BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN With the election nearing, the Delano Area Chamber of Commerce invited candidates in area races to participate in forums, including Delano School Board and legislative candidates Tuesday and Delano City Council and District 5 Wright County Commissioner candidates Wednesday.
Delano School Board
School Board Chair Amy Johnson and Vice Chair Randy Durick joined candidates Alan Briesemeister, Rachel Depa, and Mark Purkey.
“What are the most important issues facing the school district, and how can you affect them?” was the first question.
Purkey emphasized the safety and well-being of staff and children and said he believes he could use his background in the construction industry to help ensure the safety and security of the new building and renovations.
Johnson pinpointed completing the building projects, funding, and creating individual learning opportunities as the most important issues to her.
“Funding, funding, funding,” Durick said. He added that the district’s membership in Schools for Equity in Education helps the district by working to equalize school funding throughout the state.
Depa acknowledged the funding issue, but went on to take a different approach.
“The community feels like they’re not part of the school board,” Depa said. “We need to bridge that gap. People want transparency. We have to come up with a plan to get to that point.”
Briesemeister spoke of equipping students to be successful.
“For a child who is in first grade, will we continue to provide the same educational excellence as we did for a senior?” he said. “What skills will they need when they graduate? We need to make sure our students can compete successfully in a very competitive world over the next few decades. We should have a 12-year plan.”
How can the school board work better with the city and other entities?
“Between the city and the school, we have the same goal: to take care of our children,” Briesemeister said. “We need an avenue of communication between all the organizations.”
Depa said she would personally meet with city council members and others because “when someone knows you, it’s easier for them to ask for what they need, and for you to ask for what you need.”
Durick referenced the city/school committee and said the relationship is growing closer due to the district’s building projects.
In addition to the city/school committee, Johnson referenced the board’s involvement on the Safe Schools Committee, which provides insight on factors affecting the area.
“We all need to get out and get to know people,” Purkey said. “One thing I really like about Delano is it’s a really tight-knit community.”
Candidates were then asked what they would change about the $65 million bond that was passed.
Purkey and Depa both said they would not have included turfed fields.
Johnson took a different approach.
“For every person who thinks we spent too much money, there’s one who thinks we didn’t spend enough,” Johnson said, noting that the district spent a lot of time and energy trying to notify residents about the bond.
Durick said, if given a magic wand, he would change how the project was funded. With that said, he added that the district will save about $10 million in interest due to its bond rating.
Briesemeister said he wouldn’t change anything.
“I assumed that the $65 million bill had been pretty well thought out,” Briesemeister said.
Is there an area of education that should be emphasized more in Delano?
Briesemeister spoke of organizing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) competition for international schools in Africa, and suggested STEM training is beneficial in Delano, as well.
“Where are the job openings and salaries? We want STEM,” Briesemeister said. “I wouldn’t necessarily take the same approach here. One thing everyone needs to do better, though, is to collaborate with others.”
Durick also talked about STEM, and said he would like the district to better utilize the Wright Technical Center, where he serves as a board member.
“I chose Delano for education, so it’s hard for me to pick something we’re lacking,” Depa said. “We need to prepare students for the work force. We need to meet them where they’re at and help with where they’re going.”
“Delano has very good school programs. The curriculum is very well-written,” Purkey said. “High school kids should be more prepared to work. There are good places of employment that struggle to find help in the summer. Industrial Louvers had a high school intern from Buffalo.”
Johnson said she would like to treat students as individuals, with individualized learning starting in kindergarten.
Calvin Brandt asked candidates who have owned their own business to raise their hand. When no hands went up, he said, “That troubles me,” and asked, “How will you manage the school instead of the school managing you?”
“I manage budgets, and work through financials, and work with the owner of the company,” Purkey said. “I’ll try to put those skills forward to make decisions.”
“It’s not the role of the school board to run the school. That’s the superintendent’s job,” Johnson said. “I have no intention of running the school. My job is to create policy and and environment that represents the wants and needs of the community.”
Durick said, “It’s not the school board’s job to run the school, but to make sure the school is run well.”
