Douglas County commissioner candidates speak at forumWonder what sets the incumbent candidates apart from their challengers? Read their responses to questions from the non-partisan forum held at the Alexandria City Hall on Tuesday.
By: Crystal Dey, Alexandria Echo Press
Incumbents and challengers for the five Douglas County commissioner seats faced county residents side-by-side at a candidate forum held at the Alexandria City Hall on Tuesday.
The session was sponsored jointly by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women. Approximately 50 residents were in attendance to hear the candidates’ responses to audience-generated questions.
Moderator Brenda Velde asked five questions before concluding the two-hour non-partisan event. Redistricting has put all five commissioner positions up for election in 2012, which made for lengthy question-and-answer rounds. Should the challengers in Districts 2, 4 and 5 win this year’s election, they will serve the remaining two years of the incumbents’ terms.
What do you see as the most serious issue facing Douglas County?
Incumbent Jerry Johnson said the budget and levy are always the most serious issues. The homestead credit saved the state $262 million, Johnson said, but took $2.6 million away from Douglas County. Had the county levied that, residents would have seen a 12 percent increase in the levy itself, he explained.
Challenger Bonnie Huettl said local government aid (LGA) is an issue since it will be ending in 2015. Another of Huettl’s concerns is the courts’ expansion and taxes.
“One board is not going to be able to lower your taxes,” Huettl said. “As long as the school board keeps passing referendums, we will have taxes go up.”
Incumbent Norm Salto believes the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District (ALASD) lawsuit will become an issue in the county. Because the ALASD lost the suit, rates may be raised to help fund a $57 million project. “They’re going to have to clean their act up,” Salto said. He doesn’t see much turmoil being caused in the county at the moment.
Challenger Jim Stratton agreed with Salto’s point on the ALASD issue. Stratton added that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would not set a lower limit for chloride coming out of the plant. Stratton had a slightly lesser figure for the clean-up project, $40 million, and said that the pollutant now has to be “trucked to the ocean” for disposal.
Incumbent Bev Bales said increased property taxes and state aid cuts are among the county’s top issues. The change in the homestead credit for 95 percent of the people in the state was one area Bales identified as evidence of the cuts; a cut she emphasized was done by the state Legislature, not the county.
“The state either should cover what they’ve promised or else get out of the game,” Bales said.
Challenger Jerry Rapp was inspired to run for commissioner because of real estate taxes increasing, which he sees as one of the bigger problems in Douglas County.
“A lot of people I’ve talked to in District 3, especially older people, [are] concerned they were going to be taxed out of their houses,” Rapp said. Rapp proposed looking into freezing real estate taxes for seniors, considering many of them are on fixed incomes.
“My main concern is budgetary,” said incumbent Paul C. Anderson. He mentioned the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration (MAGIC) Act, which he said would make it easier for the commissioners to deliver services in a more economical way. The act was passed in the Senate and defeated in the House. Anderson said commissioners need to work closer with legislators and stop using “unfunded Band-Aids,” meaning counties have to pick up expenses for state-created programs that later no longer receive state funding.
Challenger Charlie Meyer sees runaway spending as the number-one problem in the county. He said removing duplication of services, seen not only in the county but also in the city, state and federal levels, would be a way to reduce expenses.
“If we can work as close as we can with the city of Alex, especially in certain areas like law enforcement and some of those things, we can eliminate a lot of duplications,” Meyer said, “We can save some money, reduce some spending and help a lot on our property taxes… We’re all paying too much in taxes for what we’re getting out of the services.”
Incumbent Dan Olson recognizes the tax burden and believes the county is getting a better handle on where dollars are spent and doing more with less.
“That’s what’s neat about local government. We have the local controls,” Olson said.
Olson addressed the duplication concern by identifying some of the partnerships the county has already made, such as the public health department’s five-county Horizon health board, the 13 counties that have PrimeWest Health, West Central Community Action and Pope Douglas Solid Waste Management (PDSWM).
Challenger Carol Wenner said her main focus is on the “silver tsunami,” the growing senior population. Wenner said middle-ground needs to be found where seniors can stay in their homes and continue contributing to the tax base.
What will you do to make our county more welcoming for our new residents considering the changing demographics and how that will impact our community and county?
