District 3 race set for Tuesday primary

Published 7:00 am Friday, August 6, 2010

When the voters of District 3 go to the polls for Tuesday’s primary, they’ll have a choice between one of the county’s longest tenured commissioners on the county board and three opponents offering new blood to the seat.

David Hillier is seeking his fifth term in District 3, and he is being challenged by Jerry Reinartz, Art Nelson and Loren Bellrichard.

The race for District 3 commissioner has attracted the most competition of any Mower County race. It’s the only race requiring a primary to whittle down the field of candidates to two before the general election.

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David Hillier, incumbent

Hillier said he’s always tried to inform the public during his time as a commissioner, and this election has been no different.

With taxes and budget concerns two of the biggest topics currently in county government, Hillier is focusing his campaign on informing the public that Mower County’s property taxes are favorable when compared to other counties. For example, the state auditor’s office ranks the county 82 out of 87 counties (87 being the lowest) in real estate taxes per person.

“For the county’s our size in population — 35,000-40,000 — there’s not a county in Minnesota that has a lower tax per capita,” Hillier said, adding that the county’s levy is considerably less than neighboring counties like Freeborn and Steele.

Those statistics are about two years old, and the new jail and justice center will change those numbers. Hillier estimated the county’s rank will shift to the low 70s.

Budget concerns of the past years are expected to continue into the coming year, and Hillier said the county is expecting the receive less funding aid from the state of Minnesota.

“Based on the state deficit, it’s worse,” Hillier said. “They have to balance their budget and some of the balancing is done on the backs of local government.”

The board will begin negotiations later this year on one of the biggest budget items: Employee contracts. Early this year, the board agreed to a one year contract with the five county unions.

“Those salaries and wages are a big part of our budget. I don’t know that we can expect to make such reductions in their wages that they try to balance their whole budget on the backs of our 240 employees,” Hillier said.

Another key campaign issue is the future of health and human services. The county board will soon decide to keep the offices at Oak Park Mall, move the offices to the government center or build new on the Robbins Block. Hillier said he expects the health and human services to remain at the mall for the remaining years of the lease as future options are investigated.

“I think that decision is a ways out yet,” Hillier said. “I don’t think it will be made by November.”

Hillier has not yet decided which of the three options he favors. He said he’s waiting for all the facts to come in before he makes a decision.

“We always gather a multitude of information before we make decisions,” Hillier said.

Hillier said that decision likely won’t made until after the next term begins.

Early in the campaign, the jail and justice center was an issue commonly surfacing on the campaign trail, but not with Hillier.

“I think it’s a past issue,” he said.

However, he said he expects some people will question how the decision was made.

Jerry Reinartz

Jerry Reinartz, who’s lived in the area his entire life and operates his own real estate appraiser’s office, is challenging Hillier because he thinks many people are ready for new blood.

“I thought that was a good idea to give the voters a choice,” he said. “Whether they’re satisfied with Mr. Hillier, who’s been in office now for four terms or if they’re ready for a new voice.”

Reinartz has been traveling to the towns throughout District 3 to meet with the voters. If elected, Reinartz said one of his key goals would be to keep the tax levy as is with no increases.

With many senior citizens on a fixed income and many people struggling, Reinartz said the public can’t shoulder large tax increases.

In a business, Reinartz said cuts are necessary during a tough time. Increasing taxes or fees is not an option.

“At a time like this, raising taxes should be their last option,” he said.

Instead of increasing the levy, Reinartz said he’d push to have increases covered by tax dollars from the wind farms and the county’s reserve funds.

Another way Reinartz said he’d like to use the wind farm money is to pay off the jail and justice center project.

While it’s not going to be a key issue in the campaign, Reinartz said the county is going to need to pay off the project as quickly as possible.

“It’s in the past because it’s here and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s up to the public how much of an issue it’s going to be for them,” he said. “But, it’s here and we’re going to have to pay for it.”

Reinartz said he did not support how the board handled the decision making process with the project, and wishes it would have been decided by a public vote.

Because of the state of the economy, Reinartz said the only option for the future of health and human services is to remain at Oak Park Mall. The cost of remodeling the government center or building new shouldn’t even be an option, especially because the state could one day choose to regionalize health and human services.

“As far as I’m concerned, the only option is to stay where they’re at,” he said.

The county board has recently discussed hiring a consultant to estimate the costs of the three future options for health and human services. However, Reinartz said he would not use consultants to save on all the fees.

In order to ease some of the financial restraints, Reinartz said the city and county need to explore more options for cooperation and splitting services.

Loren Bellrichard

Like Reinartz, Bellrichard said the county needs a new voice and new perspective in District 3. Decisions concerning the jail also played a key role, as Bellrichard said the county should have looked into more affordable alternatives.

Bellrichard also mirrored Reinartz’s view that the decision to build or not build the jail should have been decided by a referendum.

To Bellrichard, the choices for the future of human services are to stay at Oak Park mall or renovate the government center, because a new building isn’t a good solution.

One of the key reasons Bellrichard is running in District 3 is because of his displeasure as the Cedar River being named one of the fifth most endangered rivers in the country.

While the Cedar River Watershed District has been formed to address issues pertaining to the river, Bellrichard said something should have been done much earlier by the county board.

Bellrichard previously said he runs for office as a way to spur people on and get involved in the democratic process.

As for the budget, Bellrichard said a new governor may be less likely to cut aid to county and city governments.

If elected, Bellrichard said he would have to learn about all the duties of a county commissioner, but he said he’s up to the task.

“I’m willing to dig and learn what I need to learn to do the job in a good way the next four years,” he said.

Bellrichard isn’t spending a lot money campaigning, but he said he may do more if he advances to the general election.

Art Nelson

Art Nelson, a lifelong Austin resident who owns Art’s Parts, ran in write-in campaign opposing Hillier in 2006 because Hillier was the only registered candidate that year. This year, he decided to run because of his displeasure with the jail and justice center project.

“We needed a jail, and they ended up building a whole justice center,” he said. “They could have built a jail probably a tenth of what they spent on this justice center.”

Like Reinartz and Bellrichard, Nelson said the citizens should have been able to vote on the jail project.

While he’s not in favor of another large building project, Nelson said the county shouldn’t be spending money on rent at the mall.

“They need to get it out of there and stop paying rent,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he’s unhappy with the level of the county’s spending, and he’d curb the spending if he were elected.

“If it’s something that we don’t need right now and can wait until the economy picks up, it should be put on hold,” he said. “We don’t need to be building new buildings right now.”

At a business like Art’s Parts, Nelson said he has to work through down swings since he can’t raise prices.

“I guess when your in business yourself, you count pennies,” he said. “I can’t raise fees to match expenditures like the county seems to be doing.”

Nelson has done little campaigning, as he said he’s busy trying to make a living in the tough economy.