A local accountant who has served a partial term on the Johnson County Council is facing off with a newcomer in the race for Johnson County Council District 4.
John M. Mallers was selected in a caucus to fill a vacated at-large seat on the county council in 2016. He then ran for a full term but was unsuccessful. He is hoping for different results in the newly redrawn district representing northern White River Township, he said.
Walt Janiec is a retired computer programmer who is running for political office for the first time.
The Daily Journal asked both candidates questions about their experience, fiscal philosophies and goals for office. Here’s what they said:
What experience and qualities make you a good choice for county council? Why are you running?
Janiec: I filed a few days before the deadline because no one had filed yet. I didn’t want someone who would be more involved in the government, in the way of career politicians running things. I think the fact that I have little experience is a good thing in government. I have more real-life experiences. I turned 55 and I’m retired, so I’m pretty good with money. It’s not like I did anything to earn a lot of money at once; I saved over my whole earning career. I’d be as good with the county’s money as I was my own; that’s my goal.
Mallers: I want to make Johnson County the best place it can be. I’ve been a CPA for 30 years. The county council oversees the budgets and tax rates for all the agencies in the county. I have 30 years of experience in working with budgets and financial issues that I think is unique among the people running for council. I have also been budget director of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, a state agency that oversees budgets, tax rates and levies for the entire state. They basically oversee what the county councils do. I have that unique experience of approving the county council’s work, let alone serving on the council. On top of that for the last 15 years, I’ve been (a consultant) working with county governments, helping them do budgets and stay within their means. I left that and now I’m with the state of Indiana again. I work with the child support department, helping county governments deal with certain grants.
What are the top three issues facing the county?
Janiec: There’s a problem with not enough citizens being involved in political life. We have too many special interests involved. I went to school board meetings last year, for example, and I couldn’t help but think that some of the people there were placed there by teacher’s unions. I want to keep taxes low. I would want to focus on the basics. I would have a problem with mission creep at the county level — you know things we are not supposed to do. We are supposed to be a country where we are self-governing. We are not supposed to have kings and queens and rulers. I just want to go to the county and make sure the roads are paved and the police are paid, make sure the firemen are paid and that they have everything they need to do their jobs and let people live their lives.
Mallers: Dealing with Interstate 69 infrastructure, dealing with roads and bridges and making sure the area and public safety, especially, is ready for the new development that is going to come; because it is going to be significant. Johnson County has been really well-run for a long time, and I think maintaining that is very important. There’s going to be a lot of expenditures coming up and they need to be able to handle that. The other thing I think (we need to do) is keep tax rates as low as humanly possible. As a conservative Republican that is the mantra, but I think counties are pretty lean as it is. There isn’t a lot of waste, but you want to try to keep things fiscally sound.
Do you think the county needs any new taxes?
Janiec: I want to do as much as I can in terms of reducing taxes. I would look at the budget and try to cut waste. I would cut things that shouldn’t be done by the county and make sure we stay focused on the absolute things that need to be done. I would go through the budget and see what was there. What we need is for someone who has never seen it before to look at it with a new perspective.
Mallers: I don’t think they do this point. There have been some instances in the past where there was a tax increase that was voted down by the people for a library. I like libraries as much as the next guy, but people … voted it down and it came to the council and got approved. That’s something I thought was inappropriate. (Though) you can never say never that a tax increase won’t be needed for public safety or something, especially with all the development that is coming.
What will be your priorities for the county budget?
Janiec: Police, firefighters, roads. The priorities would be what they should be and what they have been traditionally if you went back 100 years ago … 50 years ago. If it is something new, I would probably question if that’s something we should be thinking about doing. How did we get by without it? … We are all fallible. That’s why when I get into this position, I’m not going to try to rule or influence people in how they live their lives. I’m going to manage the resources that have been entrusted to me and do my best that we don’t waste them and maybe, in the end, cut taxes.
Mallers: Public safety and Interstate 69 infrastructure. Road funding is the big thing. There’s going to have to be some expansion of Smith Valley, Morgantown, County Line and probably other roads. We are going to need frontage roads. All of that needs to be done because if you want to have businesses come, and you want the tax base to be able to do stuff, you need to have the infrastructure ready for those people. You also need public safety because businesses aren’t going to want to come there if it takes 12 minutes to get a fire truck there. If you can get a fire truck there in four minutes or less, you’ll get the expansion you want — at least that’s what I’m told.
With I-69, crumbling subdivision streets and continual population growth, the county is facing many issues relating to road funding. Do you have any ideas to raise more money for roads?
Janiec: I’ve been mulling this issue over in my mind. Traditionally, we have funded those with gasoline taxes, and with more cars going electric, there is less money coming in. I was thinking maybe a higher tax for license plates, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. Perhaps a higher tax on electricity … A lot of it comes down to if you cut waste, that will free up some money. It is all about refocusing what we do on the things that we must do. Roads are one of the things we must do. As the population increases that will increase the amount of money available.
Mallers: I know that the ARPA funds, the federal COVID relief funds, can potentially be used for those. There is $10 million or so that the county can use for road funding if they want. That would certainly help. But most road funding is going to come through the legislature. So if I were elected, I would certainly be watching the legislature and be in constant contact with our Johnson County representatives to make sure our interests were considered when the road funding through the state government is set. We don’t have a great deal of say in that, internally … We do get federal money, but that’s mostly going to be for the I-69 (area), though there is some of that that could be used on other roads, too.
County employees and elected officials are underpaid compared to other entities in the public sector and the private sector, according to a recent salary study. Would making county employee pay more competitive be a priority for you?
Janiec: No it would not. It has always been true that when you work for the government, you trade pay for job security. I think people who work for the government are doing it more as a public service. I don’t think people should work for the government for more than 10 years. After a certain amount of time, you need to move on, go back to the private sector. It is a bad thing that people become career politicians or have careers in some of these positions. The exception would be firefighters and police officers. You shouldn’t be doing it to get rich.
Mallers: I would have to see the results of the study and see if they’re having problems keeping people. I don’t know about county wages versus the private sector. I do know that when I was on the county council, Johnson County was significantly underpaid when related to counties around us and similar counties around the state. I know that some of that has been fixed in the last couple of years … I would be more concerned with keeping up with similar counties, but if it is a situation that is very hard to find people, it needs to be addressed.
Do you think the county needs a human resources department or any sort of oversight besides the county’s elected officials?
Janiec: That’s probably not a bad idea to keep not having one. Adding more people to the payroll is not necessarily always the right answer, building a big bureaucracy.
Mallers: If there are a significant number of county employees who see it as a problem, it is something we could discuss. I know (for example) the auditor’s office has payroll people there and there are people who deal with HR in the auditor’s office. So, if that’s not adequate, that might be something that needs to be discussed. I’m not a micromanager of departments, so that is something that … I would be fine with if they’re able to set it up within the financial confines; if it is something we can do that wouldn’t cost much additional.
How do you think the county should spend the $31 million from the American Rescue Plan?
Janiec: If I were to put it on any area, it would be roads. We need that to get from one point to another point. If (someone) gets sick, they need to get to the hospital, right? So I can justify it being a COVID relief type thing.
Mallers: (Some of it) is available for roads, and I think certainly some portion of that needs to be considered for roads. With the huge number of infrastructure issues that exist as a result of I-69 … I would just say they should follow the federal rules on it and use as much of it as they can for roads.