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Profile: Okeson and Schram square off to represent new district

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Two sitting county commissioners will face off in the Nov. 6 general election -- a showdown that came about because redistricting put them both in the same new district.

The new District 3 encompasses the townships of Lakeview, Burlington, Erie and Holmesville.

Gerry Schram has been on the board for four years and John Okeson has been a commissioner for two years.

Schram, 66, is retired from car sales at Norseman Motors, where he worked for over 34 years.

Okeson, 64, worked at the Becker County Highway Department for more than 40 years, retiring as maintenance supervisor. He now has his own consultant business.

The two were asked to name the county board's biggest accomplishment while they were in office.

"I'm very pleased we were able to purchase the minimum security jail," Schram said. "I was on the purchasing committee."

The minimum-security jail houses people convicted of lesser offenses like DWI, and state prisoners, which earns revenue for Becker County, he said.

It costs less to man that than it does the (maximum security) Lake Avenue jail," Schram said. "That was just an absolute win, win, win."

Okeson pointed to the board's efforts to keep tax hikes down.

"Supporting and promoting a needs-based budget," he said. "Last year we held the levy to a zero percent increase."

The county budget is vulnerable to cuts in state aid, he said. "A lot depends on what the state does to us -- eventually we may have to look strongly at what services we could possibly do without, which we don't want to do, but it may come to that."

The Human Services budget probably has the most flexibility as far as cutting programs, he said.

"It's not county money, it's taxpayer money, and we have to spend it as wisely as we can," Okeson said.

The two were asked what their priorities would be if they were re-elected.

Schram said his first priority is the fight against aquatic invasive species. He and other commissioners have been visiting with commissioners from other counties about AIS, "to see what they've done and to see what works," he said.

The Association of Minnesota Counties will include a session on aquatic invasives at its state convention -- with DNR participation, Schram said.

"With numbers, we'll have some strength to combat that growing problem," he said.

Okeson said he and Commissioner Barry Nelson had to fight to get $50,000 in AIS money into next year's budget.

"Otherwise (the county board) would have kicked the can down the road again," he said.

Okeson said county spending is his top priority.

"The needs and the spending," he said. "It's the taxpayers' money and we have to be good stewards of that -- again, trying to find anything we can cut back on and save some dollars."

Schram also makes budgeting a priority.

"Last year we were able to hold the tax levy (increase) at zero," he said "This year it's tentatively at 3.1 percent -- so I feel we as a county board have been trying to spend taxpayer money wisely."

Another Okeson priority will be to address the county's building needs. In the next 5 to 8 years, the county will need to "look seriously at that," he said. It could mean cooperating with Detroit Lakes on a city-county public works facility, since the existing ones both need upgrades.

A new transfer station will need to be built, and the funds will have to be found somewhere, since the hoped-for state bonding money did not materialize.

Building upgrades were also on Schram's to-do list:

"It goes without saying that we need to re-do our transfer station and replace our highway department building, which is an aging, former MnDOT building," Schram said.

"We've been able to work with Otter Tail, Clay, Wilkin, Wadena and Todd counties on different projects -- I don't know why we couldn't work with the city (on a new public works building)."

Roads are a priority for Okeson.

"We need to be more proactive on our roads," he said. "We need to preserve what we have -- we can't let them deteriorate to the point we have to rebuild -- that's way too costly."

The budget has not increased for sealcoating, even though costs of fuel and bituminous material have gone up. That means the county is accomplishing less than it used to for the same dollar.

"We used to do 60-80 miles (of highway) per year -- now we do 30 to 40 miles," he said.

Both men pointed out that last year, the county budgeted conservatively in case of state aid cuts. When the money came through after all, it was used to resurface the west end of County Road 26 (which was slated for a more-expensive re-build in a few years) and to do extra sealcoating on the eastern end of the county.

That same budget strategy is being employed this year -- with the money to go towards roads if the state comes through with it.

Okeson, who sits on the County Housing and Economic Development Board, would also like to see a stronger role for economic development.

EDA Coordinator Guy Fischer, for example, is spearheading the EDA Board's effort to change state law to more closely match neighboring states on gross vehicle weight.

Minnesota has an 80,000 pound limit, while Wisconsin and Iowa both have limits in the mid to upper 90,000 pound range. And the Dakotas have limits of 105,000 to 110,000 pounds gross weight.

The change would not affect limits on gross axle weight, but would essentially allow greater use of heavy trailers. That means the change won't damage highways, Okeson said.

The change would allow a manufacturer of say, landscaping blocks, to locate in Becker County, taking advantage of the county's sand and gravel deposits.

Without the change, that manufacturer might still use Becker County sand and gravel, but after it has been moved by rail to North Dakota, where the plant would be built to take advantage of that state's greater truck hauling ability.

As long as axle weight restrictions remain, a semi pulling a trailer won't cause any more damage than two semis following each other -- and the change will save fuel, Okeson said.

Schram and his wife, Janis, have been married for 37 years. They have two grown sons. Schram is a member of both the Northwoods and Ultra snowmobile clubs, the Midnight Cruisers auto club, and the Holy Rosary Church in Detroit Lakes.

"I'm kind of the go-to guy," that other commissioners turn to if someone is needed to represent the board, Schram said, because he has time to attend and time to research the issues.

Okeson is single with a grown daughter and grown son. He is a member of the Eagles, the Patriot Guard motorcycle group and Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes.

"I want to treat everyone fairly," Okeson said. "I listen to their concerns and listen to common sense and my past experiences in forming my decisions."