Five candidates, three seats.

Though there are a lot of uncontested races on the local ballot this year, voters will have options as they consider the direction of Jay County Council.

The field features the current council president, a former sheriff, a former Portland City Council member, a Jay County plan commission member and an educator.

Republicans Jeanne Houchins, Matt Minnich and Ray Newton advanced to the general election through a four-way primary, which saw current council member Cindy Newton, Ray’s wife, finish fourth. Democrats Judy Aker and Josh Gibson were uncontested in the primary.

Houchins, a Bryant resident and 1974 graduate of Greenbrier West High School in Charmco, West Virginia, is in her second term on council and also serves as its president. She is the manager of Progressive Office Products in Portland.

Gibson, a rural Portland resident and 1999 Jay County High School graduate, is a teacher at Bloomfield and East elementary schools and co-owner of Dick’s Pizza Palace. He has a bachelor’s (health science/health education) and a master’s (community/public health) degrees from Ball State University and has served on multiple committees for Jay County Development Corporation.

Newton, a Portland resident and 1991 Jay County High School graduate who went on to earn an associate’s degree from Ivy Tech Community College, served as Jay County Sheriff from 2007 through 2014. He currently works as a police officer for IU Health Jay.

Aker, a Portland resident and 1978 graduate of Ohio State University, is co-owner of Mark Aker Plumbing. She served four terms on Portland City Council from 2003 through 2019.

Minnich, a rural Portland resident and 2003 Jay County High School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tri-State University in 2007, is operations manager at Minnich Poultry. He has served on Jay County Plan Commission for four years, is on the county’s roads committee and is a member of the Jay County Development Corporation board.

The candidates were asked to respond to a questionnaire from The Commercial Review. Their answers follow.

••••••••••

Because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there are uncertainties about the level of government funding in 2021 and beyond. As the county’s fiscal body, what should Jay County Council do to prepare for those fiscal uncertainties?

Aker: The council needs to keep county departments within their budgets. I understand that emergencies arise and funding is needed for those. But not knowing what funding will be available, the departments need to work within their budgets.

Gibson: Jay County has done a great job in the past handling and preparing for possible budget shortfalls with the leadership of the auditor's office. I have no doubt that with that leadership and the council working with their county departments, that we can weather this storm as well, with a little creativity.

Houchins: Council has been vigilant as to how each department has been using its monies. Each department and the commissioners have been considerate of the times we are in and conscientious of how they use their budget. We have been proactive for several years to help prepare for this type of emergency and have built up reserves but we have not had to use any of that except for pay during the time the county offices were closed. The auditor is working to get that money reimbursed. As council president, I have been a huge advocate for keeping our reserves healthy.

Minnich: It has been my experience as a manager and a farmer that when times get tough or uncertain you start to spend conservatively and look for opportunities to cut waste. You make the hard decisions while trying to maintain the long-term vision of the operation. I think a similar approach to the county’s budget would be prudent by not adding any new expenditures, taking a look at where we are spending money and assessing its usefulness, and creating a plan to navigate the rough waters ahead.

Newton: The council should make sure that funding is available to purchase supplies and equipment to protect our employees from the pandemic. I hope by working with the State of Indiana and the federal government that emergency funding will be granted for the costs related to the pandemic.

••••••••••

Other than dealing with items relating to the pandemic, what do you see as the most important issue facing Jay County Council and how would you handle it?

Aker: Fiscal responsibility. I would check the claims report for each department to make sure budgeted funds were spent accordingly.

Gibson: I think that we need to look carefully at additional appropriations. This process should be done for unexpected events and not as a way to grow budgets.

Houchins: One item that is always foremost in my mind is keeping the tax rate as low as possible. No one wants to pay more taxes than necessary, so the work and balance is to keep the tax rate low and keep enough tax dollars coming in to maintain the county at the level we all expect. Another area that I feel is just as critical is the wages and benefits of our employees. Over the last few years, council has worked to bring all of our wages to within a more even range with like-sized and surrounding counties.

Minnich: Prior to COVID-19, and even after it, I think the most important issue is a financially strong Jay County. I believe that fiscally responsible decisions can allow investment in Jay County to improve the lives of its citizens. This can include road conversions/improvements, community improvement projects and support for programs that benefit our county. I would like to see the funds from the new wind farm invested as a way to contribute towards these kinds of projects well into the future.

Newton: The budget for 2021 should be considered the most important issue. With shortfalls in tax revenue each year the county is facing less revenue to operate. The council should ensure that departments operate within their means and not go over their budget.

••••••••••

Why should residents of Jay County vote for you?

Aker: I have 16 years of experience in local government and would like to take that experience to the county level.

Gibson: Often, our community looks to the same sources for leadership. Some have been making decisions for our community since I was a kid. Along with those years of wisdom, some fresh new faces in our local government will only make us stronger. I want to learn from the process, while understanding the hurdles that may come with it. I have worked in the county's three largest employers, and my connections to them could be a great assistance to the council. I want to do my part to make Jay County better for everyone, including my family.

Houchins: I am dedicated to the position and I have the experience needed for this position. During my time on council, I have done what I feel is best for all of Jay County and I will continue to do so. There have been some tough decisions but the decisions I have made were for the best for all of Jay County and its future.

Minnich: I’m a lifelong resident of Jay County, and I’m invested in Jay County’s future. I’ve had multiple opportunities to leave Jay County, but to me, this is home. I am hopeful that I can continue to foster improvements in our community which encourages others to choose to stay here as well. I’m relatively young in comparison to others who have served in Jay County politics, and I believe that provides me a different perspective when making decisions. I look forward to the opportunity to serve the residents of Jay County.

Newton: Being a former elected official, I know how important the county council is. While sheriff, I had the knowledge of how county government operates and the importance of the general fund. If elected to the Jay County Council at-large, I will bring the same experience and pride I had while sheriff. I will proudly serve the citizens of Jay County.