To view the 2020 Year in Review Powerpoint, visit this link.
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Commissioners, other county leaders work together to overcome COVID challenges
[Tiffin, OH March 4, 2020] — The Seneca County Board of Commissioners focused on “The Three C’s” as a theme entering 2020, but by the end of March, a fourth “C” emerged and became a defining factor.
On March 26th, the Seneca County Board of Commissioners approved a state of emergency in response to the Coronavirus health crisis. In reviewing the challenges and accomplishments of 2020, county personnel couldn’t avoid talking about the impact of the global pandemic.
“Whenever we talk about accomplishments in 2020 there will always be an asterisk referring to the COVID pandemic,” Commissioner Mike Kerschner said. “I think it is a testament to the spirit of everyone willing to change the way we conducted county management and how we strived to protect ourselves and our neighbors.”
At the beginning of the year, the board expressed a desire to focus on continuity, collaboration and communication. Although COVID-19 presented adversity, the commissioners feel the county overcame the challenges brought before them and had a successful year.
“I believe the commissioners, along with the cooperation of all the elected officials, did a great job handling the adversity of 2020,” Commissioner Anthony Paradiso said.
Paradiso said continuity was key because there was no need to “re-invent the wheel” to have success.
“We have the right people in the right positions,” he said. “We work for the people, so we always want to help the county stakeholders get done what they need to. Most everyone is cooperative and this is why we have success.”
As in any year, the commissioners made fiscal responsibility and continued investment in vital county services major priorities. The board also continued to support the teams and systems already in place and focused on planning for the future.
“As a commissioner, being fiscally responsible is the number one duty,” Paradiso said. “We are not a legislative body, but an administrative one. We have oversite of the county’s finances and it is our job and duty to act with a fiduciary purpose. We also have to have a long-term view, to look ahead and always look at the bigger picture.”
On Jan. 9, the commissioners added $125,000 to its Budget Stabilization Fund, or “rainy-day fund.” This brought the total in the fund to $625,000.
The board created the fund in April 2018 to protect against a future economic downturn. Commissioner Mike Kerschner said that creating the fund was a good plan because of the uncertainty of the future strength of the economy.
“We can do the opposite of what other government entities do,” Kerschner said. “Instead of spending our children’s, and grandchildren’s money, we can put it in a savings account.”
Toward the end of the year, on Dec. 22, the commissioners approved a balanced budget with expenses at about $17.9 million. The budget was approved after the Budget Commission certified revenue for $18 million in 2021.
“Fiscal responsibility is a fundamental factor in assuring that government does not overspend,” Kerschner said. “We must always be aware that the money we manage is the taxpayers’ money and we need to make good decisions with those funds. “
Fiscal responsibility was paramount, but internal investment and projects were also focused on. The year saw many projects completed including the installation of security cameras at the museum, a new bus for the Opportunity Center, advance funding for Seneca County Department of Job and Family Services vehicles and land acquisition and other upgrades at the Seneca County Airport.
The commissioners continued their steadfast support of the leaders who help to run the county. On Dec. 29, the board was happy to congratulate Seneca County Engineer Mark Zimmerman for being named Ohio’s County Engineer of the year for 2020.
The county also received recognition from the Ohio Secretary of State, as a representative from Frank LaRose’s office congratulated the Seneca County Board of Elections for its “stunning work” in upgrading its cybersecurity systems. LaRose also credited the BOE for its unparalleled transparency and accessibility by live streaming meetings and election results during the pandemic.
The commissioners were also happy to congratulate the Seneca County Clerk of Court’s office for landing a $202,000 technology grant to upgrade the court’s management system.
Throughout the pandemic, the board applauded the work of all county departments for working together to overcome challenges brought about by the health crisis.
“All county departments and all elected officials were cooperative in adjusting to the methods by which we do business because of COVID. We are especially proud of the continued work of law enforcement and emergency medical services,” Kerschner said. “These folks put their safety and health on the line in performing their duties. This has always been the case, but the pandemic made their work even more dangerous.”
Planning was also a major priority of the commissioners.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” Kerschner said, emphasizing the importance of planning.
“Planning is very important. Planning allows us to prioritize projects, and it helps us improve our chances to receive outside funding,” he said. “We have done a much better job having our projects identified and on paper. This allows us to be ready to work with our consulting firm and state officials to apply for grants and funding when available. You need to have a variety of projects ready to go, sometimes on short notice, to get a spot in line for grant and government funding.”
In July, the board finalized its Facilities Master Plan. The plan, which was completed by Gossman Group, outlines potential futures for all county-owned buildings. Work on the plan started in January 2019.
