Two of the three seats that make up the Delaware County Board of Commissioners are up for grabs as Election Day draws near. One race features current Commissioner Gary Merrell and his challenger, Jacob Fathbruckner, who hopes his second campaign for county commissioner proves to be more successful.
Merrell was first elected to the board in 2012, and he ran unopposed for re-election in 2016. During his two terms as a county commissioner, Merrell has been elected as the president of the board three times.
Prior to running for county commissioner, Merrell had a career in the newspaper industry, serving as the publisher for multiple newspapers. He said he had never had any intentions of running for any type of office until a highly-respect friend asked him about running for county commissioner.
Merrell said that person listed the reasons to him as to why he would make a good candidate. First, Merrell said, was his knack for asking the right questions, which he said stemmed from his days in the newspaper industry.
“I ask the questions that need to be asked that others may not be asking,” Merrell said. “If you don’t understand why you are where you are, it’s hard to make the changes necessary to move forward.”
Integrity was another quality Merrell said was listed to him as he considered the prospect of running.
“I have a passion for doing things the right way, and I have a passion for the county,” he said.
As the longest-tenured commissioner, Merrell has seen firsthand the considerable growth the county has experienced for nearly a decade. Merrell said the commissioners are tasked with facilitating that growth while also supporting the landowners and the rural parts of the county.
“The county is transitioning from rural to urban,” Merrell said. “Our goal as commissioners is that we maintain the beauty of the rural areas and support it. It’s not our goal to, overnight, become an urban community. That’s going to happen because landowners decide to sell their property. We don’t control that. It’s our goal to make sure that it’s done right.”
Merrell pointed out the commissioners’ work in starting the Preservation Farm program, which he said he personally negotiated, as a way to ensure the landowners of Delaware County were protected.
“I love driving the northern part of this county,” Merrell said. “It is beautiful to see the rural areas. But by the same token, what makes this county financially successful and wealthy is the growth…”
He later added, “We’re going to be a 250,000 population county in another 10 years. We have to be able to manage that growth and still protect and value the rural areas. But still, everyone has the right to develop their own property, and we respect that as well. That’s the balancing act we try to strike.”
Asked about the biggest challenges facing the county, Merrell said keeping residents working within the county, rather than traveling outside of it for work, is important moving forward.
“That’s never going to be 100%, nor should it be,” Merrell said. “Many of the people here are going to really good jobs down (in Columbus). But the degree that we keep people in our county, it takes some cars off the road, it provides a better base for our schools.”
Merrell said he wants to import “the great people in our county” to other communities, just as people from neighboring counties such as Union or Morrow counties come to Delaware County for work, but “would like to slow that process down.”
Over the last couple of years, he said the commissioners have really focused on creating high-paying jobs in the county. He cited the Berlin and Evans Farm areas as places where there are opportunities to be able to create “$60-70,000 jobs that can sustain a family.”
“That’s our goal, but you don’t do it overnight,” Merrell said. “In our current environment, it’s less ideal. But you want to have the infrastructure in place so that when people are looking, they will hopefully look at Delaware County.”
As for why he is running for a third term, Merrell said he, along with his fellow commissioners, has accomplished a lot, but there is still work to be done. In particular, he said finishing the facilities projects and continuing to work on the economic development of Delaware County are still important as he seeks another term.
Fathbruckner aims to give county a choice
Fathbruckner said his interest in local government began as a teenager when plans arose to turn his grandparents’ property, along with other properties on Klondike Road, into a reservoir. He said that in seeing property owners potentially being forced from their property, he began to see that, to him, the local government seemed to be the most “obtrusive” form of government.
“People always complain about the federal government, but it seems like the ones that make the decisions that affect your life are the local ones that nobody talks about,” Fathbruckner said.
Fathbruckner, who serves on the Delaware County Transit Board, said the things that were most important to him, such as the transit agency, were also unequal throughout the county.
“My great-grandmother, who lived out in Ostrander, was never able to use (the transit agency) because it only ever operated within the city limits,” he said. “The discrepancies between the heavily-populated areas and the further-out areas can be stark at times, and that’s something that I didn’t like and didn’t seem fair.”
Fathbruckner said he had been prodding others within the local Democratic Party to run for office in order to give the community a choice. In 2014, when the party had no candidate for county commissioner, Fathbruckner said he was “eating his own words” and stepped up to be that candidate. Now, Fathbruckner is again stepping up to represent his party, if for no other reason than to give county residents a choice to make on the ballot.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Fathbruckner said. “I don’t think anybody would bet money on me winning this thing. I believe the last time there was a Democratic county commissioner was 1976, if I recall … It’s a long shot, at best, but I do feel the most important thing is people deserve a choice, and people deserve the option to show if they’re dissatisfied and to have hope for something different, possibly. People not having an option is a really easy way for people to lose faith in the system.”
Fathbruckner said the principles on which he ran in the 2014 election are the same. Asked to elaborate on those principles, he said one of them is that the county shouldn’t measure its growth only from the most successful people in the county.
“Everyone in the county matters, and we need to look at the whole picture as opposed to just what development is good for the most powerful people, or the people who live in the biggest area, or the people who raise the most tax dollars,” Fathbruckner said. “Everybody in the county deserves to be served by what the county commissioners do…”
Related to growth within Delaware County, Fathbruckner said he has felt that, in the past, the county commissioners have been too liberal with how they hand out tax abatements to developers.
“It does seem like if a place is wanting to come in and do a lot of development, maybe we don’t have to give away as much as we have been in order to get that (development),” he said. “Especially if what’s coming in isn’t necessarily what’s good for the county.”
Public transportation continues to be at the forefront of the challenges facing the county, Fathbruckner said.
“We do have a fairly large number of elderly citizens in the county, which is not a bad thing at all. But one of the things that happen as people get older is their abilities to drive safely, or the want to drive at all, decrease. If you’re housebound because you’re not driving anymore, it doesn’t matter all the good things that the county provides because you can’t get to it.”
Fathbruckner said the county currently isn’t funding any part of the transit agency, and if the county properly funded the county transit system, those people would be more involved with what the cities and county as a whole are doing.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.