Greene County Commissioner Harold Bengsch has served the public in various positions for six decades. OI had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about his career and his life in public service.
This is part one of a two part interview. Part one can be read at this link.
OI: Looking from the outside of being involved in public health, what health care issue do you think the public is not giving enough attention?
Bengsch: Mental health. Now, it is starting. You’re beginning to see people understand that mental health affects a vast majority of families.
Somewhere in every family are individuals with a behavioral health problem, or an outright psychosis, or somewhere in between. Mental health is a major issue.
Our jail is full of individuals who have mental health issues.
That’s why I didn’t have to think about it when I asked to chair with Dr. Prater a committee [on mental health.] We went to the voters in the 2017 sales tax issue and asked them to allow us to set aside money to deal with mental health issues. The voters said yes.
Then the health department gets a $250,000 grant to really determine how large the problem is in the community and what are its many faces. We have that done now and we have more or less a road map of things that need to be done.
This community is not sitting still. It’s already started. There’s many things going on right now that haven’t been going on before and on this scope. There’s going to be a whole lot more.
OI: I was going to ask later about the jail, but let me ask now because you mentioned it. There are a lot of things that you as Commissioners have discussed about speeding up the criminal justice system. Do you think focusing on and developing systems for people coming into the system in regards to mental health?
Bengsch: I think it’s important people realize we need to work at this from both ends.
We have a lot of folks in the jail now who have mental health problems and they don’t want to have those issues, but they need help. So we’ve worked from that direction on them.
But we also need to be working at the beginning of life so that those things don’t develop. Our school system and others in the community, like Community Partnership of the Ozarks, are wanting to work on that end of the spectrum, so the attack will be on both ends.
I think you’ve heard of Mental Health First Aid. Our law enforcement people have already been trained on that, it’s moving into our school system, and we want to move it into families.
We want families to recognize issues very early and in recognizing it early, they can implement programs that do not let it grow and mushroom to the point that issue becomes a violation of the law.
OI: How has been a public servant changed in your six decades of service?
Bengsch: I’m not sure being a public servant has changed. I think it’s a calling rather than an occupation. An occupation to me is when you do something because you get paid for it. Being a servant means that you’re going to do it whether you’re paid or a volunteer.
I see so many people in this community volunteer hour after hour to make this a better place to live. That, to me, is public service.
OI: In this age of social media, where anyone can sound off at any time to hundreds or thousands of people, is our respect for public servants getting worse or is it just that there’s a more visible platform for disrespect?
Bengsch: I think the latter but it also brings greater visibility of what public servants do. We all make mistakes. We all have feet of clay. Perhaps it’s that in the past there wasn’t as much visibility of every mistake. It’s easy to blow up something that shouldn’t be [made a major issue].
I see some people bow out of public service because they say it’s not worth it. “Here I am giving of myself and I’m getting hammered for it.” I heard that. I understand that. Been there, done that.
But on the other hand, people say “you know, it’s the old Indian proverb that until you walk a mile in another man’s moccasins you can’t really understand so I’m just going to do the right thing.” They don’t let it bother them.
It takes a tough hide, though.
OI: It seems in the last ten years, it’s become more acceptable to some to go after a public figure’s family, their wives, their children. When did that in your mind go beyond being critical of an elected official to anyone connected to them suddenly becomes fair game?
Bengsch: I can’t put a timeline on it. I think it’s something that gradually evolved. It seems like in the last ten years the visibility of that has become so evident.
I know some people who have been in public service that said I would never go back into it again because I can handle what’s being said about me, but I can’t handle what was said to my wife, what is said to my children. And that does occur, believe me.
So we have some people who bow out of public service. But then you have those who are hard-headed like me.
OI: But you obviously can’t blame someone for protecting their family.
Bengsch: I don’t blame them at all.
OI: You’ve been married for 62 years. What’s been the key to your marriage’s longevity?
Bengsch: I’ve been very fortunate to have a wife who supported me 100% and still does today. She’s her own person, believe me, but I think her strength is what has allowed her to not be affected by what’s sometimes said about me.
She understand sometimes those things, sometimes it’s meant, sometimes it’s an off the cuff remark. Her strength has been my strength.
We both have faith in the Lord, and we aren’t hesitant in taking our problems to Him when we need to do it.
But she’s more than my wife. She’s my buddy.
OI: The state audit being conducted. Do you think will find anything?
Bengsch: I have never seen a state audit that didn’t find something, so that wouldn’t surprise me. But I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on it. It will be what it will be.
But I will say we have some of the best employees working in county government that I’ve ever been around and they’re trying to do the right thing for the public.
I know one thing: This county has done a good job with the money the taxpayers have given us.
OI: Looking around the county right now, what is your number one priority as Commissioner?
Bengsch: The number one priority is making sure we’re providing the services that are required to be provided in the most effective way possible.
Now, within those services, the jail is obviously one of the big ones.
We have to build this new jail. There’s no question. We’re taking prisoners to ten other counties right now, some over 100 miles away and that’s costing us a lot of money.
As you’re well aware, we went into a problem with the planning of the new jail because we didn’t;’t know the tariffs were going to take place. The people we were going to buy the steel from said because of those those tariffs we cannot provide this the way we thought we could do it. They also said it could be two or three years before they could get to our order of steel.
So this is one of time we had to change horses in the middle of the stream. We had to. So our architects and the planning committee are working on this change.
That means relocating the jail as well from where it was going to be because we can’t go up with what we thought with nine or ten floors. We could do it with steel but we can’t do it with concrete.
So that means we have to spread it out and we don’t have room on campus to spread it out. Parking is a premium now on campus.
OI: I have to ask…are you running for reelection?
Bengsch: A lot of people have asked me that question and I’ll tell you what I’ve told them. I don’t know. I hope I would make that decision by the beginning of next year.
OI: At this point when you look back at the whole scope of your career, how do you hope you’ll be remembered?
Bengsch: You know, I haven’t even thought about that.
I would hope I would be remembered as a person who was honest and sincere. I’m going to use this word because I really believe this is a way you save taxpayer money: collaborative.
Working with other community organizations to achieve what needs to be done in this community, that saves a lot of money when you have buy in from other organizations. Plus it guarantees sustainability.