“I don’t own a business, but I get to manage five people who don’t care what I say,” Depa said of running a family, before she spoke of working closely with teachers to make the district the best it can be.
Briesemester compared the district to a business.
“Schools are pretty big business,” Briesemeister said. “They have to be managed like a business. Businesses have goals. Schools need to have goals, too.”
John Tackaberry asked if the candidates would promise to only put a bond referendum on a ballot during a general election year.
“The general election has more voters, so 100 percent of the time, it should be asked during a general election year,” Purkey said.
Depa went a step further, saying bond referendums should only take place during presidential election years, but not everyone agreed.
“You can’t always control the timing,” Durick said. “ . . . I don’t feel we tried to pull wool over the voters. We tried to be transparent.”
Johnson said the referendum was in the works dating back to 2007, and spoke of the referendum question approved in 2014.
“We spent a lot of time in 2014, when we passed the operating levy, to make sure we wouldn’t be coming back for more revenue to operate the school 10 to 15 years out,” Johnson said.
Briesemeister said he was not compelled that a bond referendum always be during a general election.
Also on the topic of the bond referendum, Steve Rogers asked what should be done if the district comes in under budget.
“If the district is under budget, I would possibly try to bring down class sizes,” Purkey said.
“If you come in $4 million under budget, you should look at how to give that back,” Depa said.
Johnson said she would be surprised to come in under budget.
“We worked hard to have a good understanding of what we were getting for $65 million,” Johnson said.
If the district is under budget, Durick said, “There’s legally only a few things we can do. We can increase the scope or pay down the bond dollars. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a large amount. I’d be in favor of paying down the debt.”
Briesemeister said the district should have an idea of what would happen to excess dollars.
“I’d never commit to say the money should go here or there. We shoud go back to the priorities,” Briesemeister said. “Stay with the ball game. The strategic plan is the ball game.”
Delano City Council
City Councilwoman Betsy Stolfa was joined by candidates Larry Bartels, Steve Rogers, and Jon Sutherland Wednesday evening.
Council candidates were asked about the most important issues facing the city and how they would address them.
“We do need to have more growth,” Bartels said. “Industrial growth is good. It pays for a lot of things. We’re running out of residential space. Residential growth will also help pay for streets in the older part of town.”
Rogers said taxes pose the biggest issue.
“I will review budgets and look for ways to eliminate nonessential spending,” Rogers said. “I will talk to city staff and create and develop a marketing program that will bring businesses into Delano. I’d work to bring back a community-driven business association development board that will create opportunities for new businesses and review the strategic plan to get DMU (Delano Municipal Utilities) prices so they’re not such a burden on everyone. Most important is transparency. We need to let everyone know what we’re doing.”
Stolfa talked about the growth of the city.
“Delano is a growing city, adding young families and businesses,” Stolfa said. “With that comes an increased demand for services. How do we take care of all that without increasing taxes too much? We weigh wants and needs.”
Sutherland said the city’s growth should be slower and well-managed.
That word came up again when the West Metro Business Park was discussed.
“We need to be well-managed so businesses have the confidence to move here,” Stolfa said.
She suggested utilizing tax increment financing, tax abatement, flexibility with utilities, and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development grants to attract businesses to Delano.
With the city on the hook for the property, Bartels suggested the city may need to hire a headhunting firm.
“The interest is secured by the property,” Bartels said. “If no one moves there, it’s not worth anything.”
Rogers said he has been trying to relocate his business to the park since 2013, and suggested a couple steps be taken to help businesses relocate.
“We need to make a prospectus,” he said. “We need to get the Wright County Economic Development Partnership involved.”
Sutherland believes technology can help fill the park.
“We need to invest in a better website,” he said. “We should have a zoning information sheet for every available property. It’s a great tool. Put the property the city owns on there and divest of as many of them as possible, and put the money into streets.”
With a $150,000 splash pad included in the city’s capital improvement plan and plans for a new concession stand in the works for Central Park, the candidates were asked about their priorities for parks.
