Candidates talk economy, jail

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mower County commissioners and challengers give their opening statements during a debate Friday at the Eagles Club. - Eric Johnson/

At a debate Friday for the five candidates running for county commissioner, the campaign issues came into focus with taxes and the future of Health and Human Services being discussed.

However, the county’s “elephant in the room” was still a part of the discussion at the Eagles Club.

All the candidates for county board seats in the November election gathered at the Eagles Club at noon Friday to debate issues in the upcoming election. All the candidates attended: incumbent David Hillier (District 3), Jerry Reinartz (District 3), incumbent Dick Lang (District 4), Tony Bennett (District 4) and incumbent Mike Ankeny, who is running unopposed in District 5.

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One question asked about the cuts each candidate would make to reduce taxes, citing a 94 percent increase in property taxes in the county since 2004.

While he said property taxes have increased significantly, Hillier challenged the claim of a 94 percent increase. Hillier noted that inflation has greatly increased many common costs. For example, he said fuel prices have gone up 60 percent since 2004 and vehicle oil has increased 55 percent.


“Inflation has hit government, it’s hit families, it’s hit workers,” he said.

While the economy has affected everyone, Reinartz said there’s a difference between families and government. When families and businesses must make cuts, the government can choose to raise taxes.

“I think in times like these, they have to make tough decisions like everyone else and maintain the budget at the current level,” Reinartz said.

Ankeny stressed that the county needs to work closely with area legislators to remove unfunded mandates that often drive county costs.

Likewise, Lang said state mandates have a great effect on the county.

“We work with unfunded mandates and that is a problem,” Lang said.

Bennett spoke of the large increase in staffing caused by the jail and justice center and new jail employees employed there.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and reassess what sort of infrastructure is needed to provide the necessary services,” Bennett said.

Tax Assessor Richard Peterson was also discussed, with one person asking why he hasn’t been replaced due to recent controversy.

According to Hillier, the state of Minnesota creates the laws that govern tax levies and assessments. Hillier noted Peterson was hired to come in and cleanup what was described as a “poor situation.”

Hillier backed Peterson, noting that he “knows his laws as well as anyone in the state.”

Likewise, Lang backed Peterson.

“People get mad at him because he’s a tax man, but he does his job very thoroughly, and he knows the law letter for letter,” he said.

Ankeny also stated that Peterson is a professional who knows the tax laws.

Health and Human Services

Aside from budget concerns, the future of the offices for Health and Human Services could be one of the first key issues the board discusses in 2011. The county board will soon decide to keep the offices at Oak Park Mall or move them downtown to the Mower County Government Center or into a new building on the “Robbins block.”

Ankeny said that he supports moving the offices into the space vacated by the move to the jail and justice center. However, he said the real discussion will be on when to move.

He noted that the mall has recently faced questions about its financial state, with the owners being behind on their property taxes.

Bennett estimated the yearly payment for the remodeled building would be a significant increase to current costs, but he didn’t not rule out the possibility of supporting a move.

“I’m not opposed to a move as long as the costs are similar to a long term lease,” Bennett said.

Lang noted that remodeling the government center is much cheaper than a new building.

“If we can use a building, then let’s use it. It’s already built,” he said.

Hillier noted that the cost of ownership is ultimately less than leasing in the long run. In past discussions with the City Council, Hillier said the county board said it’d try to move the Health and Human Services offices back downtown. Remodeling, he said, seems to be the most cost-effective way to do that.

Reinartz said the only current option is to stay at the mall for the duration of the lease to analyze the possibility that the state regionalizes health and human services.

“I’m totally against building, especially since they have the square footage available in the existing courthouse” Reinartz said.

Jail and justice center

Though the Mower County Jail and Justice Center is built, the discussions still touched on the “elephant in the room.” One person asked the incumbents why the public wasn’t allowed to vote on the jail and justice center project.

Hillier noted that the county followed state laws when making the decisions. He noted that 44 of 87 counties in Minnesota had major jail remodels or built new jail facilities in the last 25 years.

None of those projects was voted on in a referendum, he noted.

“The state legislature created this avenue. The county commissioners follow it,” he said.

Lang said the need of a new jail came before the county commissioners, and it was their job to ensure the project was completed.

“I’m proud of the justice center,” he said.