Johnson said he doesn’t think there will be any problem with immigration, when people come to Douglas County to work or to retire in the area. Other problems, he said, aren’t always caused by immigrants or new people.
“We have some of our local boys who cause a little trouble, too,” Johnson said.
Huettl said it’s not county commissioners’ job to be a welcoming committee. She sees that as the duty of the chamber of commerce, schools and churches. Rather, Huettl views the role of a commissioner to provide a stable tax base. Without more people, taxes will go up to cover the cost of services, she said. “I think that we need to have growth in our community,” she said.
Salto said the problem with people coming into the county occurs when people don’t want to work. Douglas County has good health care and a lot of jobs, he said. “When you’ve got 6 percent that are unemployed,” Salto said, “take that 6 percent and send them down to the drug testing place. That’s your problem.”
Stratton compared diversity to when Swedish people and Norwegians were considered foreigners. He said ideally, people would come to town with great educations. Stratton shared an experience he had where he was informed that one woman did not feel welcome in the area for her first two years of residency because of her ethnic background.
“We need to be welcoming to those people who would like to move to Alexandria,” Stratton said.
Bales said in commissioners’ day-to-day operations, they are concerned about everyone. “Whatever person coming here, I think needs to be treated fairly,” she said. “I think we have been a very welcoming community.” Bales said a lot of people don’t know what county government does and more open sessions may be a way to be more inclusive.
Rapp based his reply on the current state of the economy. “Personally, I don’t think bus loading people in here and expecting [them] to find work is the right thing to do right now,” Rapp said. He doesn’t see “positive growth” resulting from people flocking to Douglas County and expecting to fit in without first securing jobs.
Anderson said the county cannot be selective but nevertheless can’t take in busloads of people without putting excessive strain on the social services department. “I’ve always been acceptable to people of other races and ethnic [groups],” Anderson said. “We just have to welcome them with open arms if they do have a job or if they’re willing to go to school.” Anderson said a lot of the diversification in Douglas County is coming from Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC), which he supports.
“For the future growth, with the diversity issue comes a handful of things that are not always desirable, and they are very expensive,” said Meyer. He said this is evident in areas such as Long Prairie, Willmar and Pelican Rapids. Meyer said open arms without cost is fleeting in this country and something that needs to be looked at closely.
Olson said seniors are among a majority of the increased population. Many of which are retiring here and have their jobs covered, but that can’t always be expected, he said. “As far as diversity, we have diversity,” Olson said. “We have to work with change, work with the growth in our government and not against it.” Olson added that churches are a big factor because government can’t do it all by itself.
Wenner agreed that churches in the community are helping with diversity issues. She became involved in the Diversity Resource Action Alliance in 2003 at ATCC and learned how much she didn’t know about other cultures. Another organization she is part of that helps the community is the city’s cultural inclusiveness committee.
“I’ve heard many, many comments, out knocking on doors, ‘Not in my backyard,’ ” Wenner said. “I’ve heard things tonight about flocks, and I’ve heard about busloads, and frankly, it upsets me.”
Are there services that you as a commissioner would consider consolidating with the city or other counties or the townships?
Johnson said anything that will save the county money should be considered. The idea of combined law enforcement runs into a stumbling block – turf, Johnson said. However, he said the board is ready to talk. “Anything to save a nickel,” he added.
Huettl spoke of Horizon and how some employees in public health may be worried about losing their jobs. She agreed that it can come down to turf and that future talks need to be executed carefully.
Salto said law enforcement, Housing and Redevelopment Authorities and park departments could all be looked at – but again it comes down to turf. “The smaller communities out here are fighting for survival,” Salto said. “They do not want to lose anything they have.”
Stratton said building coalition teams with players from the city, county and state are needed to look at solutions. He would also like to receive more citizen input.
Bales said the county does a lot of work with the townships, specifically on roads. She also said the Douglas County Land and Resource manager, county engineer and county surveyor have been sharing services with other counties as well.
“Putting law enforcement together many, many years back, I thought was outstanding,” Bales said. “I feel badly now that the two have split.”
Rapp said the county board meeting with the city council is a great merge and that he’d like to see the county board meet with the school board as well to stay on top of school issues. He noted that a new school is being built but teachers are supposedly being laid off and he’d like to know why. Rapp also would like to explore using local businesses for things like excessive snowfall removal.
