small interest objective is a chess club. Something like that would be a draw to a small number of people, but it would be a strong draw for them and would add ambiance to downtown, especially if it were at a storefront where you could walk over to Collins’ new wine store for a drink in the evening.

What is developing is an opportunity for anyone to get involved. My biggest complaint about the old economic development effort was how closed it was. (Well, one of my biggest complaints.) Initially we had taken a few things we wanted to try to the existing board and were told we would have to wait until it was given proper consideration, whatever that meant. There will be no wait time now.

If you’ve got something you want to make happen in this community, the goal of the VWAED Corporation will be to help you connect with other people who have that interest. If there is enough enthusiasm to support a viable project, it will be the director’s job to help the project along. Proof of viability will be your burden. If there are only three kooks who like an idea, it likely will fail at the concept stage – I’m thinking of myself and the other two people in town that like to play chess.

There is an undercurrent of growing pride in Van Wert County on which to capitalize. And I say this not as a vague, touchy-feely concept of a sense I get on the street. I say it as a recital of numbers. Our sales tax receipts have been going steadily up for the last two years, meaning people are buying local and supporting our business.

Further, I got a call from a reporter a few months ago asking me how I felt about our county being the only one in the region that increased in population in 2015. This wasn’t a census year so I don’t know how they figured the numbers, but just hearing that our population might be holding steady sounded sweet. And could some of that be because of the PAC and the Wassenberg – two of the best community development efforts in the region in the last several years?

Nobody is going to pay us to seem like an incredible place to live as Chevy Chase did in the movies. We have to do it ourselves, and it has to come from and become part of the fabric of our county.

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5-20-16 Back in the Saddle

About five months ago, this column went on hiatus because I was running for re-election to the Commissioners’ Office. A lot has happened since then.

Donald Trump, love him or hate him – and there doesn’t seem to be much in between – has redefined American politics. And even if you’re not a fan, you have to enjoy that the Washington establishment likes him even less than you do.

Hillary Clinton is proving that you don’t have to win primaries to become the Democratic nominee for president, Bernie Sanders is proving that there are a large number of people out there who don’t understand economics, and, suddenly, after two hundred and forty years of independence, we’ve become confused about which bathroom to use.

Lincolnview went to the state finals in basketball only to be beaten by an all-star team from the Cleveland area masquerading as a small Christian school. Why the OHSAA can’t accomplish the separation of public and private schools in its state tournaments is beyond comprehension. Seems like even the private schools would want to be in a division where they compete with other teams that play by similar rules.

Without a doubt, the most thrilling stop in that Lancer run was the District final game with Crestview over at Elida. Connor Lautzenheiser put on an offensive display reminiscent of Doug Etzler and Brandon Pardon to the respective fan bases. Lincolnview won on a last second shot and that team’s steamrolling over the next three opponents proved that Van Wert County likely had the best two Division IV public school basketball teams in the state.

And, by the way, I did get through that election.

A local election is a singular experience. It clarifies not only who your friends are and who doesn’t much care for you, but more importantly, who doesn’t much care for you that you thought was your friend.

Going door-to-door is the only good way to get a message out in these things. There’s no polling or television coverage locally and advertising, even on the radio, can only get out soundbites. One of my friends after hearing one of my radio ads called to tell me that it about put him to sleep. He suggested I try something more like Trump was doing. Although that would have been interesting, I’m glad I wasn’t tempted.

As a commissioner candidate, the further you get away from the center of the county, the less relevant you feel. I knocked on many a door in Willshire, Delphos, and Jennings Township and received a “Who are you again?” or “What office are you trying for?” Fair enough – need to do more to reach those places, I guess.

Some doors were better left unknocked. My favorite interaction was with an elderly gentleman in Delphos that went like this:

Voter, after I introduced myself: “Who are you voting for in the Republican Primary?”

Me: “I’m not really sure yet.” (This was shortly after Ben Carson dropped out and there were five remaining candidates.)

Voter: “Then I’m not sure about you.”

Me: “Well, it’s between Trump and Cruz. I like the outsiders.”

Voter: “Then I can’t support you.” Door shut in face.

Very few people actually want a conversation when you come to their door. I had discovered the Jehovah’s Witness effect in my first election – the less well I dressed, the more likely people were to answer their doors. Stay away from ties.

I delivered a standard spiel on the porch: Introduce myself, say why I was there, and get my literature in their hand. I’d see a smile on most faces when I’d start to back away, indicating I had no intention of taking any more of their time. Not being critical – I’d be the same way. I might even be one that pretended no one was home. That’s what I would do with the Jehovah’s Witnesses anyway.

As for my opposition, I knew what was coming at me well before the race actually started. Largely because of this column, there had aligned a sizable contingent from the old guard waiting for this election as an opportunity to shut my big mouth. Someone once had told me that her daughter had read one of my columns when she was home from college and couldn’t believe what I was saying. “They’re going to come after him,” she had said.

I had only thought of these things as telling the truth with occasional attempts at humor. But the daughter was right, they came after me.