In August, the board reviewed and accepted the joint countywide comprehensive plan. The $120,000 plan began development in March 2018. It includes strategies for housing, commercial and industrial development, education, transportation, parks and recreation and arts and culture.
With more than 150 strategies, the plan includes individual sections for all participants (the county, the city of Tiffin, Fostoria Economic Development Corp. and the Seneca County Park District.)
Kerschner said cooperation and collaboration are qualities displayed by leaders from across Seneca County.
“The ability for leadership to put egos aside and work together, in the townships, villages, cities and in our departments … it’s truly amazing,” he said. “It’s something unique to this community that truly distinguishes us from others. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.”
The commissioners focused on working to create a business-friendly environment, incentivizing economic growth and collaborating to help those in need. These tasks were achieved by partnering with businesses, non-profit organizations and other county departments. The board also collaborated with state and federal legislators to bring resources to Seneca County.
Throughout the year, the board continued its work with Tiffin-Seneca Economic Partnership and Fostoria Economic Development Corp. to incentivize economic growth in the community. One example of this was in February when the commissioners approved local tax incentives for a $38 million Church and Dwight expansion project.
Other business partnerships included when the Seneca County Land Bank teamed with Sunny Farms Landfill to save thousands of dollars by accepting demolition debris from the former Ruffing Care Center on CR 6.
The commissioners also thanked countless businesses for their support of the community through the pandemic, including generous donations from National Machinery and Church and Dwight to provide personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
Another important area was continued partnerships with county agencies.
The Seneca County Auditor’s and Seneca County Dog Warden’s offices worked with the commissioners to run another successful dog picture coloring contest.
In February, the commissioners worked with county judges to increase the indigent defense rate for attorneys to $60 an hour, matching the pay of many neighboring counties.
With the aid of the Seneca Regional Planning Commission, Community Development Block Grant projects moved forward, leading to about $105,000 in community enhancements. Upgrades to sidewalks in Bloomville, a homelessness prevention project and improvements to the park in Melmore were included.
Work also continued at the Attica Area Veterans Memorial Park. The park is located at the former site of the Attica Eagles. That area was made available for the park due to a multi-agency collaboration to remove the dilapidated former Eagles building.
The commissioners were also proud to play a small part in facilitating the $2.4-million community kitchen project with Old Trinity Episcopal Church.
Other collaborative projects included working with the Barnes-Deinzer Seneca County Museum Foundation to prepare to re-open the museum in 2021 and working closely with Seneca County EMA to approve a multi-hazard mitigation plan, making the county eligible for federal funding.
The commissioners also focused on state and federal advocacy. The best example being the work done with multiple local entities to advocate for state capital budget funding. These efforts yielded about $200,000 for the Opportunity Park project. The commissioners’ office worked closely with Eden Township, the city of Tiffin, Seneca County Opportunity Center and the Seneca County General Health District to land the funding.
The project will greatly enhance the county’s only park for those with special needs. The upgrades could also satisfy an important portion of the county’s active transportation plan by helping to provide a safe pathway to cross US 224.
The commissioners also kept in constant contact with state and federal government officials, including regular conference calls and several visits. Paradiso attended an event with former-President Donald Trump at Whirlpool in Clyde, and several meetings were held with Congressman Jim Jordan, State Rep. Bill Reineke and other state officials.
“When more entities work together on a project, including private businesses, it helps our chances to receive state and federal funding,” Paradiso said. “Our relationship with our state and federal government officials is paramount in knowing what opportunities we have that could benefit the people of Seneca County.”
The board also held regular conference calls with state legislators in 2020, and continues this correspondence this year.
Communication was as important as ever in 2020 during a health crisis, as the board prioritized effective internal and external communication in several ways. The commissioners attempted to communicate effectively by using the county’s platform to amplify the voices of community members, celebrating the achievements of local individuals and organizations and by using all tools possible to be transparent and accessible.
The board amplified the voices of its citizens in February by approving a resolution to support the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution after a request from a group of local citizens through Ohio Stands United. The resolution, although nonbinding and symbolic, sends a clear message to legislators at the state and federal level that Seneca County supports the individual liberties of its citizens. The resolution states the board opposes any restriction on the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution. It also states the board wishes to protect the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. A large group from Ohio Stands United was present at the meeting and gave a round of applause when the commissioners approved the resolution.
“Supporting the constitution and supporting our constituents is extremely important in any government capacity,” Kerschner said. “The second amendment provides a fundamental right in protecting ourselves and our property.”
