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Craig Hall, Erica Jepson turn up the heat at Becker County Board candidate forum

The two will be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, longtime incumbent Commissioner Larry Knutson didn’t file for reelection this year. The big district basically covers the eastern half of Becker County.

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Erica Jepson, candidate for Becker County Commissioner in District 1, answers a question during a League of Women Voters candidate forum held in the community room at the Detroit Lakes Police Station on Sept. 26, 2022.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — Craig Hall and Erica Jepson, candidates for the District 1 seat on the Becker County Board, brought different philosophies of government to a candidate’s forum Monday, Sept. 26, in Detroit Lakes.

The two will be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, longtime incumbent Commissioner Larry Knutson didn’t file for reelection this year. The big district basically covers the eastern half of Becker County.

When it comes to the issue of county employees leaving to find work elsewhere, Hall, a former business owner, said the key to employee management is “no favoritism, clear cut expectations — everyone treated the same. If not, there’s dissension in the ranks.”

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Craig Hall, candidate for Becker County Commissioner in District 1, answers a question during a League of Women Voters candidate forum held in the community room at the Detroit Lakes Police Station on Sept. 26, 2022.
Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune

But the work ethic has slipped since the pandemic, he added.

“Unfortunately, we started this culture of work-from-home, don’t work (at all), blah, blah, blah, we've seen it, you people know what's going on,” he said. “We need to combat that — we’ve got to find people who really want to live and work here.”

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In terms of staffing levels at the sheriff's office, Jepson, a former county human services employee, said that “prior to the last two deputies being hired, Becker County was dead last in the number of deputies,” per capita in Minnesota counties. “It comes down to employees feeling valued. That doesn’t happen when they have commissioners in negotiations saying that’s all they (workers) are going to get, and if they don’t like it they can starve.”

There’s a lot of speculation as to why county employees are leaving, she added. “We need to talk to employees who left,” she said. “In spite of what the administrator says, they are not doing exit interviews. We need to know why people are leaving, so we can have the best pool of employees possible.”

In answer to another question, Hall said his priorities would be law enforcement and highways, and “money would be shifted into both of those,” from the human services department, by uncovering and ending waste and fraud there.

Jepson agreed that law enforcement should be a funding priority. “Absolutely our sheriff’s office,” she said. “We have one of the busiest sheriff departments with the smallest staff — we need to support our deputies. It’s difficult for deputies to take a vacation now, they're so understaffed.”

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Answering a separate question, Jepson said waste and fraud in human services are not as rampant as Hall seems to believe. “We have around 30 people — that’s three-zero people — in Becker County now receiving cash assistance who could be working. So there’s not a lot of living off the government in Becker County,” she said. A lot of support from human services goes to working families who need help with food or medical assistance, she said, adding that “Becker County has a fraud investigator,” keeping an eye on human services cases.

“That’s why it’s important to have someone on the board who understands human services,” she said later in the forum. “There are ways to find savings,” short of cutting out working people who need the help.

In answer to another question, Hall said Becker County “made a mistake” in putting a temporary moratorium on new animal feedlot applications. He said he lives near several large animal farming operations and they don’t cause any problems.

“We all like to eat,” he said. “Unfortunately some say ‘not in my backyard.’ I voted on the planning commission to move forward with it.” Otherwise, he added, “you’re really going to restrict the ability of our farmers to grow and thrive.”

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Jepson said she also supports agriculture. “I’m a farmer, and farming is our future,” she said, adding “we need to look at our zoning ordinances to some extent.”

As a believer in limited government, Hall said he would not support county initiatives on affordable housing or childcare, which has been losing local providers.

“I’m very much a private sector person,” Hall said. “Business should not have to compete with government — that’s wrong in every aspect,” he said. “Government does not generate funds, just takes your money.”

Reduced regulations on childcare providers would bring more people into the business, he said, and lower interest rates would bring down prices and make homes more affordable.

He believes the County Economic Development Authority should do “as little as possible,” on affordable housing. “This is something the government should not be involved in,” he said. “It gets more expensive and we screw it up.”

As far as child care, he said “I'm not a fan of government providing daycare, it should be left to private industry.”

“I agree the county shouldn’t open day cares, but we do license them,” Jepson responded. “We need to talk to (day care) providers who left the field,” she said. “As a result of COVID we lost a lot — some due to state regulations, some because it’s a tough job.”

As a commissioner, she would call for state-level changes in how child care operations are regulated to make it easier to get into the business. “I really value our current child care grant,” which provides up to $10,000 through the Becker County EDA toward the cost of opening a day care. “Without child care, it’s difficult for parents to go to work,” Jepson said.

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Asked what separates him from his opponent, Hall noted that he was born and raised in Becker County, and that he “ran a very successful engineering-related business,” Manufacturing Solutions, which built up to about 50 employees over 10 years in nine states, and did national and international business. “I understand how to relate to customers and employees,” Hall said. “We had a diverse customer base." To succeed, he said, “You need knowledge, experience and the ability to deliver.”

Jepson said she’s the sixth generation of her family farming in Evergreen Township, worked for over eight years in Becker County Human Services and is now a Minnesota Department of Human Services child welfare specialist.

“There's currently no one on the board with human services experience,” she said. “We need someone who understands the department and will make fiscally prudent decisions.” She added that she “was asked to run by employees because of the concerns they have with the employee crisis we have going on.”

As a union steward and government employee, Jepson said, “I know how the government works. As a social worker, I know how to make sure the needs of the community are met. I’m prepared to be a Becker County commissioner.”

Hall noted that he has served on the Height of Land Town Board for 20 years, and has served on his local snowmobile club, sportsman's club and church.

“This might be the next entity to take on as a way to serve the community,” he said.

The candidate forum was sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters and held Monday in Detroit Lakes.

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