CINCINNATI -- Sewer rates, the heroin epidemic and outdated roads and bridges were the top issues at a debate between Hamilton County Commission candidates on Friday morning.
Democrats Denise Driehaus and Todd Portune and Republicans Dennis Deters and Andrew Pappas talked about the most important issues facing the county during a 90-minute debate at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.
The two high-profile races will determine the majority on the three-person board, and the direction the county takes on big issues such as the dispute with the city of Cincinnati on the Metropolitan Sewer District, the aging Western Hills Viaduct and Children’s Services, which is struggling to keep up with the heroin epidemic.
After candidates gave short introductions, the moderators -- WCPO anchors Craig McKee and Kathrine Nero and digital reporter Amanda Seitz -- each asked a series of questions. Because the debate was presented with the Western Economic Council, many questions focused on issues important to the West Side.
“The largest issue facing the West Side of Hamilton County, and facing everyone in Hamilton County, is the issue with MSD. We literally have got to clean up the mess that is there,” said Commissioner Todd Portune, who is running for re-election against Pappas.
Portune said he couldn’t talk about the court-ordered mediation between the city and the county over MSD, but added both sides were working hard to hammer out an agreement.
A 50-year agreement between Cincinnati and the county to jointly operate the district is set to expire in 2018.
As the county and city scuffle over control of MSD, sewer rates have risen more than 120 percent during the last decade, drawing the anger of residents.
Driehaus suggested creating “an independent board and take the politics out of it,” to run MSD.
While Driehaus favored a collaborative approach, Deters said, “the county needs to call the shots,” because county rate payers are writing the checks.
Republican Andy Pappas, who is hoping to unseat Portune, owns a dry-cleaning business and said his sewer bill has risen from $500 a quarter to $2,000 a quarter.
“It is difficult to budget when your costs are going through the roof,” Pappas said. “This mess with MSD didn’t happen overnight … we should have been on top of this much earlier.”
He also added the county should have been working on the 84-year-old Western Hills Viaduct, long before now.
While the challengers -- Pappas and Driehaus -- criticized the current board for lack of action, the incumbents stressed how much they actually had achieved, and what more could be done if their party had the majority.
Portune repeatedly harped on the benefit of a Democratic majority, and how he has been hamstrung on everything from transportation projects to funding Children’s Services, because he is the lone Democrat on the commission.
One topic that all sides were eager to talk about is the heroin epidemic.
Driehaus talked about her work at the state legislature on the heroin crisis -- from educating young people about the dangers of drugs, to co-sponsoring the “Good Samaritan” law that grants immunity for overdose calls.
She said inmates “literally detox” on the floor of the county jail, and are released without treatment.
The epidemic is also taxing first responders because of the sheer number of heroin overdose calls, Deters said.
“When you have a situation where a firefighter is diverted … they can’t come to your house, so your tax dollars are diluted,” Deters said.
He suggested partnering with public health resources, to take some of the burden off first responders.
Other top issues at the debate: connectivity between the West Side and downtown, child poverty and Preschool Promise, and how the city and county can get along better.
In the end, Pappas touted himself as the “fresh perspective,” of a small business owner from the suburbs that was needed on the board.
Meanwhile Portune stressed, “I am the most experienced candidate,” who has brought new ideas to the table, that haven’t always been implemented.
Driehaus touted her ability to bridge compromises and reach across the aisle for solutions. She also talked about the honor of public service.
“This is an important race,” Deters said. “And the residents of this county have an incredibly important decision to make.”
Deters said his only public interest is creating a successful county for future generations.
“We can solve problems, but we need to think more like business,” Deters said.