LISBON - Columbiana County Commissioner Jim Hoppel, who has already served a record four consecutive terms, is seeking a fifth in the Nov. 6 general election.
He is opposed by Center Township Trustee Joe Csonka, who is making his first run for countywide office. Csonka is a Democrat, while Hoppel is a Republican.
Hoppel, 74, would like to serve another four years because he said for the first time in years the county's financial fortunes may be improving to where they can afford to spend additional money where it is needed: the county drug task force and the sheriff's office, for starters.
He said both agencies need additional officers to better do their jobs, and Hoppel would especially like to see the sheriff be in a position to bring on at least two additional deputies.
Another priority would be to reinstate the county economic development director position, which was eliminated in the early 2000s as a cost-cutting move. "We do well with what we have, but we need to do more," he said of their economic development efforts.
A director would work on recruiting businesses and with local chambers of commerce and other development organizations.
"Government doesn't create jobs. Government creates the atmosphere that attracts the businesses that create jobs," Hoppel said.
The additional revenue is in the form of casino tax money commissioners began receiving this year, money from leasing county property for drilling, plus an increase in revenue generated by the two county sales taxes. Sales tax revenue is up 8 percent over 2011.
Hoppel also addressed the casino tax issue, after communities in the county have suggested commissioners share that money with them. He prefers waiting until commissioners get a better idea how much casino revenue they can expect to receive because the county government certainly has a number of needs that should be, addressed before they consider giving the money away.
"We've had it tough making ends meet and often haven't been able to do what needs to be done," he said. "I think at this point we need to sit back and see how the county finances stabilize ... and then go from there."
Hoppel said none of this should come as a surprise, noting the state Constitutional amendment passed by voters clearly says the money is to be shared among counties, Ohio's 10 largest cities, the state and school districts.
"The people voting for it should know what they are voting for," he said.
Hoppel pointed out commissioners have a history of sharing some of their additional sources of funding, such as federal Community Development Block Grant, which they spread among communities. The Engineer's Office also provides resurfacing services, with the participating townships and villages purchasing the material.
"We've always worked with communities, always had a good working relationship, and we will continue to do so," he said.
Hoppel cited as one of his recent accomplishments construction of the new county government services building. "I think it was a good move," he said.
The old county building that housed the Department of Job and Family Services had fallen into disrepair to the point where commissioners determined a new building was needed. He said they took some flack for doing it, with some saying they spent tax dollars to benefit the people on public assistance.
"We didn't build it for the welfare people. We built if for the people who work there," Hoppel said.
He also spoke about why he was opposed to the top three people recommended for the county Emergency Management Agency director position by the interview committee.
"They weren't totally satisfied with them either," Hoppel said of the interview committee, but the committee felt obligated to offer the three best names from among those who applied.
"People are trying to make this political when it is not. We stayed out of the selection ... We had four professional people interview them," he added.
Csonka, 73, believes he has the right mix of private-public sector business experience, noting he worked for years as a pipe fitter before starting his own plumbing business, which he operated "until my shoulders and knees gave out."
He then took a job at the county health department, serving as plumbing inspector until his retirement this year. Csonka has been a trustee since 2004.
Csonka was asked to run by the Democratic Party after having been approached in the past, but now the time was right with his retirement. "My kids told me you're always complaining and you always wanted to try," he said.
Csonka said every politician talks about creating jobs, but the key is being in a position to provide water and sewer service. As trustee, he was frustrated when the Pleasant View Nursing Home relocated from the township to outside East Palestine after being unable to tap into a nearby Salem water line that serviced the federal prison. He said although the county was involved in the project, they turned control of the line over to Salem, which was a mistake, and the city required annexation in exchange for any residents or business tapping into the line.
"I thought they dropped the ball on that," he said of commissioners.
In a situation like that, Csonka said he would do whatever it takes to obtain water service rather than lose a business under similar circumstances, especially if the business was relocating outside the county. He blamed politics for the loss of the nursing home.
Csonka said his election as commissioners would provide a board member with extensive construction experience, which would be a benefit whenever they take on a construction project.
For example, construction of the new government services building included cast iron pipe for the first and second floor plumbing when PVC plumbing would have sufficed. "I'm not saying commissioners should have caught this," but using PVC would have saved $30,000, he said, adding they also need to take a better look at the work history of the contractors they select.
Csonka was also critical of any plans by commissioners to demolish the old Job and Family Services building and had lobbied for renovating the building instead of constructing a new government services building.
"The building can be saved, the structure is sound," he said.
Csonka believes the mold could be eliminated and the building renovated for office space for oil and gas companies working in the area.
"They're all these people coming here, and they need office space. You could patch up that building and make it usable ... Think of the money you would bring into town," he said. "I'm not sure it would work, but I think that's a more progressive idea than just tearing it down."
Csonka is also advocating commissioners share some of their casino tax revenue with cities, villages and townships, because they are hurting too. He suggested commissioners use the same distribution formula used for state Local Government Fund money, which is based largely on population.
"I can't see why they don't think that is a good idea," he said.
Csonka also disputes Hoppel's contention there are no qualified candidates for the EMA director position and that they should seek new applicants. Csonka supports a man he worked with at the health department - Bob Zehentbauer, the public health emergency preparedness coordinator.
Zehentbauer was not among the finalist recommended for the job, and Csonka denied he was being political when he criticized commissioners for dragging their feet on making the appointment.
"If I'm a county commissioner, I'm going to pick the best person for every job," and Zehentbauer is the best candidate, he said.
Csonka was critical of Hoppel's past opposition to imposition of the 1 percent county sales tax. Hoppel said he believed the voters should have a say on the tax. "If you know you need the money to run the county, the people elected you to make that decision," Csonka said, adding the county obviously needed the tax revenue to operate.
"What Hoppel said is, 'Let the people decide' ... What I think he was saying is 'I want to get voted back in,'" Csonka said. "If you need that to run the county I wouldn't let the county go broke."
The commissioner position pays $65,620.