“The splash pad is on the wish list. It has been for years,” Stolfa said. “If it’s not in the capital improvement plan, it will never happen. We have already cut it out of our plans. We are not going to raise taxes for a splash pad.”
“My vision would be a very expansive parks and trails system, and knock it off one piece at a time,” Sutherland said.
He has talked to young families who would like a splash pad, and he suggested putting “a thermometer on a piece of plywood” and raising the funds, which could include seed money from the city.
“Parks are something everyone uses,” Bartels said. “I see parks full of people all the time. They bring people in to spend money. A splash pad has come up for 15 years. If there’s a community effort to raise money, I’d do it. A swimming pool, no, because of the liability, and you can’t use it nine months out of the year.”
Rogers used the opportunity to talk about parks.
“I don’t have the same vision as others when people are struggling to pay taxes,” Rogers said. “Businesses are struggling and can’t give donations to parks like they used to. We need to pay to play. If there’s money left over, I’d love to spend money on the parks.”
Candidates were asked how they would work to decrease the tax burden.
“My dad always said, ‘You can cut costs or sell something,’” Rogers said. “Bring businesses in, look at efficiencies, and we can decrease the tax burden. I can’t say I’ll lower taxes, but I’ll try.”
Stolfa used an analogy to explain her answer.
“We need more people eating the pie,” Stolfa said. “We need to get more neighborhoods going. Growth is coming back up. We need to fill the business park and expand existing businesses. We need to keep our excellent credit rating so we can pay the lowest rate possible.”
Bartels said growing commercial and industrial businesses will affect the tax base the most.
Sutherland said setting priorities will help reduce the tax burden.
“We need to identify what’s important and where to put funds,” Sutherland said. “We should also have a revolving loan fund, rather than having subsidies.”
Rep. Joe McDonald, who own’s McDonald’s Studio downtown, asked if candidates would continue to support the revitlization of downtown.
“Twenty years ago, we talked about having stamped sidewalks,” Bartels said. “We had a public hearing. Business after business said they couldn’t afford it . . . I’m in favor of keeping the development going. I like tax revenue, so yes.”
Rogers said he would support downtown revitalization, and that new businesses would help pay for it.
“There are two places vacant,” Rogers said. “With the EDA, I’d try to find people to rent it and take money from the new tax base to keep (improvements) going.”
Stolfa supports downtown improvements, including those businesses have made.
“It’s exciting to see activity,” Stolfa said. “It gives us an identity and makes us unique.”
She said she has supported ideas such as sidewalk dining and food trucks to help downtown businesses, and that she would continue to do so.
“I see a vibrant community that maintains the historical character and vibrant downtown,” Sutherland said.
With that said, he added that downtown infrastructure should not be separate from other infrastructure.
“If there’s infrastructure anywhere, we need to put it on the capital improvement plan and get it done,” Sutherland said.
For the final question of the night, citizen Dale VanderLinden asked the candidates if they would support an independent EDA.
“I would need more due dilligence into having a separate committee,” Stolfa said. “How would it be elected or appointed? I’m not opposed to it, but my gut reaction is I don’t have enough information.”
Bartels agreed he would need to see the structure.
“An EDA has spending authority,” Bartels said. “I don’t know how to legally do it.”
Sutherland said he has seen an independent EDA work in Mound and that he would support an independent EDA in Delano.
Rogers said yes, with one caveat.
“It’s not working,” he said of the current EDA. “The business park is empty. I don’t have to be the smartest guy. I just have to know the smartest guy. We need people with connections. The council members are very busy people. Whatever we have right now doesn’t work. I understand there are taxation privileges (with an EDA). I don’t want to relinquish that.”
Commissioner Charlie Borrell and candidate Jason Franzen answered a variety of questions from DACC President Becky Schaust and individuals in attendance Wednesday.
What is the biggest issue facing the county?
“The No. 1 thing I would say is facing us is the same thing that was facing us four years ago, which is keeping taxes down and incentivising businesses to invest in Wright County,” Borrell said. “When I came into office, Wright County was the fourth lowest per capita tax county. I think I’ve done a good job. Now, we are the second lowest.”
