The Pettis County eastern commissioner has been challenged by two candidates in the Aug. 4 primary election.
Eastern Commissioner Israel Baeza has been challenged by Dean Manuel, who works for Austin Powder Co., and Brent Hampy, Baeza’s predecessor who left the commissioner’s position in 2018 for a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. All three candidates are Republicans. There are no Democratic candidates so the primary winner will be unopposed in the November General Election. Commissioners serve a four-year term.
Each candidate was asked to fill out a questionnaire. Answers were limited to 200 words and are listed in the order the candidates appear on the ballot.
What are your top budget priorities, especially if tax revenues decrease due to the pandemic?
Manuel: My priorities would include making sure the road barn has adequate manpower, and equipment for mowing right of ways, cleaning ditches, grading rock roads, repairing hard surface roads, and continuing any bridge projects currently underway.
As a new incoming commissioner, I would ask to join the process of reviewing department budgets even before taking office in the last quarter of this year making sure all departments are adequately funded for the coming year.
During that process, later in this calendar year, we should have a better view of any potential tax revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic. Shortfalls in revenue will have to be discussed with all department heads and adjustments made accordingly.
My goal is making our dollars go further and keeping a balanced budget.
Baeza: We must continue to deliver a fiscally conservative and balanced budget, fighting for equitable funding for all County offices, and most importantly staying consistent with keeping Pettis County personal property tax rates low. As officeholders, we have a responsibility to be prudent and accountable to the taxpayers of Pettis County.
Hampy: In a decreased tax revenue scenario, my priorities would be to keep the County solvent and make necessary expenditures. I would work to keep all employees employed and to request other elected officials to prioritize expenditures in all department budgets. State statutes require counties to retain a certain percentage of their annual budget as a contingency fund for unexpected circumstances. During my tenure as commissioner, I believe we have been conservative by maintaining a contingency fund above the minimum requirement.
One of my past priorities has been working to bring additional business and high wage jobs to Pettis County. We have successfully accomplished this benefit with the arrival of Nucor. My efforts as part of our economic development team will help stabilize our economy in low revenue years and propel a more rapid economic recovery. I would continue my effort to support and capture economic development opportunities.
What are your thoughts on how the county has handled the pandemic? Is there anything you would do differently?
Manuel: I met with Pettis County Health officials a few weeks ago. We had an informative meeting and each understood opinions vary widely. We discussed the challenges of what the State Fair might bring, and the start of school. Pettis County Health Department does not oversee the nursing homes but we discussed the pandemic effects on the residents and family members of those residents.
Opinions vary widely and highly respected opinions have changed more than once, so this is and will be a controversial topic.
I feel we need to hear the advice and recommendations of the professionals and I support anyone doing what they need to feel safe, I respect wearing a mask, social distancing, or staying at home but I would not have agreed with a mandate on any of the above.
Some are more adversely affected than others which makes any mandate challenging.
With the passion both sides of this topic bring, balancing public health with our economy will continue to be a battle. I support an open dialog with all health care professionals, personal responsibility for ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors but at this point, I cannot support mandates for masks or stay at home orders.
Baeza: I believe that the small government approach being taken under my administration has proven to be the correct one. I do not believe that we should mandate a face-mask ordinance in our County, that responsibility should fall on the individual and should also be left up to each business. With that being said, I do encourage people to take proper precautions, especially if they consider themselves to be high-risk individuals. Above all, we need to have respect and understand that everyone’s situation is different.
Hampy: The pandemic has been difficult for many and devasting for others. I have talked to business owners hit hard by the pandemic who are upset. I also see the reports of lost loved ones from families grieving. Trying to balance policy to assist a population may be at odds with a policy needed to protect a person. An earlier communication effort would have been helpful but any issue requires time to develop. The pandemic has been stressful for our leaders as well and I have no items to suggest that I could have done differently. I would not favor a second economic shutdown.
What specific plans do you have to improve roads and bridges throughout the county?
Manuel: Improve the roadside mowing program in rural areas for better visibility, better drainage, and fewer vehicle- wildlife encounters, greater overall safety. This also helps curb illegal dumping and the cost associated with clean up.
Grader Bit systems for our road graders on rock roads to help maintain crown for better drainage, reducing wash boarding, and potholes. This also saves on rock being washed into the ditches and reducing the amount of road rock needed making our tax dollars go further.
I’ll continue with the current bridge program and bring all the federal dollars to Pettis County we can but also explore using retired rail cars for bridge replacement in rural areas.
I’ll continue experimentation with polymer roads as a substitute to chip seal for greater longevity.
Baeza: My top focus will remain maintenance road and bridge work. For many years, areas in our county had been forgotten and unattended, we have significantly changed that by staying accessible and encouraging direct communication with constituent 24/7.
We will continue to build off our current chip-seal successes, by going into the next phase of adding 3-5 miles of asphalt every year on top of our scheduled maintenance work. This will give our roads an additional layer of protection against the elements. We are constantly increasing our grading, ditching, and mowing programs in an effort to uphold our commitment to keep our farm to market roads open for business. Lastly, I will work hard to address our deficient bridges by utilizing B.R.O. funding, which translates into thousands of dollars in savings from our local tax dollars, generating soft match credits along the way to be used towards future bridges. This method is by far the most cost-effective and allows us to build our bridges to the highest structural standards available.
