GEORGETOWN — U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown received plenty of insight into big issues affecting Brown County citizens during a roundtable discussion held on Wednesday, Sept. 2 at the Southern Hills Career Technical Center.
Brown, a Democrat representing the state of Ohio in Washington D.C., invited a number of local civic officials and leaders, with an eclectic group featuring business owners, mayors, education officials, law enforcement, and other officials from county agencies.
“I try to do roundtables like this just to hear about the community and what kinds of things we can do together,” Brown said. “This group of people here is a pretty good mix of what’s happening in the community.”
In attendance were Georgetown Mayor Dale Cahall, Brown County Educational Service Center Superintendent Jim Frazier, Southern Hills CTC Superintendent Kevin Kratzer, Michelle Germann, a teacher in the Western Brown school district, Kibler Lumber Sales Manager Jenny Conrad, Brown County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Zac Corbin, Huff Realty Realtor Bertha Thomas, Brown County Health Department Emergency Response Coordinator Margery Paeltz, Brown County Coroner Dr. Varnau, Georgetown Councilwoman Susan Bean, Georgetown Police Department Chief Rob Freeland, Ohio Veterans Home Administrator Rocco Parro, Mt. Orab Port Authority representative Jim Myers, and Adams Brown Community Action Partnership Director Al Norris.
The roundtable discussion moved at a fast pace during the hour and a half meeting, with Brown asking each guest at the table one or two questions about issues they are dealing with before moving onto the next guest.
The discussion varied, starting with the rampant drug issues in Brown County, then jumping to issues with the Affordable Care Act, as well as touching on issues for jobless citizens in the county, problems with supplying students with nutrition, to issues that the county is forced to deal with due to the closure of Southwest Healthcare Medical Center in 2014.
Kratzer opened up the meeting discussing the career technical programs at Southern Hills. Kratzer noted that the welding field is booming and that he’s hoping there will be a good partnership with the school’s automotive program and the future Mt. Orab automall.
Kratzer also described to Brown that the most common piece of advice he’s received from business owners and industry leaders on how to better prepare students is for students to improve their soft skills.
In a recent survey conducted with more than 500 business owners, Kratzer said that the top 14 recommendations were all along the lines of students being better prepared, arriving to work on time, passing drug tests, dressing appropriately, having a positive attitude, improved writing and interviewing skills, and appropriate cell phone usage while on the clock, among others.
“We’re hearing it from business and industry, loud and clear,” Kratzer said.
Germann described how during her 12 years as a teacher, technology has changed the way she teaches immensely and that class sizes have continued to grow.
Corbin described to Brown the endemic drug abuse problem in the county, and how the county has led the state for the last two years of available data in accidental drug overdoses per 100,000 people.
“I would say at least 80 percent of our cases are in some way directly related to drugs,” Corbin said. “That’s either a direct drug abuse offense or you’ve got a theft or a burglary.”
Corbin also discussed the Brown County Drug Task Force and the arrests and indictments that have come through their work, as well as work that Brown County can do for veterans who are suffering when they return from a tour of duty.
The conversation then moved to Cahall, who told Brown about how the lack of a large healthcare facility and a heroin treatment facility had put a huge strain on both the county and many municipalities.
He also discussed the torrential flooding in Georgetown from July, which damaged part of a sewer holding station that will cost around $75,000 for the village to repair it.
Conrad discussed how the Affordable Care Act was great for their employees, who were able to sign up through the exchange and receive health insurance, many for the first time. But Conrad asked Brown to look into raising part-time working hours to 40 hours per week instead of 30, and also said that Kibler was hesitant about hiring more than 50 full-time employees because they would have to start offering health insurance again, which would be another additional cost to the business.
Thomas talked about how the real estate business was booming, and Parro filled Brown in on the nearly-completed extension to the Ohio Veterans Home in Georgetown.
Norris relayed to Brown how his organization was seeing many more people come in who had little or no experience dealing with unemployment and governmental benefits.
“I’ve been in community action for many years, more than 40, and in the last six to eight years, our clientele has changed,” Norris said. “It used to be that I could pretty well define our clientele as the low-income, poor people in the two counties. But we’ve been getting for the last three or four years a lot of people who have never had to ask for help before in their life.”
Norris discussed a story of an ABCAP client who worked out of high school for 25 years, and on the day of his 25th anniversary at the company, his company decided to lay him off.
The conversation then moved to Frazier, who was asked by Brown about what Brown County is doing to implement new nutritional guidelines. Unfortunately, Frazier explained, students are receiving healthy food at school but many of them are throwing it away, creating a lot of waste.
“Quite a bit of it goes into the trash can, so it’s a tremendous amount of waste,” Frazier said.
That led to a long conversation about students on free-and-reduced fee meal plans, as well as having a summer meal plan for students who are in the program. Kratzer explained that there used to be a program like that in Brown County, but it was logistically a nightmare and they didn’t have enough students signed up.
“We gave it a go but there wasn’t enough money to keep it going, it was a logistical nightmare, and there weren’t enough kids to keep it going,” Frazier said.
The discussion then shifted to Freeland, who described how his department was affected by a 50 percent cut to the local government funds. Cahall estimated it cost the village around $200,000 per year. The cuts forced the village to cut two police officers from the police department, before being able to re-hire one of the officers thanks to an income tax increase.
The conversation then turned to emergency response and medical issues in the county.
Paeltz discussed how the county’s emergency response team has issues tracking materials that are traveling through the county by truck, while Varnau discussed how the only place for her to deliver babies from mothers in Adams, Brown, and Clermont Counties is at Mercy Anderson hospital in Anderson Township.
Varnau also discussed how the two OBGYNs in Brown County are both more than 50-years old, and there is a need for the county to find newer, younger OBGYNs.
Lastly, the roundtable meeting finished with a discussion about the declining tobacco farming industry in Ripley, and transportation infrastructure between Cincinnati and Brown County.
“A lot of issues,” Brown said following the meeting on what he took away from the roundtable discussion. “The issues of what we can do to partner with the veterans home, the whole issue of medical care and the OBGYN (Dr. Judith Varnau) having a long drive to get here from where she delivers babies, some of the complicated emergency management issues with trucks more t
han trains coming through, and just the issues of jobs in counties this rural, the critical mass of providing for people is much more difficult.”