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County board candidates talk budget, zoning (10/17/2010)
By Sarah Squires
There will be at least one new face on the Winona County Board next year, after current District 2 member Dwayne Voegeli will step down and voters will choose between candidates Wayne Valentine and Jerry Moen. District 5 incumbent Marcia Ward has been challenged by newcomer Alan Nagel, and the four candidates fielded questions Thursday during a League of Women Voters forum.

One of the big issues on the table right now in Winona County is the proposed new zoning ordinance, which has faced public scrutiny in recent months and the threat of a lawsuit if passed by the board. Candidates were asked about their views on the potential new rules, whether they would vote to support them and, whether they would attempt to vote the ordinance down if it were passed before they took office.

Valentine said that originally he was most concerned about nonconformity issues associated with existing homes and structures, but was encouraged that the County Board had created a new zoning district to protect them. He said he was encouraged by the willingness of the board to strike compromises in recent months, but said that the majority of residents opposed the new rules and that he would vote against the ordinance, or attempt to repeal it if it were adopted before new board members are seated.

Moen said that the people he’d talked to in District 2 wanted the ordinance to be adopted. He said those constituents realize that it would be a “fluid” document, and flaws could be fixed over time. He said he was disappointed that the board didn’t vote on the ordinance at the October 5 meeting, and that the feedback he’d heard was that people wanted county government to move forward with the issue.

Nagel said portions of the ordinance were confusing and overly restrictive. The current ordinance isn’t being enforced correctly or evenly, and he said he’d vote against the ordinance or vote to repeal it if elected.

Ward said she was sticking by a motion she attempted to make several months ago, one that wasn’t supported by the rest of the County Board. She wanted the proposed ordinance to be set aside, and the issues that it was supposed to address — the problems with so many variance requests, feedlot setbacks and density standards, could be worked on within the current ordinance. Instead of pushing forward with the controversial new ordinance, Ward said she favored working on the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which creates the values and framework for a zoning ordinance and is due for an update, itself.

When asked what they would do to stop the trend of increasing property taxes, Moen said he didn’t mind paying property taxes for local schools and other causes, adding that he hadn’t gotten input from constituents yet on the matter. But he said he wanted to see more of the tax revenue generated here stay here, rather than go to the capital to be disbursed there.

Valentine said he agreed with Rep. Gene Pelowski, who also debated his opponent Rhett Zenke Thursday night. The state legislature needs to work on allowing flexibility for local units of government in the way they may collect property taxes, they said.

Nagel said that county taxes have risen over the years, and that part of the problem was higher valuations of properties creating higher taxes. He said there needs to be a better method of valuing and assessing properties to avoid huge increases.

Ward said that property taxes were some of the most regressive, and that cookie cutter fixes from the state like the Green Acres changes didn’t work for Winona County. There needed to be more local control for property tax policies, she said.

Candidates were also asked about their priorities, both in general and within the budget.

For his budget priority, Moen said he would work to tighten the county’s belt across the board, adding that there was room for savings within the budget. In general, Moen said that in coming from the private sector, his emphasis would be on job creation and economic development. He said he’d like to see “turf wars” between local agencies be set aside, and collaboration between economic development engines like the Chamber of Commerce, the Port Authority and the city of Winona. People are tired, he said, of watching jobs disappear, adding it’s time to create a bigger tax base and generate more local commerce.

Valentine said that he was encouraged to see the county’s budget cut by several million for the coming year, adding that attrition will save about $750,000. He said he would work, as a budget priority, to encourage those cost saving measures, adding that employees and department heads have a good base of knowledge as to where further cuts can be made. As a general priority, Valentine said that listening to all concerns, not just those in District 2, would be a goal. As a local reporter over more than 46 years, he said that oftentimes elected officials simply work to protect their own district and forget they work for everyone in the county.

Nagel said that as a budget priority, he would look at ways to reduce duplication of services, and felt there were ways the county could save or even make money on its recycling program. He said, if elected, he’d ask the County Board be presented with more detailed, line item budgets so he could see more clearly where the money was being spent. In general, Nagel said his priorities included listening to the taxpayers, respecting the board’s oath, and working on personnel issues and departments he felt were broken.

Ward said she was in favor of looking to see if the private sector could provide some of the county’s services more efficiently, and that the county should focus on getting the best results for the money it spends. Looking into ways the county can enhance revenue and partner with other counties and government units was also a priority. In general, Ward said that budget issues, including going through each and every county program to find cost savings and the potential for privatization would also be her priorities. 

 

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