GOSHEN — Elkhart County voters will choose three of six candidates to represent them on the County Council.
The top three vote getters, despite party, will win at-large seats on the council. There are three candidates each from the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats are Susie Meeks-Wade, Paul Steury and Oxana Werbiansky. The Republicans are Adam Bujalski, Thomas Stump and Tina Wenger. Stump and Wenger are incumbents.
Bujalski, 38, of Goshen, is married to Reana Bujalski. They are parents of five children. He is employed as a business lender at Interra Credit Union.
Meeks-Wade, 45, lives in Bristol. She is married to Ed Wade and they are parents of one child. She is employed in marketing and sales.
Steury is married to Michele Fanfair Steury. They are parents of two children. Steury is a graduate of Bethany High School and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Goshen College and his master’s degree in outdoor resources management from Indiana University.
He worked at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute as Tremont program director and as the education coordinator at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. He also taught at Goshen Middle School and was the director of sustainability and purchaser at Aluminum Trailer Co. He has also sold solar panels for Solar Energy Systems.
Stump has been married to Karen Frutig Stump for 45 years. They are parents of four children. He has owned and operated Cripe’s Septic Cleaning Service Inc. for 44 years. Stump was first elected to the County Council in 2012. Before that, he served five terms as a member of the Goshen City Council. He is a Purdue University graduate.
Wenger migrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1978. She graduated from the University of Santo Tomas and Bethel University. She worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor. She also taught at South Bend and Wa-Nee schools. She is a mother of three adult children. She lives in the Goshen area.
Among her professional and political affiliations, she serves on eight committees with the National Association of Counties and is a Republican National Committee Presidential Advisory Board member.
She was first elected to the County Council in 2016.
Werbiansky, 68, lives in Elkhart. She is retired and is married to Dwight Fish and is mother to a stepson.
What are your qualifications, as well as life and work experiences, that will help you perform your duties as a member of the Elkhart County Council?
BUJALKSI: My career in the financial industry, in both consumer and commercial, the non-profit boards I sit on as well as my time on the Elkhart City Council are what I believe positions me for service on the County Council. In these positions I have drafted and balanced budgets and worked with all sectors of the local economy to find success. The County Council is the fiscal arm of the county, funding the projects that departments and commissioners would like to see come to reality, and I believe my background will help me be successful in this endeavor.
MEEKS-WADE: I have a bachelor’s degree in human services and a background in finance. I volunteer with many community organizations and have experience in grant writing. I serve as a trustee on my church board and I understand how budgets work.
STEURY: I have an undergraduate degree in sociology from Goshen College and received my master’s in outdoor resources management with an emphasis in environmental education from IU Bloomington.
I was an environmental education professor at Merry Lea, a metal purchaser for ATC, a seventh-grade science teacher, a member of the Environmental Education Association of Indiana and the North American Association of Environmental Education.
I created a Goshen-based curriculum on sense of place, stewardship, issue investigation and creating solutions. I sell solar panels, co-coordinate Goshen Citizens’ Climate Lobby, contracted by the Elkhart County Food Council and host Goshen Green Drinks.
STUMP: I have served 21 years on the Goshen City Council. I am currently serving my 21st year on Goshen’s Redevelopment Commission and my eighth year on the Elkhart County Council. I have also run a successful small business (Cripe’s septic Cleaning Service) for 44 years. In dealing with county resident over the years, I have maintained a good working relationship with many people.
WENGER: My qualifications include degrees in economics and sociology from The University of Santo Tomas; MAT ongoing from Bethel University. I worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor. I teach part time at Wa-Nee schools. I volunteer at several political and civic organizations. My life experience as an enthusiastic, assimilated, female immigrant has given me a lot of empathy and ability to see different cultural perspectives. I have counseled many who are wanting to realize their potential by living their American dream.
WERBIANSKY: I served in the United States Army, and in Iraq I was in charge of a budget of $2,000,000 as the project purchasing officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. I was self-employed as a small business owner, as well as working at local Elkhart companies, including WTRC radio and the Selmer Corp.
