Five candidates, including one long-term and one new incumbent, are seeking the three Republican nominations to serve on the Wells County Council next year.
Councilmen James Van Winkle and David Fillers face challenges from Vicki Andrews, Leon Gaiser and Michael Mossburg for the council’s at-large positions this spring. Councilman Tony Garton is the lone Democrat on the ballot, but the party can fill vacancies this summer.
Republican Councilman Pete Cole, who was seeking re-election, died in March after a battle with brain cancer. Fillers won a caucus in April to serve the rest of Cole’s term this year.
The winners of the four-year terms are paid $6,624 annually.
Van Winkle, an optometrist, is finishing his sixth non-consecutive term on the council. In total, he has served nearly 25 years as a council member, and he said he wants to continue because he enjoys the work. He said he has been a financial conservative and wants to keep the county on that path.
During his tenure, he said he helped stabilize the finances for the group providing services to mentally challenged residents and in keeping the tax rate low. He said the biggest challenge facing the community is finding enough money to maintain the county’s infrastructure.
“There are a number of bridges that are needing repair,” he said.
Fillers works as an executive for a game company and owns his own gun shop in Bluffton. He said he ran for council because he believed the fiscal board should have someone with his experience and outlook.
“There seemed to be a need for someone with some business experience and someone who felt very strongly about the Constitution and the protection of those rights,” he said.
With fewer income tax dollars available, he said the county must be creative in how it saves money. For example, he said it might be wise for the county to have a centralized purchasing effort to get better prices on supplies instead of having each department do it separately.
Andrews, the treasurer of Southern Wells Community Schools, is seeking her first elected office because she believes her financial skills would serve the council well. She formerly worked for the county clerk and treasurer.
With dwindling revenues, she said the county needs to be more conservative with its budgets. She said even small cuts across many departments can make a difference. She was especially concerned that not enough bridge maintenance work is being done.
“I believe we need to possibly save up some money and get those done,” she said.
Gaiser, a residential and commercial contractor, said he is seeking his first political office after being one of the first residents to oppose the wind farm projects in southern Wells County. He said he tried to recruit others to seek office, but when that effort was unsuccessful he decided to run himself.
He said one of his major concerns is the county’s efforts to attract economic development. He said many college graduates can’t find jobs, so the county should do all it can to attract them. A dispute over how the county’s economic development money was used led to the departure of the county’s economic director, he said, which is problematic.
“They weren’t using it for economic development,” Gaiser said. “A good director was forced to resign because he couldn’t get any money.”
Mossburg, a self-employed agricultural researcher, said he is running for office because of concerns over how several issues were being handled by the county. He said the county created a wheel tax and economic development income tax, but he doesn’t believe that money is going to projects that make the most sense.
He also said he is concerned about how easily companies appear to get tax abatements. He said the tax breaks should only be given to companies that really can locate anywhere, not just to any company that wants to build in Wells County.
“It seems every time businesses come, we give them money,” he said.
Wells County officials are discussing two proposals to build wind farms in the southern party of the county. The plans have resulted in heated debate, strong opposition and now a lawsuit regarding one proposal’s approval by the area plan commission. Each council candidate was asked to comment on the issue.
Mossburg said wind energy doesn’t support itself, instead it relies on federal subsidies to survive. He also said he is concerned about eliminating good farmland to erect wind turbines when the world will soon need all the land it can get to feed its population.
“Food is not something to be taken lightly because you can’t eat electricity,” he said.
Gaiser said one of the main problems with the wind farms is that county leaders simply assumed its residents would support the development without seeking input. He said this is largely because officials made it seem as if the developments would never happen.
Now the county approved a boilerplate ordinance from the wind companies that doesn’t protect neighbor’s land rights. He said if elected he would oppose tax abatements for wind developments, which likely would prompt the companies to abandon their plans.
Andrews said she doesn’t know whether people are completely against the wind farms, but instead are more against the size and scope of the project. She said the county should have taken its time, including looking at new technology that includes smaller wind turbines that generate as much energy as the bigger ones.
“I think we need to do some more investigating,” she said.
Fillers said he isn’t opposed to wind farms, but he is concerned about any development that would hamper a neighbor’s ability to develop his own land.
Setback restrictions from the turbines have raised some concerns about how the project would affect neighboring properties.
“I am opposed to anything that someone does on their property that affects what others can do on their own property,” he said.
Fillers said he does want to see economic growth in the area.
Van Winkle said he served on the committee to work on financial agreements with one of the proposals – the one not currently under lawsuit. He said the agreement is reasonable in that it allows for development and protects neighboring residents, including having a clause for how the wind towers must be removed if the company would ever fail.
He said he supported the efforts to increase the area tax base.
“I am for progress and economic development and renewable energy,” he said.
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