“Stay calm. Make tough decisions for the short term that will help stabilize you in the long term.”
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken has used that approach to tackle numerous challenges, and it has served him well in his 20-year political career as a city and county leader.
Gerken ran his first of many successful elections not as a politician, but as a Toledo Jeep and Assembly employee who sought a position as a union representative. He served from 1976 to 2006 for more than 6,000 employees, but he left to pursue a career in politics.
A self-proclaimed “child of the 60s,” Gerken always had an interest in political affairs. When an opening emerged on Toledo City Council in 1996, Gerken secured the appointment and served on city council until he was elected Lucas County Commissioner in 2005.
“I saw that there was an opportunity to do broader work on behalf of almost a half million people and listen to a broader audience,” he said. “I saw the issues I really cared about, [including] criminal justice, poverty and programs on economic development. I thought I could be better suited to do some of those things from the seat as a county commissioner.”
Gerken is using his seat to help with those issues he is passionate about, as he and his fellow commissioners have implemented several programs and partnerships to tackle criminal justice reform, poverty and economic development.
“Our immediate challenge right now is criminal justice reform,” he said, citing the costs of the courts, incarceration and diversion programs, especially with the heroin epidemic.
The commissioners are uniting with the mental health community, judges, the recovery community and the county sheriff to help raise that awareness.
“County jails have become mental health hospitals, drug detox systems and homeless shelters because of a loss of resources in those systems,” he said. “Our job through criminal justice reform is to make other parts of society understand that this isn’t working.”
The county has also adopted the Bridges Out of Poverty program, which teaches professionals and those living in poverty how to move beyond its effects. As part of that program, the county offers Getting Ahead classes, which helps people investigate their own poverty and gain resources to self- sufficiency, as well as employment opportunities for those that complete those classes.
“We can’t solve our economic woes or educational woes if people who are born into poverty continue to have the tyranny of poverty that keeps them from making the right decisions every day. We are going to attack the root causes of poverty and move people into stability,” Gerken said. “It’s like government: if we have unstable funding, we can’t function. The same thing happens to families in poverty. If they’re not stable, they can’t function in our counties.”
Gerken said the best way to achieve those reforms as well as secure the future of Lucas County is through the commissioners’ roles as leaders of economic development.
“Because we have partnerships with the state and the port authority and with the business community, we are positioned to be the go-to public partner in economic development,” he said.
To his point, the Dana Holding Corporation, a worldwide supplier of powertrain components, announced plans to build its axle plant in Toledo, which will bring 300 manufacturing jobs to the area. The commissioners also worked with The Andersons stores to keep their world headquarters in Monclova Township.
“We helped create one of the local banks – Waterford – with original support and investment. We built the Huntington Center in 2009 and created Hensville in 2016…it speaks to the fact we have been involved in most major economic development decisions,” he said, adding that his proudest achievement is having been the catalyst for creating the Huntington Center.
Part of the county’s success, Gerken says, is its ability to adapt to ambiguity.
“We have to adapt to the uncertain revenue streams. Obviously because of the amount of sales tax changes, because of actions of the legislature, where you get sales tax from, from one place to another is always shifting,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of budgets. You just have to make short-term decisions and make sure long-term goals are met.”
Those short-term solutions often include a county working with less yet maintaining or improving service delivery.
“The challenge is the reality you have to streamline your processes and make every dollar work. The other part of the challenge is we have to band together,” he said. “The singular biggest threat to the fiscal ability of counties to do their work is the fact that the administration in Columbus has withheld monies that traditionally come to counties, the local government funds.”
Counties are facing an impending threat to their budgets in the form of the elimination of the Medicaid Managed Care Organization sales tax, which, according to Gerken, will cost Lucas County nearly $10 million.
“This is a high priority to have a conversation with the state on how it gets replaced. No one can take an additional loss without additional revenue,” he said. “It takes the political will of legislature, but we can’t survive another cut similar to the local government fund.”
Gerken said he will be personally contacting members of the legislature and met with a private lobbying firm for assistance. He will also be relying on the lobbying power of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO).
“CCAO is that meeting room where we can all express these experiences, strengths and hopes. We find out the challenge of Lucas County is not necessary different, maybe on scale, than the challenge of Vinton County,” he said. “We are small, medium and large, and we’re rural and urban, but when those common issues arise, we have a voice and a team in CCAO to move our voice across the street and into the Statehouse. The power of CCAO gets our voice into the rooms of power.”
Gerken is in the middle of a campaign for re-election as Lucas County commissioner and hopes to able to continue to serve his county.
“I am passionate about being a Lucas County commissioner. There’s still more work to do here,” he said. “I’m looking to stay here and finish the things that we started.”