In the race for Lorain County commissioner, three-term incumbent Democrat Lori Kokoski faces Republican Connie Carr, a business, finance, and real estate lawyer.
County commissioners’ duties include budget oversight and approving county spending, approving employee hiring, and approving building and land purchases. There are three commissioners and they serve four-year terms.
Carr said her 18 years of legal work has made her pragmatic. She said she works to build relationships and find common ground with people.
If elected, Carr said her legal background will help the county realize it’s “tremendous potential,” which she believes isn’t being reached.
“In fact, we seem to sometimes be moving backward,” Carr said during an Oct. 10 candidates night in Oberlin. “What we currently have isn’t working and we need to change that.”
Kokoski, who took office in 2005, said she ran to be a voice for residents and her experience as commissioner makes her the best candidate.
During her time in office, Kokoski helped form the county land bank, which acquired federal taxpayer money to demolish more than 400 blighted homes since 2012, the vast majority in Elyria and Lorain. She spearheaded the Lorain County 911 emergency dispatch center merger with the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office in 2011, saving the sheriff’s office about $400,000 annually.
Kokoski supported efforts by the county prosecutor’s office to collect back taxes from property owners. About $6.8 million has been collected in the last year, part of an effort to collect $10 million by year’s end. The commissioner also supported purchase of a building for a recycling collection center, keeping tons of material out of the county dump.
Kokoski — who said she has raised about $50,000 in campaign money and has roughly $20,000 on hand — said she and commissioners Ted Kalo and Matt Lundy have an extremely challenging job finding money to provide services. Shrinking local tax revenue since the Great Recession and state taxpayer aid from the legislature has led to full-time county workers being cut from 2,140 at the end of 2008 to 1,727 at the end of last year, a 19-percent drop.
The county, which has an approximately $60 million annual budget, faces a projected $2.5 million deficit. To help balance the budget, Kokoski supports Issue 32, which would raise the county sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.75 percent. If passed, the increase would raise about $9 million annually with half for the general fund and half for transit improvements. Carr also supports passage.
Kokoski criticized the Republican-majority legislature for cutting funding to local governments despite having an approximately $2 billion surplus. The county received about $2 million in state funding this year, down from about $8 million annually before the recession.
“Either give that money back to the local governments or give it back to the taxpayers,” Kokoski said on candidates night. “We’ve tightened the budgets almost as much as we possible can but we’re continuing to find efficiencies and to stay within our means.”
Carr agreed that her party should be providing more aid to local governments but said the county needs to create more jobs. “We can’t tax our way back to prosperity,” she said.
Carr said in an interview that if elected, she would try to streamline job training initiatives by Lorain County Community College and local unions. She would also discourage local governments from over-regulation, which she said makes it harder for the county to retain and recruit businesses.
Instead of a “gotcha mentality,” Carr said government needs to make businesses better understand laws and help them comply. “It’s a different mindset that isn’t always there,” said Carr, who said she has spent about $37,000 on her campaign and has about $8,000 on hand.
Carr criticized the commissioners for cutting ties in February with the Lorain County Visitors Bureau, which she said hurt efforts to recruit businesses. And she faulted Lundy for asking the Lorain County Fair Board to stop allowing sales of the Confederate flag because of the flag’s racist history.
“You’ve got to prioritize what you’re spending the focus of your time and energy on,” she said. “Your time and energy ought to be focused on what can we do to make life better for the people who live here.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter