Becker County Board District 3 candidates John Okeson and Gerry Schram participated in a candidate forum Thursday at M State, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In his opening statement, Okeson pointed to deep roots in Becker County. He has a lot of family in the Holmesville-Richwood area, where he was raised on a dairy farm. He has two children and five grandchildren, and worked for 42 years with the county highway department, mostly in supervision and administration positions. He served for 19 years on the Lakeview Township Board, much of that time as chairman.
"I have pretty good leadership skills and budgetary skills that I learned through the years," he said. "I strongly want to treat everybody fairly and I have a real physical accountability when it comes to budgetary items."
Schram pointed to his marriage of more than 30 years and long career in auto sales at Norseman Motors, where he ran the truck department and was in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory. Maintaining county roads is important, he said.
"I know what budgeting means," he said. "I'm a very frugal person, though that can't block progress."
Playing well with others
Asked how Becker County could best work with other government units to save money, Okeson said the county is talking to Detroit Lakes officials on several issues -- including sharing a new public works building and perhaps including other departments, like recreation.
"It would save both of us a lot of money," he said.
The county and city may also want to look at combining economic development and housing services.
"We may have the private sector come in and manage our housing department," he said. "That's something we'll be looking at strongly in the next two to five years."
Schram noted that "there is already a precedent for working together -- Washington Avenue is actually a county road. When we work on Washington Avenue we always work with the city on projects like that."
Schram believes it's "very important we maintain talks with other governments, be it other counties or the city of Detroit Lakes."
It's increasingly important as time goes by, he said.
"If we can lower our costs, we'll have a lot more left over to do things we need to do. It's time to move forward (on the public works project)," he said.
How to spur growth?
Asked how the county can encourage new business growth, Schram said "one thing we can do and have been doing, there's a manufacturing firm that would like to come to Becker County," but needs higher vehicle weight limits than now allowed under state law. Those limits are higher in surrounding states.
"The company is very discouraged because of the product they want to haul out," Schram added. "This would create quite a few jobs ... We are working with the state Legislature on this issue."
Okeson said as a member of the county EDA committee, he has been very involved in that very issue.
"We are working with this manufacturing company, they are talking about bringing in 100 to 500 employees," Okeson said.
Under the change in state law that Okeson would like to see, axle weights would not increase, only gross vehicle weights, so roads would not be damaged --something that has proven true in surrounding states, he said. (The North Dakota oil patch is another issue, he said). A truck pulling a trailer on a state highway would not do any more road damage than two semis following each other, he said.
"The last several weeks we've been emailing the AMC (Association of Minnesota Counties) about legislative changes and road weighs," he said.
How to pay for Voter ID?
The next question was about the Voter ID amendment, and how the county should pay for the cost -- estimated at up to $500,000 in Becker County -- if it passes.
"It's really very simple," Schram said. "We'll have to pass a levy increase in order to pay for this, or else cut some of the very important services we have."
He questioned how much thought went into the idea before placing it on the ballot.
"I don't know if the Voter ID question is very well thought out and explained -- it's going to really be very costly in some of these more populous counties."
Okeson said: "If it does pass, we're not sure how much it will cost." Townships will feel some of the pain, especially small townships that now use mail-in ballots.
"Voter fraud in our area is almost nothing," Okeson said. "If we have to come up with that much ($500,000) locally, it's going to affect all of us." That cost alone could require a 3 percent hike in the county property tax levy, and it will cost millions of dollars statewide, he said.
And with the new, provisional ballot system, it may take several weeks after an election before the results are known.
In his closing statement, Schram said "we've talked about jobs, we've talked about the economy and what we can do (to improve it). Becker County is reclaiming one of its old economic bases, and that's tourism -- I've begun to see more and more out-of-state cars. That's good -- we need every dollar we can get."
Schram said he will continue to do his commissioner job "honestly and with transparency," if elected.
In his closing statement, Okeson pointed to his 42 years with the Becker County Highway Department.
"I was very, very dependable," he said. "It was a 24-7 job -- whenever the phone rang, I'd be out and about. I'm there to serve the people of District 3."
He said that not just tourism, but the agricultural industry has always been a mainstay of Becker County, "and it always will," he said.