When size doesn’t matter
When it comes to mayoring a municipality, bigger doesn’t always mean busier.
Meet Don Farmer, mayor of Van Wert, a city of about 10,700 in northwest Ohio. Self-described as a “young 75 years old,” Farmer stays on the move and wears enough hats to keep a small haberdashery in business.
Working without the usual bureaucratic benefactions of multilevel staff, large budgets, consultants and specialists bestowed upon big-city mayors, Farmer has made do with the limited resources available to him — often by doing things himself.
Not that he thinks he’s a one-man show. He gives high marks to the small cadre of staffers and fellow elected officials who comprise the city’s administration.
“I have a great auditor who puts together monthly and yearly figures,” he said by way of example. “We start the budget procedure in late June for the next year. We’ll sit down and construct a new budget with the input of each department head, who also tell us their expectations.”
Every four years, during the mayoral election, voters also choose a law director and auditor. The eight city council members, four of whom represent their own wards, three who are at-large and a council president who only votes in case of a tie, are all elected to two-year terms.
An appointed safety service director, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor, operates as a liaison between department heads. He takes some of the load off Farmer’s shoulders; and a lone administrative assistant tends to secretarial matters in the city office building that also houses the water, fire and police departments.
Still, sometimes a mayor’s just gotta do what a mayor’s gotta do, and Farmer isn’t shy about it.
He addressed a water customer’s complaint by personally visiting the citizen’s residence and looking for the leak, and has offered hands-on assistance to the street commissioner in addressing road repairs.
“I’m (also) involved in writing legislation and contracts with the law director,” Farmer said, “though he puts the final touches on it.”
When the council recently debated approving up to $10,000 to renovate the city’s website, www.vanwert.org, Farmer fired up his laptop, nestled onto his living room couch and singlehandedly redesigned the site: and for almost free. “It cost the city $99, and that had nothing to do with me. It had to do with getting the server I used.” The site now receives about 6,000 hits a month from as far away as Russia and China.
He also writes his own speeches. “I’m awfully glad I took typing in 1955,” he said, albeit on a manual typewriter. He still tickles the keyboard at “about 40 to 45 words a minute.”
Farmer is involved heavily with the economic development department of the city, which boasts of responsibility for upwards of 90 percent of the county’s jobs. Also on his plate are involvements with the local Main Street organization, convention and visitors bureau, economic development advisory group, Salvation Army, revolving loan board, and an effective state-funded program to help start-up businesses that enjoys an 80 percent repayment rate.
Some mayoral precepts don’t change, no matter the size of the municipality, according to Farmer. “Big or small, you must be thinking for the future and not just today.”
He spearheaded a project to expand the city’s reservoir capacity after a drought left the industrial district perilously low on water. Coming in far under budget — spending only $3.6 million of the $5.2 million allocated — the city greatly increased the reservoir’s holding capacity and installed a parking lot, boat loading dock, fishing pier and an asphalt bicycle and walking path around the perimeter.
His signal achievement, however, is the 1,500-acre industrial megasite conveniently situated along two of the three U.S. highways that crosshatch Van Wert. One of only two of its size in the state, the site, which is complete with rail service, will be shovel ready for commercial development in June.
Construction hit a snag at one point, though, when the state imposed a burdensome requirement to install an outsized gas line to the site. “It was overkill,” said Farmer. “It would have used up all our grant.”
A self-proclaimed “Googler,” he employed his trusty laptop to resolve the impasse. He learned that a former Marysville, Ohio, mayor had been appointed to head the state’s department of development, shot her a quick congratulatory email and outlined his challenge. “I left the office at 4:30 p.m., and at 4:45 p.m. I’m at home and she calls my cellphone.” Two weeks later the requirement was removed and site preparation resumed.
Farmer will be bowing out of “the best job I have ever had” when his term expires next year, but that will barely dent his pace. He likes to golf, plans to spend more time with his kids and grandkids, and still climbs around on the roof making repairs to his multi-story rental building downtown. He and a partner bought the abandoned former theater 33 years ago and converted it into living units and office space. He used to live in the apartment occupying what was the theater’s balcony.
Farmer has been married to wife Nancy for 55 years. They have three sons; a daughter; and 11 grandchildren, consisting of nine boys and two girls. Their oldest son is a pastor in Princeton, Ind., and their daughter works as a registered nurse in Columbus, Ohio. The two younger sons live and work in Van Wert.
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