The commissioners also worked hard to listen to constituents and pass along their concerns about a dangerous intersection at US 224 and SR 67. County correspondence led to a traffic study by the Ohio Department of Transportation.
In 2020, the board began work on improving Seneca County EMS by opening the lines of communication with the community and Joint Ambulance District leaders. In 2014, SCEMS had 140 volunteers, in 2020, that roster had dwindled to 74 (with about 40 going on runs last year). The commissioners are aiming to work with local EMS leaders to find a way to supplement the remaining volunteers and to provide the best, most efficient EMS services possible.
Seneca County Emergency Services Director Ken Majors said the focus is on creating a system that is sustainable in the long-term.
In 2020, the commissioners oftentimes lent their platform to celebrate local institutions and people.
“We thanked many groups in 2020, including local educators, school counselors, sports teams and school therapy dogs,” Paradiso said.
The board gave kudos to Corbin Hite, the first Tiffin Columbian student to qualify for the International Science Fair, and Andrew Steinmetz, of Troop 442 out of Republic, for reaching the rank of Eagle Scout.
The commissioners also cheered as the Calvert Volleyball team won its second state championship in the past few years, while also recording a special video message for the team.
A continued focus on transparency and accessibility was also paramount to the commissioners in 2020.
“We aimed to lead the state in transparency and accessibility,” Kerschner said.
County officials believe they accomplished that goal by hosting online election coverage and by working with the Seneca County General Health District to provide press conferences and COVID-19 briefings. County staff also worked to make website and social media improvements. With more than 650 posts, 335,000 people were reached on Facebook alone. Election coverage garnered nearly 20,000 video views, and a silver lining of a difficult year was the increased access to weekly board meetings.
“By having our meetings on Zoom and Facebook Live, people at home can watch our meetings on their cell phone, computer or tablet,” said Commissioner Tyler Shuff. “This made it so thousands of people could experience county business at its primary source.”
The commissioners plan to continue offering live, online coverage of meetings even after in-person meetings start again.
Even before COVID-19, the commissioners continued to find creative ways to hear from citizens. In February, Paradiso hosted the second Coffee with a Commissioner event at the Fostoria Learning Center.
Many areas of county business were impacted by COVID-19, as for most of the year business was conducted via phone call or e-mail. One area that was especially challenging was managing the county budget. The commissioners were put in a difficult situation but were aggressive with the budget to protect the county against major financial issues caused by the pandemic.
On April 7, the Seneca County Budget commission cut its General Fund revenue estimate by $2 million. By April 23rd, the commissioners made 20-percent reductions to salary/wage lines and cut contracts, travel and halved supply lines.
The county then launched a Shared Work program to assist those who had hours cut or lost their job because of the difficult financial situation. The program made employees eligible for additional federal unemployment benefits on top of state benefits.
Quick decision-making and following the lead of the state government, which also cut about 20 percent from its General Fund in anticipation of a major economic downturn due to the pandemic, helped protect the county’s economic situation during a very uncertain time.
As the county worked to deal with the negative ramifications of the health crisis, the board also managed about $3.5 million in federal funding through the CARES Act.
Some money was used internally to help manage the pandemic. Expenditures included deep cleaning, investment in personal protective equipment, digital thermometer scanners, automatic doors, remote work equipment, emergency radio equipment and refrigerators and a generator for vaccine storage.
Major pandemic-related expenses were covered for county offices, but the commissioners wanted to do more to help those who were struggling in the community. On October 22, the board did this by committing $1.25 million to assist small businesses, residents and nonprofits.
“We felt it was necessary to distribute funding to those who are specifically affected right now. We are thinking of the waiters and waitresses, theater employees and people who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19,” Kerschner said. “Instead of giving it to one person, organization or company, we need to make sure we positively affect as many people as possible.”
In Seneca County, 199 small businesses and non-profit organizations and 493 households received financial assistance through the Seneca CARES program. Rent/mortgage, utility and food assistance were among the programs provided. With additional money from townships, villages and Tiffin and Fostoria, about $1.5 million was expended through the county’s CARES program alone. This does not include the CARES programs of other entities in Seneca County.
To accomplish this, the commissioners partnered with Great Lakes Community Action Partnership, Tiffin-Seneca Economic Partnership, Fostoria Economic Development Corp., Tiffin-Seneca United Way and Seneca County Department of Job and Family Services to disburse the funds.
“Those that suffered financially the most needed to be at the front of the line for the CARES Act money,” Kerschner said. “We were able to distribute the available funds to these five agencies to reach as many people as possible.”