About the Series
As we move through this process we are producing a series educating voters about what our county commissioners do and what their responsibilities are. Along with that, we're talking about the ways that we can use those responsibilities to create a more just and equitable future for Licking County. Join us as we learn more about what role our commissioners play in designing that future.
Part 1 - Roads, Bridges and More ...
So, the question I get asked most often, "What does a commissioner do?" So, to answer that question this is the first in a long series of posts talking about all the ways that our county commissioners effect our community and the services we use.
Our County Commissioners are responsible for funding our infrastructure spending. While that means obvious things like repaving our roads and maintaining our bridges it also includes the Heath Airport, stormwater control and all the ditches in Licking County.
Seem interesting? Well what if we look at it from a different angle - instead of roads and bridges consider them as opportunities to address inequality. And instead of stormwater control and ditches consider it as responsible environmental stewardship. Those ditches and storm water systems all fall under mandates created by the EPA to ensure clean water for all of us.
As a county, we should be focused on bridges and roads that can connect our population to better opportunities, not isolate and divide our communities. Our infrastructure should serve as an opportunity to create a more inclusive, connected, vibrant community. The sole consideration shouldn’t be how many employers it helps (thought that should be in the conversation) - we should be worried about the impact of the various connectors on our communities. More North-South connectors are good but those upgrades should include a focus on connecting our western side with the central and eastern side of our county by providing better access to 161/37 and 70. By creating a more integrated community we can create a stronger county with better opportunities for all of us to work, play and live in our county.
And as a county we should be worried about maintaining our environment for us, our children and our children’s children. Agriculture remains central to our county but a responsible stewardship of those resources begins with the county commissioners. Our commissioners set the budgets for several water and storm water treatment facilities but more importantly they set the budget for our Soil and Water Conservation District. Our conservation district is directly responsible for ensuring that we remain in compliance with federal regulations regarding clean water. While we can’t change those federal regulations, we can provide more resources to help our conservation district accomplish even more. We can bring them to the table early on when we are talking to employers looking to relocate to the area. By getting feedback early in the process we can be certain that new residential and commercial development is being done in a responsible, sustainable way that guarantees the county our children grow up in retains its deep connection to the land.
These aren’t issues of party or partisanship - they are issues of basic quality of life and community. Over the next 20 years our county is going to change, it has already started on the western edges and development isn’t going to wait for us to invite it in. We need to be looking forward and thinking about the community we want to become, not the community we have been.
Part 2 - Probation and Public Safety
Public Safety and the Courts are such a large piece of the County Commissioner’s role that I’m going to break it up into several parts just so we can talk about each of them in the depth they deserve. As a whole they represent nearly 60% of our county’s $65 million General Fund budget, the Sheriff’s Office alone consumes roughly 30% of the General Fund dollars available for the county. Tucked away in that budget is nearly $900,000 for Adult Court Services. Those services are principally pre-trial supervision and probation.
Our probation officers in Licking County are some of the most dedicated public service members facing challenging, difficult working conditions but providing an incredibly valuable service to not only our offenders - but also to all the citizens of the county. Even in the face of those challenges our Probation Officers work to integrate our returning offenders back into a society that has shouldered them aside and they work tirelessly to help those offenders overcome the odds and avoid recidivism.
Even with their staggering workload they continue to pioneer new projects and bring new, evidence-based programs to the county. In conjunction with our Common Pleas Court they launched a Drug Court which works to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison and in the community. As a group they focus their efforts on a handful of offenders and create a response team to help them fight their addiction, find housing, employment and other resources to help the offenders turn their lives around.
They have also launched a Day Reporting program focused on helping offenders integrate back into our community. With classes and skills-focused training their goal is to help those offenders establish healthy relationships and deeper ties in our communities. By providing counseling services and other mental health services they also hope to create a lasting change in the lives of the offenders.
Currently, Day Reporting is grant funded but when that grant runs out it’s important that we continue the commitment. Evidence-based programs like Drug Court and Day Reporting can help us create a more inclusive, welcoming community. A community that is strengthened by its diversity of voices - giving offenders a chance to be heard can help us create a better county. And most importantly - these services must include our citizens on the western side of the county. As Day Reporting proves itself successful we should determine how we can expand the program and offer it to offenders returning to communities on our western borders - by creating a satellite program in Reynoldsburg or Pataskala or Johnstown we can serve more people and strengthen all of our communities.
I recently had the opportunity to tour our county jail - both the old and the new - and it seemed fitting to talk about the role of our jails. As I noted previously, the Sheriff represents roughly 30% of the total budget of the county - and the jail falls in that budget.
When the historic jail was built in 1889 it was state-of-the-art for its time. Built of stone quarried in Millersburg and set to house 68 inmates it was not only the home for all the county's prisoners - it also served as the home for the Licking County Sheriff and family. When it closed in 1987 it had become dangerously overcrowded, out of date and the interior was in need of attention. But for nearly 100 years it safely housed our couty's offenders and insured their safety and well-being.
When our leaders sat down to plan the new jail, I'm certain they looked across the country and set out to build a jail that embraced all the best practices and the finest ideas from groups like the American Correctional Association. And I'm sure that those same leaders would be incredibly proud to know that all of those best practices are still in place and that our jail remains a fantastic example for the rest of the state to follow.