I talked during the campaign about the old status quo supporting my opponent financially and as much as they could by preaching the good word. I was asked several times who specifically I was talking about. I would drop a name or two of the most vocal, but if you really want to know who wanted a return to the old days of steady population decline and limited and fragmented economic development efforts, you can obtain the list of my opponent’s donors from the Van Wert County Board of Elections.

The negative that I heard as I campaigned was a bit confusing. One contingent against me said I was a troublemaker, another said I was just a yes-man for the other commissioners. (The other commissioners got a kick out of that.) You learn that if someone doesn’t like you and they don’t know why, they’ll provide themselves a reason. It reminded me of the scene from Cool Hand Luke where Luke has been beaten-up by the bosses and the warden is explaining why he’s getting beaten. Luke says, “You don’t need a reason to kick me, boss.”

Overall, I wouldn’t say it was fun, but I would say it was necessary. I had attempted enough change in my first term that a referendum was certainly in order. To the 65% that voted for me, thanks for understanding and supporting what myself and the other commissioners were trying to accomplish over the last few years.

It’s always seemed disingenuous to me for a politician after an election to thank all of the voters, even the ones who didn’t vote for him. One could even see how that could be characterized as sarcastic or insulting. So to those who didn’t vote for me, I say only this: Perhaps it’s my fault for not communicating better. I promise to write twice as many of these columns in my second term.

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RE ELECT TODD WOLFRUM VAN WERT COUNTY COMMISSIONER

My name is Todd Wolfrum and I’m running for a reelection to a second term as Van Wert County Commissioner in the Republican primary being 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. At that time, almost no one was prioritizing these things. But, along with my fellow commissioners Stan Owens and Thad Lichtensteiger, we were able to change the dialogue and make good progress in all of these areas.

I was one when my family moved to Van Wert County. My dad had taken a job as a high school math teacher and baseball coach at Lincolnview. It was a homecoming for my mom, whose father was then the minister at Kingsley United Methodist. My grandfather prior to that had been a pastor at a church in Convoy and my mom was in Crestview’s first graduating class.

I spent time roaming the country, but I never wanted to live anywhere else. Eventually I got through college and law school and opened an office in Van Wert. I’ve built a successful law firm from nothing and still practice part-time when we are not in the Commissioners’ Office.

We’ve tackled a lot of problems in my first term as Commissioner. We found nearly a half million dollars in annual health insurance savings by exhaustively searching for a new carrier. We’ve maintained the budget in a surplus by not significantly increasing taxes or spending. I’ve been able to use my legal background to first, find insurance coverage for a $365,000 grant that the state wanted paid back due to a mistake made years before, and second, to design the Phoenix Initiative, a program to tear down dilapidated properties.

But our efforts in economic development garnered the most attention. We created a county economic development office to confront issues that weren’t being addressed. We discovered a demographic problem that is going to leave us short of workforce in the future and developed the first programs to deal with this problem: Middle School Physics to foster creative youth and a website for employers to post available jobs to begin drawing people back. 

To keep more talented young people in county, I worked with Northwest State’s president in helping that institution seek designation as our community college provider. Until last year, we were one of the few areas in the state with no community college designation. With this, Northwest State is now able to expand its programs in our county. Having a campus at the Starr Commonwealth or downtown Van Wert could be a next step.

  The education goals are part of a plan for branding I call “Science County USA”. The blueprint will be to develop and advertise the county’s unique education opportunities in STEM courses and robotics and provide a college portal, bringing in multiple universities to teach their prime classes in a consortium with Northwest State as the anchor. This would not only keep our kids close to home longer but also would make college more affordable for them.

In many of these efforts, we met resistance from Van Wert’s old status quo who would have us all believe that the last twenty-five years have been a success for the county. If you’ve lived here, you know that this isn’t the case. Wages have been stagnant, population has declined at a rate that has become predictable, and the number of run-down properties in the county has escalated. The establishment offered no answer to any of this. They resented it being notice.

Last year’s city elections ushered in a new group that wanted to join efforts with us. Although there are obstacles and competing interest in combining city and county efforts, there’s nothing that shouldn’t have been easily set aside long ago for the common good. We’ve already worked through most of this in the first weeks of 2016 with the new city administration.

 The merger will create efficiency with one lead person representing the entire county and all parts of the city instead of giving all prospective businesses one option – moving into an industrial park created by the old status quo. (And by the way, if you locate there, I know a guy that can build your building and another guy that can do your financing, and another guy can, etc.) Abandoned and decaying parts of the city will get a new look.

 Most importantly, everything will be open to discussion. When we took office, the economic development board didn’t include one person from the business community. Membership on that board had become a resume builder topped off by annual banquets where the elite would give each other awards. We argued that there could be better efforts made.

 Of course, we angered some people in undoing this established order. My columns in the paper infuriated them. They never argued that anything I said wasn’t true, they were just mad that I said it. They had wanted a cheerleader and they got a writer. I’ve heard it said there are four or five people who decide who holds elected office in this county. This group is openly endorsing my opponent in hopes of regaining proxy control over our community.

