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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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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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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