Portage County Executive Candidates Respond to Questions

A primary for the office of Portage County Executive will be held on February 20, to narrow the field of candidates from three to two. We recently asked the three candidates to answer a few questions to help us get to know them better. Jami Gerbert, Chris Holman, and Matt Jacowski all responded thoughtfully and promptly. We’ve compiled their responses, and are running them in alphabetical order.

The Tomorrow River Chautauqua is hosting a forum of the candidates at the Jensen Center on January 25th at 7:00 p.m. to provide voters the opportunity to ask their own questions of the candidates, and all are welcome.

 

Community Spirit: Please provide a brief biography. What unique qualities do you possess that make you the right candidate for this position?

Gerbert: I am a life-long resident of Central Wisconsin. I grew up on a family farm working with my family’s second-generation small business in Wood County.

I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), and have always felt strongly about a career in public service. I served as the Mayoral Assistant to a former City of Stevens Point Mayor. I had the privilege of being the first Main Street Manager for downtown Stevens Point and for more than seven years I have served as the Executive Administrative Assistant in the Portage County Executive Office.

Two qualities set me a part and make me the right candidate for this position. First, I have more than ten years of local public-sector experience, with over seven of those years being direct experience in the county executive office. Second, I have a genuine belief in building community through service. I know that a life lived in service to others is a life well lived, and I have tried to demonstrate this through service and volunteerism in Portage County. Currently, I am a board member for the Green Circle Trail, Friends of Standing Rocks, Active Portage County, and the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. In addition, I am a member and Past President of the Rotary Club of Greater Portage County. I served as the Chair of Portage County’s Toys for Tots Campaign from 2008-2014 and I’m still actively involved.

In both my professional public-sector experience and in my personal volunteer involvement, I have shown resilience, determination, loyalty, and most importantly follow through. Having served in the county executive office, I know the importance of the position in the county and its capacity to convene people, set common goals, and work towards outcomes. If elected, I will be a good listener, a constant advocate, and consistent voice for all the citizens of Portage County.

Holman: My name is Chris Holman. Maria, our daughter Eleanora (Leni), my mother-in-law Cindy, and I live and farm in Custer. I came to Wisconsin almost a decade ago, and though I've spent all of my time in Wisconsin teaching and farming, I started my career as a teacher of Arabic Language and Middle Eastern Geography in 2006. I worked my way through school in a union position at the University of Oregon where I earned my Masters degree in Geography. I then started the Arabic program there and grew it from 75 to nearly 400 students. Prior to my university studies I served in the U.S. Army for five years as an Arabic linguist working in Military Intelligence. My experience is broad and diverse. I grew up in a tiny town in the middle of the Navajo reservation, I have grown a farm business from nothing, and I learned to be adept at navigating the bureaucratic world as well. I serve on the board for Wisconsin Farmers Union and National Farmers Union, both of which have operating budgets in the millions of dollars. I have represented myself and others at every level including speaking at the White House and being invited to attend a global forum as the young farmer representative from North America. I have been peripherally involved in town politics, and I have watched county politics for the last several years. I am well-connected in the county, and I know where the county has been, where it is at, and where it needs to be.

Jacowski: I was born and raised in the Town of Belmont and currently reside in the Town of Buena Vista with my wife, Kimberly, and our children; Gracelyn (12), Ty (3), and Remmy (15 months). I will bring a unique set of qualifications and experiences to the office of Portage County Executive. I am a lifelong citizen of Portage County, current Portage County Board Supervisor, farmer, and a Technology and Engineering Instructor. As a result, I possess exceptional leadership, planning, organizing, budgeting and decision making skills, just to name a few. As a Portage County Supervisor and citizen, I have always felt that every voice and viewpoint needs to be heard, taken into consideration and validated. For this reason, I am not afraid to research issues and ask the tough questions needed for our county’s future. I will run a fiscally responsible Portage County that will respect the county’s employees and taxpayers. I will strive to work alongside, not against the Portage County Board of Supervisors, taxpayers, and all businesses in Portage County.

Portage County Executive Candidate Chris Holman

Community Spirit: What do you most appreciate about Portage County?