Our jail maintains accreditation from the American Correctional Association as well as the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare - either of those accreditation are extremely hard to achieve and we have one of the few jails in Ohio that maintains both. Our Sheriff's office is one of only three in Ohio to have earned all three accreditation - ACA, NCCH and the National Sheriff's Association - a distinction that fewer than 100 Sheriff's offices in the country have ever achieved.
And those accomplishments are due entirely to the dedication, professionalism and hard work of the staff at the jail and the Sheriff's office. As in so many parts of our government that I've visited, our government employees are dedicated to making the best local government they can with the resources they have. At our jail that means creating a safe, respectful environment for the offenders housed there. By treating the population with respect the corrections staff has created a remarkable example of how corrections can be done correctly.
While being in jail isn't ever going to be an enjoyable experience we should remember that the offenders housed there are members of our community. That they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and that it is incumbent on us to treat them with respect and care and help them on a path that can better themselves, their families, and their communities.
It's been incredibly refreshing to see at recent meetings on addiction and domestic violence that the officials who are involved in incarceration are the ones raising alarms about it. That incarceration can't be considered a solution for the issues we are facing - that locking up addicts won't solve the addiction crisis and that locking up abusers won't help get them treatment. Our jail is one of the largest mental health providers in the county and it's an issue we need to address. Jail isn't a place for a person to go who needs treatment. While our dedicated corrections staff works tirelessly to keep them safe, they deserve better options that can help them heal and rejoin our communities.
We will always have a need for our jail - and it should be a source of pride for all of us that our jail is a shining example of how a corrections facility can be run. But it's time for us to start thinking beyond jail - for addicts, for those in the cycle of abuse, for the homeless, and those who have run out of hope. As a County Commissioner I want to work to create more options like the Day Reporting program and like Drug Court that can provide a network of services to those ready for change. And I want to work with our social service providers to help bring more people to a point in their lives where they are ready for that change.
Part 3 - Our Jail
Our transit system is an amazing story writ large across the county. A story that reflects so many of the larger themes going on in our public conversations across the country right now and that dig down to the very roots of what government can and can’t be. It also reveals the philosophies of our leaders and how that impacts our government’s ability to deliver services. Join me as we dig deeper into transit in this fourth entry in the Commissioner Series.
Our Commissioners are entrusted with the power to influence two separate groups that work on transit: the Transit Board which is responsible for delivering services in Licking County, and the Regional Transit Authority which coordinates across multiple counties. The Transit Board is a fairly unique group, all of the members are appointed by the Commissioners and one Commissioner sits on the board - but they are not subject to supervision by any other elected county officers. Similarly, the Regional Transit Authority is a group with very little oversight and no supervision by elected county officials. Its powers are slightly different than the Transit Board and rather than directly providing services its responsibilities focus on coordination amongst counties - although in larger counties they provide air and ferry services.
Transit is a complex issue that touches on so many fundamental ideas of what our communities are. Our seniors use transportation to maintain their community ties and access medical services. Our indigent use transportation to access services from mental health to food stamps to health care. Our homeless use transportation to reenter the workforce and access jobs. Our employees use transportation to access better jobs across the county. Our students use transportation to enrich their lives by taking classes at our local institutes of higher learning. And all of us could use transit to access parks, neighbors, restaurants and our favorite spots across the county.
As a community, transportation provides us so many benefits - both economically and in increased community connectedness. But our current leaders treat it as a nuisance. Rather than finding leaders who understand and embrace the power of transportation, they are concerned with maintaining the status quo. When you compare our transit system to our nearest neighbors we are woefully underperforming. And it isn’t a dollars and cents issue - it isn’t our designation as a urban rather than rural county. It is simply a failure of leadership.
When our leaders believe that government can’t effectively deliver services, our government will fail to deliver those services. But in our neighboring counties the Transit Boards have put in place effective, dynamic leaders who believe that governments can provide quality services at a reasonable cost. And they do it effectively, efficiently and with the support of their community.
There is no easy way to dig ourselves out of the hole our Commissioners have created. With no additional funds coming from the Federal level or the State of Ohio we will be forced to find ways to improve transit using our existing resources. Problematically, we have signed away most of our transit system to the private sector - our county owns the buses and the buildings but we have contracted with a private provider to staff those buses and train the drivers.
And this philosophical belief that the free market can provide services better than the government impacts us here at the most local level. Transit is a public good - it has wide economic and community benefits but it costs a great deal of money. The profit motive isn’t a good fit for public goods - the only way to create profit is to cut corners, pay drivers less, provide less service, skimp on the features that create a good, responsive transit system.
So this drive to privatize will make it difficult for us to improve our transit services - but there are things we can do now. By finding leaders that believe that government can provide effective services we can resuscitate our transit system. We can find leaders with new ideas, new ways to approach our existing programs - we don’t have to spend more money to improve our services, we simply need leaders and workers who believe that government can solve problems.
I’m hoping that after this November I will be able to help bring change to the Transit Board by being one of those new leaders. But it’s a job that will require help from all sides - our community is already involved in making those changes. Concerned members from all walks of life are gathering together and holding meetings, attending Transit Board meetings and trying to pressure our current leadership to effect change. If you want to help us make those changes I urge you to join the Transport Licking Count group, attend meetings and get ready to vote. By working together we can bring real change to our county and make our place in the world better for all of us.