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Water quality, economy dominate county forum

County commissioner candidates Karen Mulari, Barry Nelson and Gerry Schram participate in a forum Tuesday evening.

The Lakes Area League of Women Voters gave local residents an opportunity Tuesday night to ask questions of the candidates for the Becker County Board of Commissioners and Becker Soil & Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors -- and they came up with some good ones.

Most of the questions were centered around water quality, the environment, land development, and what is probably the No. 1 topic on most U.S. citizens' minds leading up to the Nov. 4 election -- the economy.

County board candidates present for the forum included incumbent Becker County commissioners Karen Mulari and Barry Nelson, as well as Mulari's challenger for the District 3 seat, Gerry Schram.

Nelson is running unopposed for re-election in Commissioner District 5, as is Knutson in District 1. (Knutson had a prior county-related engagement and was unable to attend the forum, though he was invited.)

SWCD board candidates who attended the forum included incumbent District 5 Supervisor Dale Lubitz and his challenger, Tony Beck, as well as both candidates for the District 2 supervisor's position, Carolyn Engebretson and Joe Stenger. (Incumbent District 2 Supervisor Roger Tychsen is not seeking re-election, while District 3 Supervisor Duane Grossman, who is unopposed in seeking re-election, was unable to attend.)

Most of the questions were formatted so that the candidates for both boards could answer them -- though, as audience member Ted Fiskevold pointed out, the jobs of county commissioner and SWCD supervisor are actually quite a bit different.

That fact was readily apparent in the candidates' answers when they were asked what three issues they would consider to be top priorities if they were elected.

The SWCD candidates were focused primarily on water quality and lakeshore development issues, while the top priority on the county board candidates' minds was the county budget and the economy.

Nelson said the biggest challenge facing the county board over the next couple of years would be working with the State Legislature to overcome a projected $2.6 billion state budget shortfall over the next biennium -- which would undoubtedly result in less state aid.

Putting added pressure on the county's budget will be the current state-imposed limits on the county's property tax levy, which will continue to be capped at the same level for the next two years (three years total).

"Our biggest issue is finance ... everything else will take a back seat to that," he added.

Schram also noted that the budget was a concern -- but so was water quality and the environment.

"We've not been very good stewards of the land (in Becker County)," he said. "Our water quality -- we need to at least keep it as good as it is now. Our environment is important to younger generations; we need to rectify a lot of bad decisions made in the past -- and how do we do that within (current and future) budget constraints?"

"We need to hold the line on property taxes, and continue to look for efficiencies in county government operations," Mulari stated.

Her other two priorities would be prevention -- "so many children, if we can help them with a hand up now, it will save them from being on our (welfare) rolls later" -- and the environment.

"We need to take care of the resources we have -- and our lakes are one of our best resources. The reason why a lot of people move here is our lakes."

Lubitz, Beck, Engebretson and Stenger answered the same question quite differently.

All four candidates felt protecting the county's water and land resources from pollution and over-development was a top priority.

"On our soil board, they have 10 objectives on their agenda, and the top one is maintaining and improving the integrity of our soil and water," Beck said. "That's our main issue."

Lubitz's priorities were similar.

"We need to deal with our pollution issues, both rural and urban," he said, pointing to fertilizers, animal waste, road salt (for keeping ice off the roads in winter) as well as engine oils from cars and other machinery as some of the biggest culprits.

Engebretson, meanwhile, said she had three priorities: preserving water quality, protecting our critical land, and sustainability.

"If we don't take care of our land and waters, we can't expect them to take care of us," she said.

Stenger's priorities were maintaining surface water quality -- "and enforcing the regulations to protect it" -- stormwater management and groundwater protection.

The candidate forum, which was co-sponsored by the Lakes Area LWV, the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota State Community & Technical College-Detroit Lakes (MSCTC-DL) Student Senate, took place in the conference center at MSCTC-DL.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454