Gerbert: The people. To use the newspaper’s title, there is a “community spirit” in Portage County. People are engaged, generous, and friendly. If you have a passion about something here, others will step up and join you because there is an instinctive interest to be involved. This is true both for essential services, like food, clothing and heat, but also for groups and organizations that quite simply make Portage County an extraordinary place to live. I think of programs like Justiceworks, Ltd., Central Rivers Farmshed, and CREATE Portage County. Organizations like this don’t exist everywhere, they exist here because people care. The underlying desire in Portage County is for the betterment of a place we genuinely care about and want to see healthy and thriving.

Holman: I appreciate the possibilities that are unique to this place, the culturally and ethnically diverse communities who call Portage County their home, and how a lot of complex worlds come together here. We are big enough to create some of our own realities and small enough to do that in a way that is reminiscent of how people interacted before we began to distance ourselves from one another in our society.

Jacowski: I most appreciate the diversity of Portage County, its economy, its people, its landscapes, its educational intuitions, and its recreational opportunities.

Portage County Executive Candidate Jami Gerbert

Community Spirit: How do you envision Portage County in the future? Five years, ten years, etc… Feel free to improvise.

Gerbert: “A cohesively centered, vibrant community” is the vision for the future in the Master Strategic Plan for Portage County and I wholeheartedly agree. I envision a future where we are cohesively centered around making every municipality vibrant. Being vibrant will mean something different for each municipality, but I envision our “community spirit” growing stronger over the next five to ten years in Portage County. I see a future of conscientious dialogue and listening that will lead to common fundamental goals being determined. We might not achieve all our goals in the next five to ten years, but I see a cohesiveness in our future that balances each community’s priorities in the interest of the betterment of the whole county.

Holman: There's a lot that could be said here, but seeing that so much is driven by our financial realities as individuals and systems of government, it makes sense to think about this in broad, economic terms. When it comes to some of the economic factors that affect the state, Portage County has shown itself to be more resilient than any other county in the state other than Dane County. There is something there waiting to be harnessed, and I think it starts with generating a vision for the future that takes a hard look at where our economy should go in order to flourish in the areas of growth that will emerge as we move forward into the next economy. That will require a deeper understanding of the economic forces at work at the local, state, national, and even international levels. Also, it will not be enough to merely create jobs, as we can look around today and see the effects of a status quo with lower quality, lower-wage jobs that outnumber the people – some of whom work two jobs – who are available to be employed in them. The focus has to be on the quality of the jobs, what sectors they are in, and the career possibilities they provide. Similarly, the county and municipal governments must work together to generate growth that provides longer-term stability via better wages, smart investment in our county's work force, and better overall opportunities for our communities. For instance, strategic policy options that attract investment need to incorporate the vision I'm talking about so that when we provide these incentives, the outcomes generated are not short-term, short-sighted or grounded in the type of jobs that do little to affect the struggles being faced by people in the county.

Jacowski: The future of Portage County includes a county executive that works alongside not against the Portage County Board of Supervisors, taxpayers, residents, and all businesses in Portage County. I will work to retain and recruit both public and private sector employers and employees to help grow our economy.

Portage County Executive Candidate Matt Jacowski

Community Spirit: What is the drop-dead first thing that you’ll start work on when elected?

Gerbert: If elected, my first order of business will be to work cooperatively with the new County Board Chair on the reorganization of the standing committees and appointments of Portage County government. There are more than 40 standing committees in Portage County government. Some of these committees are statutory, and while others are required by county ordinance. This committee structure serves as the process through which work is divided and completed in county government. All the committees will need to be reorganized once the new executive and county board are elected in a very short, one-week, timeframe. My experience assisting with two previous post-election reorganizations will contribute to a smooth transition that keeps Portage County government running efficiently. Immediately after the reorganization, education will be key, as there will be at least seven new county board supervisors. I look forward to meeting with all the supervisors to learn about their interests and foster a strong sense of collaboration in addressing the county’s future.

Holman: The budget process will begin, and it will be important to start there first because nearly everything else will be dependent upon how we address the challenges in the budget that need short- and long-term solutions. Those solutions will come from working closely with county department heads and staff – especially the Finance Director.

Jacowski: One of the first orders of business will be to find a solution to the Portage County Health Care Center Crisis. I believe we need to hear the wishes of the electorate in Portage County in order to make an informed decision on the Portege County Health Care Center. We must then respect the electorate’s voices and move forward. This is a time sensitive issue since the current executive office has pulled the levy funding from the Portage County Health Care

 

Community Spirit: After that, what are the next top three things you would hope to accomplish while in office?

