Two of the three seats on the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners are up for election this year; and at stake is the balance of power between the majority Republicans and the lone Democrat on the commission.
The race between Democratic state representative Denise Driehaus, who is term-limited out of the legislature, and Republican Dennis Joseph Deters, a former Colerain Township trustee who was appointed commissioner when Greg Hartmann resigned in December, is the one that has drawn most of the money and attention this fall.
But if Driehaus were to unseat Deters, she would need incumbent Democratic Todd Portune to be re-elected to establish a majority on the three-member board.
Portune, a veteran of nearly a quarter of a century in elective office, is being challenged by a relative newcomer, Andrew Pappas, who was elected an Anderson Township trustee in 2013.
What does a county commissioner do?
In Ohio, the county commissioners have no authority to pass laws. But they do control the purse strings of county government and are responsible for the administration of county government. The job pays $96,000 a year.
Pappas is a native of Houston, Texas, but came to Cincinnati 25 years ago. He is the owner of Cleaner Concepts, a dry cleaning company with locations in Anderson Township and Hyde Park. He was first elected an Anderson Township trustee in 2013. His campaign biography describes him as "the son of a Greek immigrant who came to the United States with nothing but the clothes on his back only to go on and develop a successful family business."
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On the issues:
Hamilton County's 50-year agreement with the city of Cincinnati concerning the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is set to expire in 2018. The on-going dispute between the city and the county over the operation of the system is now being mediated by a federal court judge.
But, Pappas said, in the meantime, the rate payers suffer and the increasing rates are stifling economic development in the county.
"We are all faced with our increasing water and sewage rates – really, the sewage rates – and it really does put Hamilton County at a disadvantage with the surrounding counties when we look at attracting and keeping businesses here,'' Pappas said.
Over the years, Pappas said, "you have had the city and the county pointing fingers at each other and no one was accountable, per se. That needs to end. There needs to be clear lines of accountability."
MSD is a huge problem, Pappas said, but county government has a general obligation to do everything it can "to make Hamilton County attractive not only for businesses but for people to move here."
"We need a new set of eyes and a small business perspective in order to do that,'' Pappas said. "I can do that."
The ever-growing problem of heroin and opioid abuse must be dealt with, Pappas said, not only with first responders dealing with saving those who overdose, but with treatment programs that will get these people off dangerous drugs.
Pappas said the problem hit home recently when a long-time employee of his business had a heroin overdose. And he said that recently, a car from Kentucky was stopped by police in Anderson Township.
"All four persons in the car were OD'ing on heroin and all of them were administered Narcan, but only the driver was arrested,'' Pappas said. "The police were really frustrated."
The Queensgate facility that was formally used as overflow jail space, Pappas said, is "sitting empty with about 800 beds. Why could that not be turned into a treatment facility?"
"This problem crosses every economic group, every ethnic group, every geographical area,'' Pappas said. "Everybody is affected by it. We have to have all our resources – county, township, cities – marching hand in hand and being as efficient as possible so we can wipe this thing out."
Portune was born and raised in Cincinnati. A graduate of Colerain High School, he graduated from Oberlin College with a political science degree in 1980. Three years later, he graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and began practicing law here. In 1993, the Democrat was appointed to a vacancy on Cincinnati City Council and was elected to two-year terms in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.
But, in 2000, he ran for county commissioner and easily defeated Republican incumbent Bob Bedinghaus. He has been re-elected with relative ease to three terms since then.
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Portune believes, as his opponent does, that MSD is the most critical problem facing the county.
But, because the city and the county are negotiating a new agreement under the supervision of a federal judge, he and other city and county officials are prohibited from discussing specifics of the talks in public.
Nonetheless, Portune has plenty to say about MSD.
"The rates we are required to assess to meet the requirement of the federal mandate under the Clean Water Act to fix the system are out of control and unaffordable to our ratepayers,'' Portune said. "They are a disincentive to businesses wanting to expand or locate here."
Property owners – particularly elderly ones on fixed incomes – "are being pinched extraordinarily by the rates,'' Portune said. "We must find ways to ease that."
And, he said, in the end, the dispute over who controls the system – the county or the city – must be definitively resolved.
"You have to have a single entity in control,'' Portune said. "There is no other way."
On the heroin problem, Portune said it is a good thing that local governments, with the county in the lead, are collaborating on finding solutions to the epidemic and dealing with the aftermath of heroin addiction.
"But this is one of those instances where we do need to figure out ways to get new revenues into the picture,'' Portune said.
Portune would start by looking to the Ohio General Assembly and the administration of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for that kind of help.
"This just can't all fall on Hamilton County's shoulders,'' Portune said. "The state could help us out a lot by declaring this a public health, a public safety emergency. Gov. Kasich could do that."
The result of such a designation, Portune said, would mean that more resources – and money – would flow into southwest Ohio to help fight the epidemic.