Hampy: My specific plan was to accelerate our progress on hard surfacing roads and provide more service, like right-of-way maintenance. This was my stimulus for my efforts to generate the additional tax revenues needed from new economic development growth. The foundation of my plan has been accomplished with the arrival of Nucor and the opportunity to expand our rail service portfolio. Better roads and bridges will be possible with this increased tax revenue. My management of the county bridge program has been highlighted as one of the best counties in our state by generating the needed soft match credit required by MoDOT to receive federal bridge dollars. Building cheaper bridges, which does not qualify for this program, such as using used rail cars as bridge decks, would be regressive policy and a potential liability. This idea was suggested by the rail salvage companies before I took office in 2013 and currently this usage continues to not receive MoDOT approval.
Do you think more oversight is needed for the sheriff’s office? What would you propose?
Manuel: I think the sheriff’s office should be capable of running without a lot of oversight from the commission other than the annual budget.
The people elect the Sheriff and his responsibility is to all residents of Pettis County.
I’m in agreement with the current commission on providing body cameras, I’d also include dash cams, along with establishing a storage system for data.
Baeza: As a Commission, it is important that we have a strong relationship with all officeholders to discuss the financial needs of their department. It is our priority that our law enforcement officers have the proper equipment to keep themselves and our communities safe. The sheriff’s office operates as a separate entity, so the County Commission has no oversight over their agency other than the appropriation of funds.
Hampy: By state statutes, the Commission reviews and allocates funding for each department based on the elected officials’ budget requests and the available revenues collected. Additional oversight would require state legislative action.
My solution to increasing courthouse security was to hire a courthouse lobby deputy with funds from the General Revenue budget rather than add another position in the sheriff’s budget funding. A working relationship with the sheriff is necessary to allow the deputy to receive a law enforcement commission through the sheriff’s office. Keeping the allocation of the position in General Revenue insured the person would remain assigned to the courthouse, working in cooperation with the Commission, rather than be subject to other daily needs in the jail or county-wide calls for service. This may be considered to be oversight to some degree. One judge remarked, “I don’t know of a better way you could have spent $40,000 for the county.”
Are you in favor of the new U.S. Route 65 interchange project?
Manuel: As a candidate for commissioner, I was not involved in discussions or the planning, therefore it’s difficult to say I support one or another plan.
I certainly sympathize with all effected landowners and understand some will be unhappy regardless of the plan but I think we can all agree, with the increase of traffic in a given area due to increasing industry, there has to be a plan to support it safely and I would agree.
Baeza: I do not believe it is fiscally responsible for the County of Pettis to commit to an estimated $8 million project. As Eastern Commissioner, my responsibility is to make sure that our more than 900 miles of rural county roads are maintained and that our bridges are in working condition. We have a lot of current infrastructure needs in our district, that is where I believe we should be spending our tax dollars.
Hampy: I am in favor of improving the traffic flow, both from the Nucor facility and within Sedalia. The proposed project of an alternate loop from East U.S. Highway 50 to North 65 Highway has ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the four-county Regional Planning Commission for over 10 years. MoDOT has been surveying parcels to plan this needed project long before Nucor arrived. I am not in favor of all aspects of the current proposals but realize this is a project under development and all options have yet to be studied. Clearly a study of options is needed, along with more constructive participation from MoDOT. Finding a solution to improve safety and limit the county’s initial and continuing costs would be a priority I am ready to work on.
What are some top issues facing the county you believe need to be addressed soon?
Manuel: Planning for pandemic tax shortfalls, half-cent sales tax road and bridge plan schedule, wages for skilled labor, roadside vegetation management.
Baeza: When I came into office, I made it a top priority to listen to my constituents. I visited every corner of the Eastern District and it was clear that the citizens were ready for a new way of doing business. Since then we have worked hard every day to address the issues that are important to them. We have made the County Commission more transparent than ever before, we have cut response times to road maintenance issues, our roads are now safer and more efficient, and I will continue to be an open ear and a strong voice for the Eastern District.
Moving forward the implementation of a central dispatch for 911 is a challenge that we have been anticipating for a long time. This is a big step forward for emergency services in Pettis County. The new central dispatch will allow for quicker response times, more precise call monitoring, clear communication between the different agencies, and will allow us to have four different 911 dispatchers on duty at all times.
Lastly, the most pressing issues we are addressing at the moment is making sure we give financial relief to our small businesses, entities, and organizations through the CARES Act Reimbursement Grant. We have been working very closely with the federal and state government to ensure that this money is invested back into our communities.
Hampy: The Highway 65 interchange project is an issue we need to address since discussions are ongoing. At the same time, our revenue levels will need to be closely monitored to formulate the basis of future decisions on fiscal policy. The addition of new business and high wage jobs will benefit our local economy with a more rapid economic recovery. Additional revenue would allow more services and improved roads. This would include more mowing of county road right of ways. Broadening our economic base has been a priority of mine with the goal of more services and better roads.
Two issues I had begun to address was (1) the review of our courthouse facility’s mechanical systems to plan needed repairs and upgrades and (2) the movement of inmates from the jail to the courthouse presents two concerns; the safety to inmates and the public during this process and the opportunity for inmates to receive contraband which ultimately is carried back into the jail. Alternatives to this movement method and the functionality of our courthouse would be additional issues I would continue to study for needed improvements.