According to public records, the candidate they are promoting against me in the Republican primary voted Democrat in both of the primaries when Barrack Obama was elected president. At last look, she was still registered as a Democrat. My personal opinions are on full display at toddwolfrum.com. I write semi-weekly columns and do a weekly radio show to keep the public informed and involved.  I’m a conservative who believes in small government both locally and nationally and I’m a Republican out of conviction, not just to get elected.

 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 has traditionally been. Working with Thad and Stan to affect that change and accomplish what we have already accomplished has certainly been a life highlight. We spent my first term undoing an ineffective establishment. Now it’s time to unify and build on a new vision.

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2-12-16 Becoming Untangled

We always did feel the same, we just started from a different point of view” – Bob Dylan.

I’ve used this lyric from my favorite Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue” in a column before, but it fits better here. And to accurately quote the song, it would be “. . . started from a different point of viewwwwwwwww.”

And tangled up in blue pretty well sums up where we had been for much of last year waiting on the new city government to take its seat so we could start working on the combination of economic development efforts. We kept working our county programs, but the possibilities of this combination put some of our longer term efforts on hold.

Looking in from the outside, some have suggested that we just hire a new director and get moving. Slow down. We’re dealing with undercurrents in a county/city divide that date back so far that nobody involved right now really understands what caused it to begin with, only that there are residual contentions needing addressed before we forge ahead.

To illustrate, in the last month we’ve had conferences on combining the revolving loans. The city’s revolving loan has a few hundred thousand dollars in it and the committee supervising that loan is guarded, rightly so, about its use. The county’s fund, having been used to multiply grant dollars to help rebuild the villages and downtown Van Wert, is virtually exhausted.

The fund being exhausted is not a bad thing. Once a new project is available, more money can be acquired from the state. When the loan is paid back, it goes into the revolving loan fund for future loans or grants in the city or county. Exhaust the pot again and get more money from the state. That’s just how it’s designed to work.

The question for the two revolving loan committees is whether to unite the funds or keep them separate. Keeping them separate would allow two different sources to draw from but may make it difficult to continue to use the funds in grants to rebuild our villages. Further meetings with state officials are necessary to see what is possible, but this discussion is one of the problems being dealt with in the unification.

There’s even one holdover from the old city administration there to say, “It’s not my job to care about the rest of the county.” It’s good to have that voice at the meetings so everyone can hear the twang – it just doesn’t sound relevant to the conversation anymore. It may not be anyone’s job to care about anything, but everyone is starting to realize the county and city have a symbiotic relationship. One cannot be healthy if the other isn’t.

A philosophical divide comes in deciding if our biggest problem is lack of employers or lack of employees. This isn’t a county/city issue, but rather a mission issue that needs dealt with all the same. I have long argued that we have a demographic problem that is about to implode with the mass retirement of Baby Boomers and that problem is region-wide. The other side of that argument is “Build it and they will come.”

Consensus on this issue is necessary to create a job description for a director. Is the most important goal drawing new business or working with education to create a workforce and keep our young people here? Of course, in the end, there will be some hybrid of the two. It may even be that the schools become involved to the point that a director need not be as heavily concerned with the workforce end of it. Our school administrations have been included in our discussions and already are developing their own programs.

Mayor Mazur has been quoted several times as saying that we need to bring someone in from the outside with proven success in economic development. While I understand the rationale, I’m not sold that the person needs to be from the outside. I’m of the opinion that the director needs to have a passion for our community. A hometown person has worked well for Mercer County. I don’t know how someone comes from the outside and develops the requisite concern for the entire county, but I’m willing to listen on that point as well as the others. It’s a discussion and most of the city representatives are willing to listen to us too.

That’s the key right now – everyone is willing to compromise. Working from the premise that getting this done is more important than any of the obstacles, we’ve established an interim board. This group is charged with forming a non-profit corporate structure for the eventual combined effort which will be sent to city council and the county commissioners for approval. The interim board will also try to define the roles of the permanent board, subsidiary efforts, and job description for the director. We’ve set a deadline at the end of March for these tasks.

All of this reminds me of a scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Butch is challenged by a member of his gang, Harvey, to a knife fight. Harvey is ready to fight when Butch says, “Not so fast, not until we get the rules straight.” Harvey: “Rules? In a knife fight? There’s no rules.” Butch, already walking toward Harvey: “Well, if there isn’t going to be any rules let’s get the fight started, someone count one, two, three, go.” Sundance counts quickly and before the dumbfounded Harvey figures out what’s happening, Butch kicks him in the groin and knocks him out with a roundhouse.

We’ve suffered through twenty years of steady economic decline. Taking some time to get the rules straight so no one gets kicked in the groin and roundhoused is what is happening now and its moving along.

Last week, in a personal triumph for my first term in office, Convoy, Middle Point, Ohio City, Willshire and Wren sent a joint delegation to demand that the villages be represented at the table, worried that there could be a return to the status quo that excluded our rural areas entirely. Van Wert City Council has also requested involvement. It’s hard to find people that don’t want a seat at the table.

Everyone that wants a role will have one in the end. No longer is economic development listening to lectures and the elite handing out awards to each other once a year. All I knew when we started down this path was that what existed had become institutionally stale. I never would have predicted this much life still existed underneath it all. But it does.

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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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