Candidates for two Winona County Board seats debated last week, offering ideas about the direction in which Winona County should take on issues ranging from frac sand mining to budget reductions and child protection concerns.
Current Board Chair Mena Kaehler and her challenger, Steve Jacob, along with current board member Greg Olson and challenger Walt Kelly, agreed on some issues: keeping local taxes low while facing state funding cuts will be a priority; new frac sand mine proposals must be evaluated individually and with care; and the upcoming county Comprehensive Land Use Plan rewrite will be one of the biggest challenges in the coming year.
Candidates also unleashed some criticism against their opponents during the debate, which was hosted by the Winona chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Kaehler, Kelly, and Olson said their biggest challenge in the coming year will be balancing the county budget in light of funding cuts from the state. Jacob said the biggest issue for him would be addressing the controversial frac sand industry. Kelly added that he would like to help the county continue to consolidate departmental finances. Jacob said he wanted the board to regain the hiring authority for top level county officials, an authority which was given to the county administrator by the current board. Kaehler countered that retaking that authority would amount to “micro-managing” county operations and would increase the budget.
Specifics on budget
The state recently cut about $450,000 from Winona County’s share of program aid. When asked how to balance the budget without reducing services, Olson said he would work to continue the path the county is currently taking—reducing its workforce through retirement and attrition, combining departments, and using cross-training to create efficiencies.
Jacob said that spending needed to be targeted at programs, criticizing the recent $6 million building addition on Third Street. He said the county should not have spent the money for the offices when it could have been spent on operations.
Kaehler also said she’d work to continue efforts to reduce the workforce, combine departments, and cross-train. She said her opponent didn’t understand the benefits of the $6 million office addition, adding that the money had been collected and the project presented a good return on the investment.
Kelly said that revenue could be increased without raising local taxes if the tax base was broadened. He added that businesses will come and grow if the county minimizes government regulations. He said that the state aid system was meant to provide level funding for counties that have lower tax bases than others, and that Winona County should fight hard to ensure it gets its fair share.
The new zoning ordinance instituted in 2011 has been a point of controversy between Kaehler and Jacob throughout the campaign, and the two clashed while responding to several questions about land use rules.
One questioner asked what candidates would do to address concerns about properties labeled as “nonconforming” under the new ordinance, many of which fall within “zoning overlay districts” that add stricter regulations in some areas. Properties that don’t conform to the new rules are called nonconforming, a designation that can require extra steps when a property owner seeks to alter a home or business—such as adding a garage or deck to an existing home.
Jacob said he had an amendment to the ordinance that would remove the nonconforming label from many of the properties, adding that the rest of the 300-page ordinance should be left intact and represented hard work and compromise by many. But, he said, the issue should be addressed of properties that are currently labeled nonconforming because, for instance, they are too close to the top or bottom of a bluff, or stream. Those property owners should have their rights restored, he added.
Kaehler, who during the debate accused Jacob of trying to amend the ordinance for personal gain and to create controversy, said there have been no major issues with the new ordinance since its inception. She then gave the rest of her time for Jacob to elaborate on his proposed amendment.
Jacob replied that the date before which a property is considered a “parcel of record” (essentially, a “grandfather” status) should be changed to March 15, 2011, the date when the ordinance went into effect. He said it would bring those properties into compliance and restore property rights.
Kelly stated that the ordinance was passed in a hurry to ensure it would gain enough votes to be approved, and said it needed a closer look as well as an update. He said the county needed to get the regulation language right, as it ought to have done in the first place, “instead of literally [adopting] a draft ordinance.”
Olson said the ordinance was four years in the making, and that the “nonconformity” issue was addressed within the creation of the “overlays.” He said properties that would have been labeled as nonconforming were placed within the special overlay districts, although he did not elaborate about how a property that falls within such a district could avoid being labeled nonconforming.
One question fielded by candidates was whether they would support frac sand mines if they were operated responsibly and included environmental protections.
Olson said each mine needed to be evaluated individually, with pros and cons weighed, before a decision was made.
Jacob said that as long as it was done responsibly and with regard for the environment, he would support a mine proposal. He said he was not giving a “green light” to destroy the environment with frac sand mines, and that all community concerns about a proposed mine needed to be addressed before approval, including dust, water, noise, and other issues.
Kaehler said she was glad to hear her opponent supports the moratorium installed by the current board in order to study the industry, adding that letters to the editor in local papers said her support of the moratorium “shut down development.” Frac sand mining, she said, is an intensive use, and each new mine application must be looked at individually.
Kelly said frac sand mine regulations tied in nicely with his background, when he was the director of pipeline safety in Minnesota. He said his job at the time was not only to promote the pipeline industry for job creation, but also to ensure that regulations were followed. He said his work helped result in Minnesota's becoming the second state in the nation that was given the right to inspect interstate pipelines, and that it showed his ability to pull people together and get a unified regulatory system in place.
Candidates were asked about what they would do to improve the county’s child protection services, in light of a recent state review that showed several deficiencies within the program, including violations in response times for the most serious abuse complaints.
Kelly said that first, county leaders needed to look at how the program got into “such bad shape.” Did we put too much emphasis on reducing the workforce, he wondered. If so, he said, the county needed to take a serious look at its child protection services.
Olson said the state review came at a time when the Winona area was experiencing a rise in synthetic drug use, and that it caused a great demand for child protective staff members. It’s no excuse, he said, but staff worked diligently to address the deficiencies and “no child was ever in danger.”
Jacob said it was a serious issue, and the problem arose because of a inefficient use of available funds. He cited the $6 million building addition as an expenditure of taxpayer dollars that could have been used for programs like child protection. The county can’t use money inefficiently like that and then allow kids to be in danger, he said.
Kaehler said the state report wasn’t finished yet, and said the synthetic drug problem was what really took a toll on child protective services. “There was no child that was ever in danger,” she said. “We had parents walking away from their children to get high.” The spike in drug use strained the department, she said, but the county stepped up and addressed the issue.