Election guide: Butler County commission candidates have similar goals

Butler County Commissioner Cindy Carpenter is seeking a fourth term and Democratic challenger and political newcomer Latisha Hazell both have similar goals but somewhat different ways of reaching them.

The county commissioners are the executive board for the 7th largest county in the state with around 2,000 employees and a total budget of $505.5 million. They hold the purse strings for 14 departments under their direct control, 15 other elected officials and seven independent boards.

Carpenter is hoping voters will return her for another four years, she was first elected commissioner in 2010 after serving four terms as the clerk of courts. Being a commissioner is essentially her full-time job and she works 25 to 40 hours a week.

Hazell has been a human resources leader for more than 21 years, with experience in state and local government. She is deputy director and chief talent acquisition officer of human resources for the city of Cincinnati. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in human resources management from Franklin University in Columbus.

The commissioners will earn $98,563 next year by statute but are not required to work full-time, although they spend countless hours on county business every week. The other two commissioners have also held full-time jobs outside of county government.

Hazell said she has already had a conversation with her boss in Cincinnati about it so “there’s options for a flexible working schedule in that realm” so she is “fully able to serve as commissioner.”

Homeless problem tops the issue list

Both candidates say solving the homeless problem is at or near the top of their list of goals for the future. Carpenter is heading a housing sub-committee in the Stepping Up effort — which is primarily about getting help for those residents leaving the county jail who need not only housing but wrap around services. She said the commissioners need to maximize their community development dollars in a meaningful way, “that’s where I’m working the hardest is in the area of the unhoused.”

“We need to make sure that our investment of community development dollars is going somewhere where we will have the biggest payoff,” Carpenter said. “So instead of building one house a year for $100,000 maybe we need to leverage that and pay 20% of the cost of house and put five houses out. But we’ve got to be leveraging those dollars to do more.”

She said in addition to heading the Stepping Up subcommittee she is also working with other leaders in the county’s communities and agencies that are charged with helping the homeless.

The commissioners receive around $1 million annually in HOME Investment Partnerships Program funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and this year also have $3.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act HOME funding to spend.

The groups who are dealing with the problem are also addressing the factors that contribute to homelessness like people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse and employment issues. Hazell agrees with that approach but said there must be more of a unified effort to address the housing issues, “we need to bring all these groups together and share these ideas and think about what the plan is going to be.”

She said the commissioners need to work with staff and other communities to move these efforts along.

“As a commissioner I’m going to have to advocate just for that and provide them resources and the space to be able to do that, and give them some goals that say hey this is what we’re hoping comes out of it, I don’t want to just give you money and then it just sits there and we continue to have the conversation, we have to come up with solutions and we have to take action,” Hazell said.

“In taking action we’ve got to get our other communities involved, Middletown is a city and we’ve got to get into discussions with the council and the legislators there, same thing with Hamilton they’re a city. It’s easy to throw money at problem, but we have to take action.”

Carpenter hasn’t been very happy with community development staff recently as they wrestle with this issue and has voiced her frustrations loudly. The commissioners have an advisory panel that makes recommendations — comprised of representatives from the Development Department, Job and Family Services, the county engineer, Water & Sewer and development staff — for the federal dollars. The development department recently expanded the review panel to include representatives from United Way, the county mental health and addiction board and the Butler Educational Services Center.

Carpenter fought with her fellow commissioners twice recently over the new panel members, although expanding the panel was her request. She is upset she wasn’t consulted, they don’t have housing expertise and on Monday she said they also might have conflicts of interest because those groups fund some of the same types of things the commissioners do.

She wants to “toss” out the panel and hire Doug Harsany, the consultant who shepherded the housing study that was required for the $3.1 million grant award, “we would get a much better investment into our communities that would make a difference.”

Economic development vital

Carpenter has always put a strong emphasis and much of her time on the social services side of county government but says economic and workforce development are also crucial. She points to the commissioners’ involvement in facilitating the development of Liberty Center, a $2.5 million investment in the massive Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill in Hamilton and most recently projects they are investing in with American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

She was a big supporter of spending $15 million for new for two new advanced technology training centers, an aviation facility at Hook Field in Middletown and advanced manufacturing in Hamilton because of the workforce training aspect.

“I am making sure that Butler County government is contributing its fair share and partnering with those communities to make those projects successful,” Carpenter said.

She said this is a new world and they need to adapt.

“I always ask people what they need and listen to that,” Carpenter said. “We have a disconnect with our job seekers are looking for and the types of jobs that are available. So that’s kind of gap that is really critically important to work on in the next four years.”

Hazell said they need to create a “regulatory environment” that is business-friendly and work with social services agencies like Jobs and Family Services to make sure they have a skilled workforce so, “We have skill sets and talent ready to go to fill those jobs that come out of those new businesses. I think I can help in the middle and build a bridge between the economic and social service aspect.”

Butler County is a Republican stronghold and Carpenter has had a Democratic challenger in every one of her re-election bids. Her first race she took 70% of the votes, 69% in 2014 and 65% in 2018. The last known Democrat to win a partisan countywide office was John Holcomb, who was elected prosecutor in 1998.

Hazell said she is undaunted by the political history here.

“I absolutely think I do have a chance and here’s why, Butler’s changing, we’re trending in different directions,” Hazell said. “I’ve been knocking on thousands of doors and I’ve talked to our citizens, I’ve talked to our residents and they’re ready for change, they feel like they’re forgotten, they feel like they’re left behind.”

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