One of two races for a seat on the Delaware County Board of Commissioners features a pair of candidates in incumbent Jeff Benton and newcomer Pamela Foster.
Benton is seeking his first re-election as a county commissioner after being appointed to fill an unexpired term in 2015 and being elected to a full term in 2016. He said his broad business background was something he felt the community and its leaders could use, which led to him joining the commissioners and seeking re-election this year.
“I just thought we really needed planning expertise to properly plan for making sure we have smart growth in the future, rather than having to react to the growth,” Benton said.
Benton defined smart growth as “planned growth so that our growth is managed properly and occurs in the right areas, with the right businesses, with the right roads, sewers, facilities, and all the while maintaining a strong financial base so that we properly balance that growth with strong finances.”
Benton cited the U.S. Route 23 corridor as an example of the importance of smart growth, saying the county is “working on some things” to improve US 23, but there is only so much that can be done. He referred to the plans for US 23 as “reactive growth,” whereas the future plans for the far less developed U.S. Route 36/state Route 37 will rely on “smart growth.”
“A lot of it is already done and not done as we would like, but we’re working on a new plan for Route 23 to do an overlay through townships and the city so that what’s left to be developed can be done better than what is already done,” Benton said. “Compare that to Route 36/37, that is ripe for smart, planned growth, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Plans for US 36/SR 37 include the Berlin Business Park, which would be a zoning overlay of more than 2,000 acres that could attract “the right businesses in the right locations” while also having housing “where it makes sense,” he said.
Benton added one of the things he is most proud of during his tenure as a commissioner is helping the county to become AAA rated by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, two of the predominant credit rating agencies in the country.
“We’re one of only a handful of counties in the whole country that have dual AAA ratings, so that shows that we have financial strength, we have good financial leadership, we have good financial plans,” Benton said.
In addition to obtaining the AAA ratings, Benton said the commissioners have put long-term plans for road, sewer, and facilities in place to continue the county forward over the next four years.
“We’re executing on all of those, and over the next four years, it’s going to be critical that we continue to execute on those and update them,” Benton said. “We’ve developed a financial plan to make sure we maintain our AAA rating and make sure we get these things done responsibly and timely.”
Benton also cited the commissioners’ work on the Byxbe Campus, which will soon be home to several county operations, as another significant accomplishment for the current board. In July 2017, the commissioners approved a contract to purchase the former Delaware Area Career Center (DACC) North Campus for $1.7 million to become the new Byxbe Campus, where they will consolidate county operations.
“We will become more efficient, better serve the public — business and residents, and be able to dispose of some surplus properties that we really don’t need as we consolidate our operations in the Byxbe Campus,” Benton said.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in these five years that I’ve been on the board, but we have a lot more to accomplish,” he went on to say.
Foster not short on experience
Foster said she has held an interest in politics for most of her life, beginning as a high school student in Cleveland and into college and beyond. She has campaigned for various candidates both at the city and state level, and she even worked for Delaware’s headquarters for the Barack Obama campaign during both election years.
“I’ve always been very, very involved in politics,” Foster said. “The reason being that politics impact everything you do, from the air you breathe to the water you drink, the places you live, the jobs you have. It involves every aspect of your life, so it is very important to me.”
Now, with an opportunity presented within the Delaware County Democratic Party, it’s her turn to run the race as she attempts to win a seat on the Delaware County Board of Commissioners.
Foster brings an extensive background in economic development to the ballot, having spent more than 30 years in various industries related to development, both locally and around the country.
“I’ve worked in 41 states, Puerto Rico, and a Native American reservation, bringing stakeholders and collaborative partners together, identifying red flags, making sure things work, seeing how things do work,” Foster said. “This is a contract through my business that I work through, with the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and I go out and work on and evaluate these projects. I used to do technical assistance for them, so I knew what really worked.”
Add in her work with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, previous projects with the U.S. Department of the Treasury involving new market tax credits and certifying Community Development Financial Institutions, and her career as a banking executive, and Foster’s versatility is apparent.
In her work, Foster said she came to find that economic development is “really strategic,” saying, “It’s the right mix of commercial, industrial, residential, green space, and amenities. It’s all of those things, but most importantly, it’s job creation.”
Specific to the type of growth needed, Foster cautioned that building office complexes is a risky proposition as the pandemic has shown businesses that many of its employees can work from home, leading to vacant buildings across the country. Alternatively, she said warehousing is currently booming as retail stores are closing and people continue to move more towards online shopping.
Whatever type of growth is decided in Delaware County, Foster said there has to be job creation involved, with liveable wages attached to them.
“Through my conversations with voters in Delaware County, many county and city workers tell me they can’t afford to live in Delaware County … We’re squeezing people out,” she said, adding that people take pride in living, working, and playing all in the same community.
Other issues Foster said she often hears from residents is the lack of affordable housing in the county, as well as the need for better public transportation.
Foster, who is a board member for Family Promise in Delaware, said the need for affordable housing is near to her heart as she sees how overpopulated the shelter currently is. She said the issue is directly tied to the lack of jobs with living wages, and the limited transit system that prevents some from being able to get to jobs outside of Delaware that might allow them to earn a living wage.