Long-time Tippecanoe County Commissioner David Byers has received numerous bipartisan endorsements, but Democrat Erica Beumel is vying to unseat him and become the only woman on the three-person commission.
It’s not common for a county commissioner seat to be contested, historical data from the Board of Elections shows. Byers represents District 2, which includes Purdue, and ran unchallenged in 2012 and 2016. Thomas Murtaugh, the current commissioner for District 3, has no opponent contesting his re-election this year.
The commissioners form the executive and legislative branch of the county. They oversee county infrastructure, negotiate contracts and make appointments. Commissioners serve four-year terms and represent one of three districts, though county voters can select candidates for all three districts.
The commission wields considerable power, as most regulations and contracts are under their purview, County Councilor Lisa Dullum said.
“I don’t know that there’s much that goes to the council that the commissioners don’t have a (say in),” Dullum said.
Unlike a city council, which drafts and passes legislation, the county council is primarily a fiscal body. Its members oversee the county government’s budget, salaries and bond issuances.
The county commissioners are all Republicans. Beumel, a Democrat and caseworker at the Fairfield Township Trustee’s Office, was motivated to run to represent her community and bring a new perspective.
“I grew up here so it’s really important to me that my community is supported,” Beumel said. “I think it is important that you have a little bit of diversity and equal representation, if you will, on a board, so you might have varying points of view. I think that’s healthy for the community because that means your voice is going to be heard.”
Beumel graduated from Purdue with a degree in restaurant, hotel and business management. She said her experience opening restaurants at Marriott, managing real estate across the Midwest and launching a catering business has given her a diverse business acumen in finances and planning.
Beumel is running on addressing environmental issues and food insecurity.
“We need to try and get everybody on the same page so that we can work toward this together and we will have a much better impact on our environment,” Beumel said. “I think it’s important that we clean up our messes for the next generations to handle because it’s not going to get better as we can see. We need to make sure that we’re (taking) steps to make it better.”
Byers has been a county commissioner since 2009 and was a county councilor since 1997. A local dairy farmer, he received the Circle of Corydon Award from Gov. Holcomb for his leadership in the 4-H youth development program. He’s running on his track record of driving economic development and working across party lines.
“Since being a county commissioner, we’ve brought in over $2 billion worth of new investment from new and existing companies,” Byers said. “And by doing that we’ve created almost 10,000 brand new jobs.”
Byers highlighted how he’s kept taxes low while maintaining infrastructure and attracting businesses. Tippecanoe County is projected to increase in population by 21.9% from 2010 to 2050, according to a study by the Indiana Business Research Center, an attractive statistic for potential new businesses.
Bringing in these jobs is important, Byers said, citing the “multiplier effect” coined by a study from the Center for Automotive Research. Each automotive job, like those found at the Subaru Lafayette Auto Plant, creates seven new jobs in the community.
A key strategy commissioners have used to encourage companies to move to the county are tax abatements. These multi-year tax breaks were arranged with companies like Saab and General Electric to attract business investment.
Beumel said these property tax breaks have a place in bolstering the economy but must be balanced to avoid pushing out small businesses.
“There are many ways to make our community attractive to other businesses coming in without going overboard on that tax abatement issue,” Beumel said, “and realizing that we do need to have some revenues from the businesses that come in because they do use our resources, and we do have maintenance and (repairs) of roads and infrastructure and so forth, which can be attributed to them doing business here.”
Beumel argues businesses should be taxed responsibly to help fund the infrastructure and services they use. Other ways the county can attract businesses is maintaining a safe community, strong schools and sustainable environment, Beumel said.
Beumel is also calling for a reevaluation of the commissioners’ decision in 2019 to ban commercial wind turbines in the county.
Byers said the decision took into consideration how the windmills restricted development in a growing county. The proposal was led by a group of residents in the southern area of the county, which had the most suitable land.
“The vast majority of the land owners in that area were opposed,” Byers said. “I am not opposed to (windmills) for their value to our energy’s health, just location and setting must be weighed.”
“I think that there must be a way that we can work together and work this through such that if you want to have windmills for that diversified income for our farmers, you can,” Beumel said. “To me it is a crisis that needs to be attended to as soon as possible. But with me there as commissioner, I have a passion for this, I’m a driving force for this and I’d be a leader in Tippecanoe County about this topic.”
There are many projects Byers hopes to continue as commissioner, including developing mental health and substance abuse services at the Tippecanoe County Jail, instead of expanding the size of the jail.
The commissioners are also talking with companies interested in converting the old landfill into a solar field.
Both the Democratic mayor of Lafayette and the Republican mayor of West Lafayette have endorsed Byers, which Byers attributes to his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion.
“I listened to the citizens, we work with everybody,” Byers said. “It’s a job that I truly question anyone who has zero experience about the job and try to come in and really get a good grasp of it.”
Beumel ran for county council in 2018 and said despite losing, she focused her efforts on listening to the concerns of community members.
“What I found through being very aggressive with my engagement is that people are interested … but up until that point they really have not seen that engagement — in some cases (ever),” Beumel said. “If you don’t take that time to talk to the voter you’re going to represent, you’re not going to know what to say or what their needs are in the community.”
Both candidates stressed the importance of local politics and its effect on people’s daily lives. Byers added that on a local level, partisanship is less important than any candidate’s policy history.
“My biggest hope is that students don’t just go in and punch a straight D or R or whichever (you identify as),” Byers said, “and really study the candidates, know who’s who and choose hopefully the correct person.”