The Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) hosted a panel Tuesday entitled “All Politics is Local,” which gave Gambier residents and Kenyon students a chance to interact with local representatives Rick Carfagna, Gambier’s State Representative; Kachen Kimmell, Mayor of Gambier; Richard Mavis, Mayor of Mount Vernon and Teresa Bemiller, Knox County Commissioner. The panel, which took place in the Community Foundation Theater in Gund Gallery, attracted a large crowd made up mostly of Gambier and Mount Vernon residents.
The speakers introduced themselves and discuss issues that they thought were important in their area of jurisdiction. Although they discussed a broad array of issues, much of the concern centered on Ohio Governor John Kasich’s administration’s budget policy, which the representatives feel is putting financial strain on municipalities. This strain comes in the form of tax policy alterations that result in less income for local governments and unfunded mandates from the state, which are regulations that the state imposes without providing the funding to fulfill them.
Rick Carfagna (R) represents Gambier’s district in the Ohio House of Representatives. Carfagna has only served in his current position for nine weeks; before this term, he served as a township trustee in Genoa, a government relations manager for Time Warner Cable and a legislative aide for the House Public Utilities Committee. He earned his degree in Political Science at John Carroll University
Carfagna is concerned that cutting funding for educational opportunities, particularly trade schools, will adversely impact workforce development in Ohio, as well as the state’s ability to rebuild infrastructure and fill construction jobs. “It’s also turning the whole notion of gender roles on its head,” he said, discussing the prevalence of women in stereotypically male trades. “You go and you do what speaks to you.”
Carfagna also discussed public health issues. He explained how the opiate and heroin epidemic in Ohio is impacting the region: The Knox County jail is at capacity, according to Carfagna, and local employers are having trouble finding employees that can pass a drug test. He emphasized the need for a treatment-based approach to the epidemic. Finally, Carfagna challenged the Kasich administration’s idea that cutting income taxes and raising consumption taxes is the best way to advance the Ohio economy, pointing out that this plan raises the cost of living for low-income individuals.
Richard Mavis (D), who has served as the Mayor of Mount Vernon for 22 years, spoke at length about taxation. Mount Vernon is what Mavis refers to as the “lower echelon” in terms of water and wastewater treatment fees among communities of Mount Vernon’s size. The city has already raised water taxes and is looking into raising income tax in general and wastewater treatment fees in particular. He discussed the pressures local politicians feel to avoid raising taxes, especially when balancing that pressure with the desire to be reelected.
Mavis also discussed the negative effects of the Kasich administration’s budgeting on the municipalities. The state passed down a regulation mandating that municipalities choose a firm to conduct a study on how to reduce the amount of phosphorous in wastewater, which leads to increased algae and bacteria growth. This study may cost up to five million dollars. “It’s looking more and more like [we] have to take care of [ourselves],” Mavis said.
Kachen Kimmell, the Mayor of Gambier, whose term began in January 2016, called government in Gambier interesting because “all kinds of things come up here because all kinds of people come here,” she said.
Kimmell is concerned about budgetary matters. In addition to working on the Village’s budget, which must be balanced, she is worrying about how proposed changes to municipal income tax collection will harm the village. She also tied local projects, such as the recent initiatives to install solar panels and implement a bodycam program for the officers of Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) that Kenyon contracts, to national hot-button issues. (Gambier contracts the KCSO in lieu of getting its own police force.)
Knox County Commissioner Teresa Bemiller is serving in her first year of her third term, and entered local politics when a colleague encouraged her to run for the Clerk of Courts. Bemiller is also concerned with budgeting issues in terms of changes to the tax code and state-mandated programs.
After this, the floor was opened to questions. A Village resident asked about the viability of trickle-down economics, prompting Mavis to assert that, while the Reaganite ideology wasn’t entirely sound, “when [Mount Vernon manufacturing business the Ariel Corporation] is going strong, we’re growing strong.” The politicians all spoke about how local government is uninhibited by the partisan gridlock that occurs on the federal level. The panel closed with a request for advice geared toward young people looking to enter politics. Carfagna suggested joining student groups to be involved in “something bigger than yourself,” as well as volunteering and joining local committees. Kimmell advised budding politicians to run for office in a place they are passionate about and follow local government proceedings. Mavis said the desire to run for office “has to be built.”
“It’s whether or not you have the mentality to make your community a better place,” he said.