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Size of local government key concern in county commissioner debate

Diane Nelson and Donny Wohlers are running for an open seat in District 4.2 / 4
Incumbent Ron Staples and Jim Swenson are running in District 3.3 / 4
Bob Kopitzke and incumbent Paul Watzke are running in District 1.4 / 4

MORRIS - Six candidates for the Stevens County Board of Commissioners answered questions about their visions for the future of Stevens County and specifics about the Stevens County Courthouse at a candidate forum at the American Legion on Thursday, Oct. 18.

In their introductions, all six candidates emphasized their interest in helping balance the county budget, although most also expressed concern about how cuts to state and federal funding have impacted Stevens County.

Paul Watzke, District 1 County Commissioner and New York Life consultant, said that although there are challenges for the area like attracting young people, Stevens County is blessed with a diverse economy and opportunities.

Watzke said that cuts to state funding would continue to be a challenge for Stevens County - the current county budget projects a 25 percent cut in this funding.

"We'll do the best we can," said Watzke. "We've been able to spend down some reserves and we've been able to look at doing some streamlining. ... We have to continue to look at ways to consolidate and share our services."

Watzke's challenger, Bob Kopitzke, a member of the buildings and grounds crew at the University of Minnesota, Morris, noted that the county will continue to be short of money due to funding cuts.

"I know farmers are worried about taxes because of the high land values, and I worry about that, but I worry more about the fixed income people," said Kopitzke. "If we keep raising taxes, they aren't going to be able to keep up."

Kopitzke said he did not support raising weight limits on roads and watch county employment carefully to keep the budget down.

Ron Staples, District 3 County Commissioner and farmer south of Alberta, said one big challenge for the county is the loss of county program aid from the state.

"It's really been detrimental to our levies," said Staples. "We've had to raise our levies to replace that County Program Aid that we've been getting from the state of Minnesota. ... It's a big loss for people in the county."

Staples also said the county would need to work on the county ditch system. Maintenance has not been good enough, said Staples - "With high land values, farmers are willing to move forward with doing that stuff."

Jim Swenson, Staples' challenger in District 3 and small business owner in Hancock, said his major concern for the county was infrastructure.

"We've got to have good roads in this county for the farmers to get their goods into town," said Swenson. He suggested looking at building concrete roads instead of paving to increase the road lifespan even though the material would cost more initially.

The race for a seat in District 4 is open. Candidate Donny Wohlers, owner of the Old No. 1 Bar and Grill, said he thought issue moving forward for the county would include the county ditch system and state and federal funding for roads.

"There's a lot of spending that's going to have to be watched, how we spend our money, the monies that we bring into the county," said Wohlers.

District 4 candidate Diane Nelson, a retired high school teacher, said she would work to keep Morris "shining bright and ensure that we have a bright future."

Nelson agreed that it is important to improve county infrastructure and be "efficient, effective and visionary" in county government.

The candidates also addressed county staffing and whether the county government has gotten too big.

Watzke (District 1) said that the county would like to streamline government, but that there were many mandated services the county is required to provide. One way to try and cut back the size of government, said Watzke, is to work with neighboring counties in partnerships.

Kopitzke (District 1) said the commissioners should take a more active role in the hiring process and be careful about how much more hiring the county does.

Staples (District 4) said that although it would be great for the government to go small, it's important to balance the size of government with services.

If the county cut its budget by 10 percent next year, Staples said roads wouldn't be plowed or bladed as quickly, for example.

Nelson (District 3) suggested the county should study each decision and see how much it will cost and be sure the county has a vision and a plan for what government is doing.

"I think we maybe need to make a two-year plan if that works," Nelson said. "I realize that some of the things are mandated by the state and federal government and you have to spend that money... but I think we really just need to be cognizant of the fact that we need to be very thrifty and frugal."

Wohlers (District 3) said he has seen county department heads come to the commissioners and ask for employees, but that the county needs to seriously consider whether hires need to be made.

"I do question, sometimes, who has been doing these jobs in the past?" said Wohlers. "Why all of a sudden are we hiring someone for $60,000 with benefits to do this job, or whatever their salary is?"

This candidate forum was sponsored by the auxiliaries of the American Legion Post 29, AmVets Post 290 and VFW Post 5039.