Anderson said he doesn’t believe there is reason to have a city and a county HRA, and he feels the city council would agree with him. He said the county board meeting with the city council is a step in the right direction.
Meyer said Douglas County is doing well with sharing public health and thinks it is important to use private when you can. For instance, having Lakes Area Recreation and the YMCA is one area that didn’t have to be duplicated.
Olson said the county is already expanding public health and PDSWM is another example of collaboration. He said the topic of combined law enforcement between the city of Alexandria and Douglas County can be discussed and explored.
Wenner said law enforcement, the Horizon health board and technology are items of interest.
(The idea to consolidate law enforcement in the county, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Alexandria Police Department, has been discussed at length. To clear up any misunderstanding as to the legality of such a union the Echo Press looked into the city charter. According to the Alexandria city charter, “the city shall have the power: to contract with the county or with other municipalities for such joint services and utilities as the city may deem desirable, and for all other lawful purposes.” The charter also states that a police department and police commission exist and that, “The duties of the various departments, except the Board of Public Works, may be altered or combined as the council may direct.”)
What do you believe to be the role of the county commissioner?
Johnson said a county commissioner is a liaison between the taxpayer, county and state. He said he is someone for people to pick up the phone and call with concerns. Johnson admits that sometimes decisions don’t make everyone happy, but “the buck stops here.”
Huettl stated that managing the budget and county departments is the role of the county commissioner. She emphasized not micro-managing, but trusting in the department heads’ expertise.
Salto said taking care of the budget is a commissioner’s task.
Stratton believes the commissioners are sounding boards for constituents and are to distinguish between the county’s wants and needs.
Bales said the role of a county commissioner is to provide services passed down from federal to state to county. She said she stays very in touch with her district to know what services are needed.
Rapp believes the commissioners should be practical, such as keeping buildings practical, and they should become an example for Minnesota’s other counties.
Anderson said commissioners are to cut expenses or increase income, watch out for necessary or duplicate services and farm duties out to private sectors when appropriate. Coordinating programs that fit with the budget are also in Anderson’s scope of a commissioner’s duties.
Meyer mentioned balancing infrastructure, running one of the best and biggest hospitals in the country and doing the best you can with fiscal responsibility.
Olson said getting the right people in the right place is part of a commissioner’s role. Supporting department heads and managing what is best for the taxpayer.
Wenner said leading and trusting department heads, and putting good processes in place.
What do you think Douglas County will look like in 2022?
Johnson sees managed growth and a wise expansion of the area. He’d like to see grain marketing and sales, and livestock sales which currently the county loses money on every day. But most of all, “It’s going to be nice,” Johnson said.
Huettl sees more development for seniors and services, a growing hospital and a Highway 29 roundabout – and possibly a Kohl’s.
Salto sees prosperity in Douglas County’s future -- a growing hospital, the addition of an art center, better senior transportation and insight provided by the educational system. Salto believes being a regional center will help bring these things to life.
Stratton sees a closer city and county connection. The area will remain a tourist destination despite the zebra mussel problem and possibly by working with the Department of Natural Resources, the county may be the place in Minnesota where the pests are finally exterminated. Stratton believes the area will continue to become more diverse. He also sees the new high school bringing more people and hence, more money to town.
Bales said with regionalization in much of the state and especially with the courts, the area is going to thrive. She said with advances in technology, things are going to be spectacular.
Rapp sees much home growth. He added that Alexandria, the county seat, is here to stay and is not going to fade away.
Anderson’s vision centers around the city of Alexandria where there will be another entrance off Interstate 94 and the old Jefferson High School will be absorbed by ATCC or Douglas County Hospital. Terrific growth envelops Anderson’s vision, complete with a convention center.
Meyer said the county will continue to grow and the new high school will be a wonderful thing for that continued growth. He added that manufacturing will stimulate growth in housing and estimates 40,000 to 42,000 residents.
Olson envisions a county people will enjoy living in with jobs for everyone. A community dependent on churches and schools with clean lakes. A place where people will love to come raise families.
Wenner said the community will attract qualified people and have housing for everyone. The commissioners will have to say no more often and really scrutinize and be strategic. Wenner’s prediction is that the community will continue to grow.