Franzen said the answer varies based on who is asked, but offered unfunded mandates as an example, such as those facing health and human services and the public health department.
That topic was also broached when candidates were asked about the county’s legislative priorities and agendas.
“One unfunded mandate was the hiring of extra social workers,” Borrell said. “What comes with that is extra work for deputies and the county attorney’s office. Those things are unfunded. We’re taking care of kids, so it’s probably worth the cost.”
With the forum taking place in Delano, one question that arose asked the candidates’ opinion on the city’s appeal of the Wright County Planning Commission’s decision to approve a solar project adjacent to the West Metro Business Park.
“I voted in favor of Delano and against this,” said Borrell. “Your plan showed you were developing this direction. For Delano’s sake, I hope they win.”
Franzen said he had spoken out against the solar project from the beginning.
“I don’t see the benefit of solar panels on productive farm land,” Franzen said. “I can’t be for something Gov. Mark Dayton is for. It would constrain our growth. We stood up to it. I didn’t want to see a lawsuit, but we needed to put a marker down. Franklin Township has since instituted a new moratorium on solar projects, as well.”
Regarding the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, Franzen said, “They need financial support from us,” and added that many deputies are supporting him.
“I’m not in favor of willy nilly giving more money to the sheriff’s office,” Borrell said.
He went on to say that deputies have requested 12-hour shifts, a change he does not support based on conversations with law enforcement officials.
“Sheriff Joe Hagerty is against 12-hour shifts because of the contracts with the cities,” Borrell said. “It is cost-prohibitive.”
When asked about the problem of opioid and heroin addiction and overdoses in the county, both candidates spoke about providing first responders with the drug Narcan, which can save people from an overdose. Borrell went a step further to say, “Maybe regular citizens would be able to have it if they took a course.”
Franzen, who serves on the Wright County Public Health Task Force, said survey respondents identified opioids as a top health concern, along with distracted driving, a year ago.
“Education is part of the solution,” Franzen said.
With the county looking to build a new court services building, the candidates were asked how that process should be addressed.
Franzen emphasized the need for the new facility.
“It’s difficult to do felony trials in our facility,” Franzen said. “The state may pull the privilege of doing felony trials.”
Borrell said the commissioners originally hoped the current court services space could be renovated.
“It would cost $20 million for a 10-year fix,” Borrell said. “Everyone dropped their cards and said, ‘Let’s change course.’”
Since then, the commissioners have visited four other facilities in different counties, including in Crookston, where it cost $150 per square foot for a combined jail and courts building, compared to estimates of $350 to $450 per square foot.
Regarding economic development, Borrell said he would like to see the county get enough bang for the buck, which he wasnt sure was happening with the county’s $10,000 contribution to Greater MSP, though the entity has since shared the possibility of a project coming to the county.
Franzen said the county is attractive to businesses, but could do more.
“What stops businesses from expanding is a lack of high-speed internet,” Franzen said.
He also said he has advocated on behalf of Delano and would advocate on behalf of the county if elected.
“You have an activist councilman and will have an activist commissioner after Jan. 1,” Franzen said.
Citizen John Tackaberry asked if either candidate would allow the county to become a part of the seven-county metro.
“They will not be here under my watch,” Borrell said of the Met Council. “We take it on the chin for that, but my belief is we should be governed by people who were elected. When they did the Super 2 (bypass), that should have been a four-lane. The Met Council put the screws to us.”
Franzen echoed that sentiment.
“I will work against the Met Council working here,” Franzen said. “MnDOT officials told me it’s not about MnDOT, but the Met Council.”
District 29 Sen. Bruce Anderson was joined by candidate Janice Holter Kittok and District 29A Rep. Joe McDonald during Tuesday’s forum. McDonald’s challenger Cortney Phillips was unable to attend the forum.
Candidates were asked what can be done to improve the safety of Highway 12.
“Working with MnDOT, we found funds to make necessary improvements,” McDonald said.