Gerbert: I have three priorities I want to accomplish if elected: 1. Growing and retaining our workforce. 2. Strengthening long-term county fiscal planning and infrastructure. 3. Improving quality of life by engaging and listening to citizens.

  1. Growing and retaining our workforce. In this labor shortage market, talent development is economic development. We need to continue to attract and retain new professionals to Portage County. Having a strong workforce is critical to the businesses and industries located in Portage County, but it also important to our schools, neighborhoods, and quality of life.
  2. Strengthening long-term county fiscal planning and infrastructure. During my time with Portage County I have been a part of strengthening our Capital Improvement Plan and budget documents. While there is still room for improvement, my understanding of the process and the plan is invaluable. Taking the Capital Improvement Plan to the next level, where the county is forecasting debt service associated with major infrastructure projects will be a large emphasis of mine. While circumstances will always change, the county needs to keep its infrastructure, i.e., roads, buildings, and equipment, viable to maintain a high level of service.
  3. Improving quality of life by engaging and listening to citizens. I take pride in knowing that during my time with the county executive office every citizen who contacted the office received a call, letter, or visit in return. We need everyone to know that their local government is available to them and I want to inspire people to be as active as they can, through volunteering, serving on local committees and boards, and sharing their knowledge and wisdom. People, process, and listening with purpose will be evident in my administration. That is what I have done every day in the executive office, and if elected, that will continue with even more resolve.

Holman: I will work to strengthen the countywide Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system, I will focus on generating significant and meaningful investment in our communities, and I will position the county for long-term stability in an atmosphere of uncertainty that is coupled with ever-more requirements from the state with ever-less resources to accomplish those tasks. The county needs to be able to stand on its own two feet.

Jacowski: In no particular order, Portage County needs to find a way to stop wasting close to one million dollars a year shipping inmates, balance a budget while maintaining all essential services, and work to bring all groups together to work on groundwater quality and quantity in Portage County.

 

Community Spirit: As you know; across the world, those who value strong protection of our environmental resources have been at odds with those in commercial industry. Here in Portage County, water use issues are being hotly debated. How would you help to balance competing interests?

Gerbert: The future of our county depends on access to clean, healthy water resources; it is simply too important to gamble with. To balance competing interests, I would listen to all parties and focus on the commonalities. In my current role with Portage County, I helped to organize nine Groundwater Listening Session around Portage County. These nine sessions led to a Summit on Groundwater held on April 29, 2015. The input from all these sessions was assembled and used in the update of the Groundwater Management Plan, adopted in July of 2017. This plan has a maximum revision cycle of five years.

If elected, I would continue to hold regular listening sessions about water issues throughout the county to ensure that the people know what the county is doing to implement the plan and hear their feedback on our progress. These sessions create an open atmosphere for competing interests to meet and share different viewpoints on what is and isn’t working concerning water resources. They also give county government opportunities to learn from multiple perspectives and craft new strategies for the future.

Additionally, the results of the Portage County Well Water Quality Project will be released soon. This comprehensive study of the water wells throughout the county was initiated by the county executive office in partnership with the county’s Water Resource Specialist and the Center for Watershed Science and Education at the UWSP. This comprehensive study will focus on the quality of groundwater countywide, and will include individual reports for each municipality in Portage County. Establishing a baseline to discuss groundwater quality issues is critical, and if elected, I will fight to maintain funding in the budget to conduct this comprehensive study every five years in conjunction with updates to the Groundwater Management Plan.

Holman: We here in Portage County are not unique in that we are confronted with water use issues. Our uniqueness is that we are still at a point where we can resolve our differences and provide a durable model for others to follow. When I attended the Global Forum on Food and Agriculture in Berlin earlier this year, and the 73 ministers of agriculture in attendance chose water as their primary policy issue for the forum it became abundantly clear that water is a very complex and emotional issue no matter where you go. Some areas are dealing with too much water, some are dealing with too little, and then there is water quality to look at. The idea I presented to the assembled ministers was that we need to maximize the social and economic value of every drop of water in every system, but the complication with both of those areas is that there are competing interests that don't necessarily want to be balanced. That tends to lead to outcomes that are zero-sum. That is, there is a clear winner and a clear loser. This is not a constructive way to discuss this issue and it does more to build resentment and division than anything. That is why I extended my argument to the ethical value(s) that are at play but often not discussed. Ethics apply to us all, and using that as a lens we can steer ourselves away from seemingly endless debate and move toward meaningful dialogue that presents realistic policy objectives that are ethical and lessen the negative effects felt by the imbalanced, competing interests you alluded to in your question.

