PEKIN — Two longtime lawmen are vying to be the next Tazewell County sheriff.

With Robert Huston retiring with close to two years left in his term, Chief Deputy Jeff Lower and Pekin Police Detective Mike Eeten are to square off in the March 20 Republican primary. No Democrats have filed so far.

Lower, who will turn 55 next week, has been the chief deputy for close to eight years. Overall, he has spent more than 29 years  in law enforcement.  Eeten, 41, has been a police officer for 12 years, with 10 of those years being with the Pekin Police Department. He was the department's public information officer for about 3/12 years before switching assignments after he announced his candidacy.

Both men tout their experience in law enforcement as reasons to vote for them and both say they are eager for the chance to replace Huston. The five-term sheriff said in January 2017 he would not run for re-election and endorsed his chief deputy as his replacement.

Lower says the three key issues facing the Sheriff's Office are budget management, the opioid epidemic and proper training and recruitment of new employees.

"With budgets becoming tight and revenue sources shrinking, how we manage our budgeted resources are critical. Experience with managing and administering of our budget will be even more critical as we continue to reduce spending and look for new revenue sources. The county board is attempting to find new ways to cut costs for the people of Tazewell County. The board expects all county offices to follow this action and look for new and 'out of the box' ideas to reduce spending and increase revenue for their department. My eight years as Chief Deputy has given me the expertise to continue to plan and manage our nearly $10-million budget in an efficient and responsible manner," he said.

Eeten says he's helped reform the Pekin Police Foundation, which has raised $50,000 over three years to buy equipment that wasn't budgeted for by the city. He also stressed open lines of communication with employees.

"My main goal is to sit down and work with the unions to resolve some of the 14 pending grievances and find a resolution. We must work to build a trust between the unions and the administration. Going forward, I will sit down on a weekly basis and meet with the unions to make sure that we are all on the same page and are communicating effectively," he said.

Both men say containing the burgeoning health crisis that is the opioid epidemic is a top priority for everyone in the community. Lower says that it's a collective effort.

"My belief is that we must approach this issue as a collective, including law enforcement, health care (both physical and mental), education and legislation to address medical over-prescription and prescription fraud. Although we are addressing the short-term by equipping first responders with naloxone and providing help to those who want it, until we attack the problem as a community collectively, we will continue to have marginal effect," Lower said.

Eeten said he thinks working not just on the law enforcement but on the substance abuse side is valid as well.

"I want to work to implement a program in the jail to help those with a substance abuse disorder. While we must continue to enforce our laws, and find those that are supplying these drugs to our communities, I believe that it is important to help those in custody, so they have a chance to avoid the pitfalls when they are released. There are low cost programs available for jails that have proven to be successful," he said.

When it comes how they would put their stamp on the office, Eeten, the former public information officer, says transparency is vital to any successful department.

"I will work hard to build solid relationships with the media like I did as the public information officer for the Pekin Police Department. The media will always be welcome to speak with me directly, and I will encourage it as it also falls in line with my vision of transparency. Not only will the media help us facilitate transparency, but it will help us engage better with the citizens we serve," he said.

He also says he would push to fill vacancies at the jail and on the patrol side, which he says will protect officers and the public alike.

Lower, too, says he would increase the size of the patrol section as well as to consider lateral transfers within the department to fill vacancies with qualified staff. A low-cost way to tackle the patrol issue, he said, is to reassign three deputies who now work at the courthouse.

"A recent survey of six area courthouses revealed information showing Tazewell County to be the only courthouse security checkpoint being staffed by fully trained and equipped deputies. Tazewell County could realize an immediate increase of the patrol force by reassigning these three deputies back to patrol. This reassignment would come with the cost of hiring qualified part-time court security personnel at a reduced rate compared to deputies," he said.

Andy Kravetz can reached at 686-3283 or Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.