Anderson called the Highway 12 corridor a major problem and said, “It buffalos me that we built a wide road that’s only two lanes.”
Kittok spoke in favor of a transit system.
“We need a transit system that connects us to the metro,” Kittok said. “We need a complete transit plan.”
After the governor said the Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable and suggested a special session to address health care in Minnesota, the candidates were given an opportunity to share their response.
“Insurance companies control the cost of insurance,” Kittok said.
Regarding a special session, she said, “I think it would be in order” due to health care deadlines before the regular session.
“Minnesota had some of the best health care in the nation . . . That was completely thrown out,” McDonald said.
McDonald was both applauded and booed when he said, “Dayton said to give him all Democrats, and they’d fix it, but they’re the ones who broke it.”
Anderson referenced a conversation with his son, who referred to his health insurance bill as a second mortgage he could not pay, to which Anderson recommended looking into Medishare or Samaritan Ministry.
He also shared a conversation with a constituent.
“When I was door-knocking, someone asked, ‘Why did you ruin our insurance?’ I said, ‘I was not in charge.’”
Anderson suggested more competition as the solution and said a long-term fix is needed.
When asked about opioid and heroin addiction, the candidates took the opportunity to talk about mental health care, as well.
“We study mental illness. It’s a huge issue,” McDonald said. “There’s a direct correlation between mental illness and overdoses. We need more patient beds and experts.”
Anderson agreed “it’s a major problem.” He said the state needs more treatment facilities to deal with addiction and mental illness.
Kittok said she has been surprised to hear individuals tell her mental health is the No. 1 issue in the state.
“Allina lakes the bed space,” Kittok said. “They’re taking people to the metro, St. Cloud, and even Fargo in one case. We have to come together to coordinate a solution.”
In addition to the candidates being on the ballot, there will be a question asking if an independent board should determine legislative salaries, rather than the legislators themselves.
Anderson compared an independent board to the Met Council and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Kittok called it a tricky situation, but said, “I’m not opposed to an outside group looking objectively at salaries. In a way, it takes pressure off people to put a value on public service.”
McDonald said he voted against the question going onto the ballot and would likely vote against it again as a citizen.
“If you don’t have faith in us to vote on our salary, you shouldn’t have faith in us to do anything,” McDonald said. “It was a way to get off the hot seat. e earn about $31,000 plus per diem, which mine is $66 per day.”
When Calvin Brandt asked about taxes, Kittok said, “It’s not a yes or no question because it depends on many circumstances.”
Anderson and McDonald didn’t see it that way.
“Taxes in Minnesota are way too high,” Anderson said. “Taxes were increased $2.2 billion more than we needed. A total of $2.1 bilion in business sales have left the state.”
McDonald added other statistics from the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses.
“As of 2014, Minnesota has the fifth highest personal income tax,” McDonald said. “Our lowest rate exceeds the top rate in many states. We have the fifth highest busines property tax burden and the seventh highest sales tax.”
After Anderson said there were things the state was spending money on that it shouldn’t be, Chris Brazelton asked where the funding would come from for issues such as infrastructure and addressing the mental health crisis.
“Republicans had a proposal for $6 billion for a 10-year highway plan,” McDonald said. “There was not one cent of gas tax increase. It would have used existing funds spent on automobiles . . . It takes it away from the general fund.”
Kittok took the opportunity to respond to the tax statistics McDonald shared.
“Minnesota has many tax credits and incentives,” Kittok said. “Many corporations pay 3 to 5 percent, not 9.8 percent. When they decide to come here, they don’t just look at the tax rate. We have to invest in broadband. All these things lead to the higher quality of life we have here.”
Anderson addressed the tax bill.
“There were a lot of good things in the tax bill, but I have a problem funding multi-billion dollar sports team owners,” Anderson said. “It had a $1.6 million tax break on seats in the US Bank Stadium. It took $86 million out of the health care tax fund and rerouted it.”
On the contrary, Kittok called the tax bill “a wonderful example of compromise. I’ll be voting yes on it. My opponent voted no.”