The Van Wert County Courthouse

Monday, Dec. 5, 2022

Treasurer-auditor situation top 2019 story

Editor’s note: With 2019 nearly over, the Van Wert independent has again selected its top 10 stories of the year, and will be including those stories through Tuesday, December 31. After a break to celebrate New Year’s Day, the series will continue Thursday, January 2, with a story on possible important stories coming in 2020. 

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Van Wert County Auditor Philip Baxter listens during his November arraignment hearing in Van Wert County Common Pleas Court. VW independent file photo

The top story of the year is the problems arising in 2019 in the Van Wert County Treasurer’s and Auditor’s offices — a situation unprecedented in local government.

In addition to reported personality issues between Treasurer Nathan Vandenbroek and Auditor Phil Baxter — both first-term county officials — that led to a lack of cooperation between the two offices, there were also problems reconciling county fund balances on a monthly basis.

After several unsuccessful efforts to solve the county’s fiscal problems, the commissioners were finally forced to hire an outside accounting firm to perform an audit of the treasurer’s office. The cost of the audit, originally estimated at $30,000, may likely be closer to $100,000 by the time it is completed in 2020.

In addition to the fiscal problems, Baxter and two deputy auditors were indicted in November by the country grand jury on charges stemming from an investigation of an alleged break-in of the treasurer’s office earlier in 2019 by Henry County Prosecutor Gwen Howe-Gebers, who was appointed a special prosecutor in the case. As part of the court case, Baxter was also suspended from the auditor’s position by the Ohio Supreme Court and former county auditor Nancy Dixon was brought back to run the office until the court cases are resolved sometime in 2020.

The situation has provided a number of lessons for local residents, as well as a black eye to the county Republican organization that appointed Vandenbroek to the treasurer’s position in September 2018, and recruited Baxter to run for county auditor last November. The problems that have arisen also pointed out the lack of state qualifications needed to run for the two county offices, as well as the lack of remedies available via state law when problems arise with — and between — elected officials. 

The one group that does have some power to change the situation are county voters. The county treasurer’s office problems have resulted in Vandenbroek being challenged in the March 2020 Republican primary by current Van Wert Mayor Jerry Mazur, who leaves that office on Tuesday, and Van Wert resident Jeff McIntosh. 

Meanwhile, the county’s political problems could also provide an incentive for city voters to approve a charter government issue scheduled to be on the ballot next November. Under a charter form of government, officials such as auditors and treasurers could be hired, not elected, while all city elections could be non-partisan, rather than based on party affiliation. Such flexibility could provide better accountability for city officials, in addition to more flexibility and local control of the governmental process.

This year’s No. 2 story involves Van Wert County Regional Airport, which had a banner year in 2019, with a number of newsworthy items related to the airport.

A project funded in 2018, which includes construction of a aircraft parking apron/taxiway was constructed in 2019, while local individuals, organizations, and businesses pledged $1.2 million that would provide matching funds for airport capital projects, as well as fund construction of a new terminal building in 2020.

The projects are part of a 10-year capital plan developed by the County Reginal Airport Authority, with future plans to include lengthening the main runway from its current 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet, which would then allow larger corporate jets to use the airport — something that be a boon to local companies, as well as a tool for local economic development.

In April, the airport management announced plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1919. The flight was important locally because Van Wert native Walter Hinton was one of two U.S. Navy pilots involved in flying a Navy Curtiss NC-4 “flying boat” across the Atlantic seven years before Charles A. Lindbergh made the flight on his own.

Hinton, who was born on a farm between Van Wert and Convoy, was also a friend of Admiral Richard E. Byrd Jr., as well as a supporter of aviation for nearly seven decades.

As part of the celebration, the Van Wert County Regional Airport was renamed Walter Hinton Airfield in honor of the famous local aviator.

A number of dignitaries were on hand for the celebration, including County Commissioners Thad Lichtensteiger, Stan Owens, and Todd Wolfrum; several other county officials, Van Wert Mayor Jerry Mazur, who is a former airport manager; former airport manager Jim Rice Jr., Van Wert native and philanthropist Scott Niswonger, who started out as a corporate pilot for Magnavox Corporation before founding two air freight companies: Landair and ForwardAir. A number of local pilots were also on hand, while one of them, former WERT Radio news director Mark Hartman, emceed the event.

Niswonger also announced that the new terminal building being built in 2020 will be named the J.L. Rice Terminal in honor of Rice’s father, who was also a local airport manager and flight instructor who was killed tragically during an air race in 1960.

Prior to the celebration, airport officials also announced that the local airport was named “Airport of the Year” by the Ohio Aviation Association because of the efforts to make the airport the best small airport in the area.

Thursday: What may be in store in 2020 for Van Wert County.

POSTED: 12/31/19 at 6:22 am. FILED UNDER: News