To what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic recession impacting Elkhart County revenues and what, if anything, will have to be done to maintain government services?
BUJALKSI: Our service and hospitality industries have been decimated by COVID, however our manufacturing sectors are exploding and growing to unprecedented levels. To these points it is difficult to know what the overall impact will be until we get the estimates for future funding from the state. The current council has already asked departments to prepare to cut funding, and this will need to be continued until we see what the pandemic has done on a more permanent financial basis.
MEEKS-WADE: Elkhart County government is still working. Although businesses have suffered revenue losses, which reduce taxes for services, my goal is to assist current businesses and promote their growth with incentives and appropriate government assistance.
STEURY: I talked with Levon Johnson, president/CEO of Elkhart County Chamber of Commerce, who said the discussion of recession depends who you talk to. RVs, trailers and boats, which is part of that 52% of manufacturing in Elkhart County is going gangbusters. Hospitality sadly is down 95% month over month.
We need to have a true evaluation of services to discuss needs vs. wants and discuss quality of life funding in the county budget, including park maintenance, jails and roads.
I believe we need tax incentives for green industries to help diversify the county economy, which includes local food production.
STUMP: Revenues are currently stable. Income tax revenues in 2021 and 2022 may be affected. If that is the case, we will have to make adjustments to our spending. The county currently has $18 million in our rainy-day fund and that could be used to cushion any financial impact caused by the virus.
WENGER: In local government we are very aware of our revenue shortfalls coming from the state. According to our best information at this time, we could see anywhere from a drop of between about 6-8% approximately. I know in the city of Elkhart it was estimated to be about 10% in April. I have always taken a strong stand for very careful stewardship of our finances and my record reflects this. We review expenditures in detail and I have proposed many alternatives which weren’t under consideration when I saw possibilities.
WERBIANSKY: I’m sure the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession will have a major impact on Elkhart County revenues. However, I’m not sure how profound that impact will be. At this time I do not have access to tax rolls or projections of what deficits may be, so I have no way to judge how good or bad the next fiscal year will be. To maintain government services in a bad year, county government will have to do what everyone does, tighten its belt and look for savings in every corner of the county.
Can the county afford to construct a new courthouse complex that may cost up to $86 million?
BUJALKSI: With proper budgeting, yes, the county can afford to build the new complex. Secondly, with historic low bond rates, now is the time to take advantage of our financing options and build. If we were to wait even one year, and we see even a 1% increase in the bond markets from today, the total project cost will be millions of dollars more in interest alone, let alone future materials cost.
MEEKS-WADE: Not without raising taxes. My feeling is to work with options available for cost savings through partnerships, ie., sharing parking and infrastructure expenses with the city of Elkhart.
STEURY: On the Sept. 14 Goshen News, there was a front-page article titled “$35 million bond issue OK’s for courts building” indicating the council voted unanimously to sell bonds.
It has to be built because both the Goshen and the Elkhart buildings cannot be remodeled to meet the new standards by the Indiana Supreme Court for safety.
We really need to be in better communication with the mayors of Goshen and Elkhart because both were not very happy with the decision.
STUMP: Yes, the courthouse can be funded by bond proceeds that can be funded from the special use local option income tax that helps pay for the jail complex. No additional taxes should be needed.
WENGER: I did call for a review of other properties that could be used before the county fully funds the commissioners’ recommendation following their extensive study of the needs, costs and benefits. I was outvoted on that but do appreciate what must be done in the way of securing our courts, based on our judges’ needs, and taking advantage of the current low interest environment. It needs to be done and I support that.
WERBIANSKY: If taxes are not collected in the amount the county government is accustomed to, then a new courthouse complex costing up to $86 million will be unrealistic. There could be millions saved on a new courthouse if the county commissioners and the council think outside the box and find other ways to get a new courthouse.
How can the General Assembly help Elkhart County Council members better perform their financial duties?