There is not a silver bullet on this issue. There is no one approach that will cure all ills. We need multiple approaches that tackle the issue at the variety of levels and experiences it exists at. Joint efforts between HHS and Planning and Zoning can better frame the entirety of the issue, more scientific data collection that can lead to a comprehensive understanding of our ground and the water that runs through it, a more efficient committee process that can take better advantage of local government(s) as an avenue for developing strategies and policies that all stakeholders can find value in, and exploring some of the possibilities that may seem undesirable but are actually more likely to be successful long-term answers are all approaches that deserve our continued focus and attention. We also need to appeal to the state to strengthen the DNR or to find a better, independent arbiter that can help keep these issues in the boardroom and not the courtroom.

Jacowski: Through many years of attending Portage County Groundwater Citizens Advisory Committee (GCAC), meetings I learned that when you get a group of people in a collaborative environment, great things can be accomplished. I believe that we can learn from this group as well as other groups such as the Friends/Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed, and work together to find a compromise fair for all involved. My father was one of the first members of Portage County GCAC and instilled in me the importance of groundwater at an early age. I expanded on his work as a delegate of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and continue this today as a Portage County Supervisor. I believe I can bring agriculture and conservation to the table to find a solution equitable to all.

 

Community Spirit: Please feel free to elaborate on any issues that you find to be important and which we haven’t asked about.

Gerbert: The future of the Portage County Health Care Center is an important issue that the county executive and county board of supervisors must work together on in 2018. The Health Care Center is the county’s 100-bed skilled nursing home. While the center is currently operating at a loss and has been for many years, it provides an important service of long-term residential care and short-term rehabilitative services to the elderly citizens of Portage County. I have proposed conducting a statistically valid countywide survey to determine what the citizens, our customers, would like to see for the future of the facility. This proposal will be discussed soon with the Health Care Center Committee, a five-member committee of county board supervisors, along with the potential of referendum question on a 2018 ballot. I believe that having a county executive in place who is thoroughly versed in all the intricacies of our annual budgets will be critical to addressing this issue in a timely and responsible fashion.

Another issue of importance is the potential future construction of a new county courthouse and remodeling of the existing county/city building. The City of Stevens Point has decided to purchase land and build a new city hall downtown. The county must now work through a process of deciding the priorities for a new courthouse and decide what will be in the county/city building space that the city will be vacating. In my current role in the county executive office, I have been heavily involved in future construction planning and in the recent hiring of an Owner’s Representative who will assist Portage County through the construction and remodeling process. In my last seven years working in the county, I have learned a lot about our space needs and I am excited that we will be making our county government more efficient, effective, and accessible to the people through these capital projects.

Holman: There is a lot of concern for the Health Care Center, and it is a concern that I share. That said, I have not taken a stance on this issue because I think it would be irresponsible for me to do so given that there is an ongoing Request for Partnership (RFP), process and several months left before the current board finishes its term. That said, I think this situation serves as a very good example of what can happen if those in county government cannot find workable solutions for important community assets in a timely fashion. The realm of possible options for the Health Care Center has shrunk over time, and today there are few-to-no good options. If the RFP does not go through, there won't be enough money to operate the facility in 2019. If the County Board then decides to find money to operate it, that money will have to come from somewhere. If the board moved in that direction, they would have to find more money via the levy, a referendum, or other services to address the underlying problems and liabilities that are also substantial and would require much more money beyond the million-plus dollars it needs to operate. Make no mistake, the services provided by the center are top-notch. I've toured the entire facility, met with the staff, and I can see that there is a strong community of people there. I can also see that there are other areas of the county government where the County Board is going to be asked to grapple with similar challenges. It will be a priority for me to encourage timely decisions that prevent us from landing in similarly dire situations.

 

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