BUJALKSI: By continuing to be a voice for our area in Indianapolis. So many decisions are made in Indy with only the doughnut counties in mind and the rest of the state is often forgotten. We have an amazing contingent of both House and Senate members from our area, many climbing the ranks in leadership, that truly look out for our local industries and residents. What we need for the General Assembly to do is stop passing one-size-fits-all legislation and allow for communities (home rule) to decide what is best for those that they represent.
MEEKS-WADE: Pass laws that support local government and allow counties to better spend their tax dollars.
STEURY: According to our state Senator Blake Doriot, the state General Assembly, as far as he knows, offers no classes to educate.
Indiana’s Association of Counties offers Newly Elected Officials Training and other opportunities, such as training for budgeting, county bonding, cyber security, etc.
There are offerings such as the INDOT Community Crossing matching grant program that awarded over $3.3 million in state matching grants to our county to bolster road and bridge improvements.
Motor Vehicle Highway Restricted Fund and the Local Technical Assistance Program at Purdue University (LTAP) offers funding to counties for improvements, which ultimately helps counties perform better.
STUMP: The state government should not pass mandates for local government without providing funding. They should also continue to fund state road improvements in our county. Also, continuing to provide state matching grants for our local road improvements is helpful.
WENGER: As fiscal conservatives, our county representatives are very involved in working that process. I would like to commend them for urging the Legislature to bring a greater degree of local involvement by convening the full assembly to bring their ideas on how to better mitigate the negative impacts of shutdowns. It’s past time to be doing this on an emergency basis now that we have data improvements in many measures.
WERBIANSKY: The General Assembly will help the County Council members better perform their financial duties by sponsoring training, and loosening the purse strings on the $2 billion “rainy day” fund. How rainy does it have to get to spend some of that money? Of course, this amount may have changed with the pandemic, but I have not heard an update.
Please tell the voters what initiatives you would undertake in 2021 as a member of the Elkhart County Council.
BUJALKSI: Do to limitations in character count, what I ask is that voters visit www.adamforelkhartcounty.com/platform to see what I hope to accomplish as their next county councilman at-large. But on a high level, I would like to bring transparency to the budget process and continue my work with local chambers and the EDC to bring a diverse mix of new business to the area while still supporting the industries that have helped make Elkhart County the amazing place that it is.
MEEKS-WADE: We need to be talking about attracting diverse industry to Elkhart County. We are the RV capital and that is fantastic, but we also have a highly concentrated manufacturing cluster that makes up about half of our total employment. More diverse economies have lower unemployment rates and a quicker recovery time if they do fall into a recession. Economic diversification is about avoiding reliance on a single industry. By building a diverse, balanced economy we can ensure opportunities exist for current and future generations that can perhaps supply sustainable energy, innovation and better wages.
STEURY: I am running on caring for our quality of life and creating a climate of stewardship focusing on our Elkhart River watershed, the air that surrounds us, and the food that we grow.
I want us to go after a countywide climate action plan so we as a county, which is known for ingenuity and innovation, can be proactive and focus on how to lessen negative change.
I want us to make all decisions with a triple bottom line in mind, which is also known as People, Planet and Profit. Focusing on economics, social equity and environmental justice.
I also know that science is data and not a belief.
STUMP: I would continue to work to keep the county in good fiscal position as they are currently. I would work to keep taxes low. I would continue to make certain the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office are well funded. I would continue to work to make Elkhart County a great place to work and live.
WENGER: I’ve been working to bring about more standardization of our pre-meeting notification processes in order to improve transparency for council members and the public. It should allow us to more clearly focus our efforts to be efficient in how we look at the issues and in how we spend. As a newer member and a newer voice, I have brought a different perspective to issues that have not always been considered or looked at in detail. I made it a point to meet with any county department heads who wanted to meet with me in my efforts to learn all that I could about county government from the inside.
WERBIANSKY: As a member of the County Council my initiatives would be based on doing what is best for the most people in the county. I would support stricter zoning laws, and environmental initiatives to keep the county’s air and water clean. I would plant trees in parking lots.