Brainerd council candidates talk taxes, businesses, police during forum
Two at-large council seats are contested this year, along with the seat for Ward 3 in northeast Brainerd.
MERRIFIELD — Questions on taxes, revitalization, the police department and city projects faced Brainerd City Council candidates during a forum Wednesday, Oct. 7, at The Woods Event Center.
Six candidates participated, along with Mayor Dave Badeaux, who is running uncontested but provided opening statements. Jan Lambert, Mike O’Day, Cheryl Petersen and Kevin Stunek are vying for two at-large seats, which Lambert and Stunek currently occupy. Tiffany Stenglein is challenging incumbent Wayne Erickson for Ward 3, which covers northeast Brainerd.
During opening statements, Lambert said it has been an honor to serve the city the past four years and she hopes to continue the forward movement Brainerd has had recently with another term on the council. She wants to make Brainerd the best it can be.
O’Day is a member of the city’s Economic Development Authority and Charter Commission who grew up in Brainerd and wants to contribute to the city he loves. He said he wants to combat Brainerd’s high poverty rate and low median income by attracting more businesses with quality jobs. That starts with keeping taxes low and improving the city’s image, he said.
Petersen has lived most of her life in Brainerd. She said she’s had hardships and good times, so she understands both sides. Brainerd has problems, she said, whether residents admit it or not. Petersen’s hope is to see Brainerd transformed to what it was back when she grew up, when community was the focus and downtown was fun. She would like to see more nonprofits in town and said she has a plan for more citizen involvement.
Stunek is a retired Brainerd fire chief with a professional mental health background and has lived in the city for more than 60 years. He’s running for council because he likes Brainerd and plans to spend the rest of his life here. He pointed to the Mississippi riverfront project and the Northern Pacific Center as successes he’d like to see continue. If he were elected to a second term, Stunek said he would step down at the end of it to allow for new people to step up.
Erickson has lived in Brainerd for more than 35 years and raised six kids. He’s a former businessman and feels positively about the city’s council and employees. He’s excited to continue representing Ward 3 and said he is a big supporter of the military and police department.
Stenglein has been a northeast Brainerd homeowner for over 10 years and is the third generation of her family to live in the area. Her decision to run harkens back to a discussion she had with her dad as a child, when he told her it’s not enough to think you can do better, you have to prove it. She encouraged the community to come together with her and help build a better Brainerd.
Taxes and services
The first question posed to candidates was how they would work to balance quality city services while managing taxes and fees.
As government services are important, O’Day, Petersen, Stunek and Lambert all said they would never take funding away from the police or fire departments.
O’Day said he wants to keep taxes as low as possible, which means the city needs to budget for expenses years ahead of time and keep costs as close to that budget as possible.
Petersen also said she wanted to keep taxes low for as long as possible, but if they need to increase for essential emergency services, that’s something she would look at.
Stunek said he doesn’t want to raise taxes either, but if they stay flat then the city’s services will take a hit. The council has to be proactive, he said, and listen to all voices to make the process work.
Lambert, who noted she would also step down after a second term like Stunek, said the key to managing taxes is bringing more manufacturing and industrial jobs to the city to help lessen the tax burden on residents. The city has a declining commercial tax base, she said, and that’s something the council needs to continue working on.
While working at a tax preparation firm for more than 10 years, Stenglein said she gained experience managing budgets for small businesses. One thing to consider, she said, is the cost of not providing the services taxes fund. If a resident’s street isn’t plowed and they can’t get to work, for example, that resident is paying taxes for a road they can’t even use.
Erickson said taxes are necessary because roads, sidewalks and facilities are necessary. He said he has experience living on a budget with a large family and wants to see taxes and budgets handled fairly. He feels the council is doing a good job but could always improve.
Note: Due to technical difficulties, the first 3 minutes and 10 seconds of the video do not have sound.
Next, candidates discussed how the city should support the revitalization of downtown and other commercial districts.
Erickson said the city needs to encourage more businesses to come to Brainerd to share the tax burden. The council needs to be proactive in this endeavor, he said, attracting businesses downtown to create a space people enjoy coming to.
Stenglein said the first step is asking the people downtown what they need, as they know better than the council. She praised downtown events like farmers markets and Rib Fest but said she would like to hear what else the council can do to support revitalization there.
Petersen said northeast Brainerd needs to be revitalized, as there isn’t much left of the mall, which used to be a huge draw. And while there are a lot of wonderful businesses downtown, she said there needs to be more that better cater to the income of the community. There also needs to be a grocery store and other amenities downtown for those who rely on walking, she said.
Stunek praised the Destination Downtown initiative, which awarded prize packages to new downtown businesses. He said the city should look at additional similar programs and noted the coming coronavirus relief funds should help. The council’s No. 1 priority, he said, is to listen to the community and speak for those who elected them.
Lambert said the city has and will continue to support downtown revitalization, but there are businesses elsewhere in the city that need attention, too. The council needs to look at all its business districts — especially on Washington Street— that could also benefit from some of the incentives only given to the downtown businesses in recent years.
As someone who works downtown, O’Day said it’s the heart of the city. The council needs to continue supporting businesses there and keep trying to fill empty storefronts. But bigger businesses outside the downtown area ultimately need to fuel the city. That’s the only answer, he said.
When asked about the top issue facing the Brainerd Police Department right now, all candidates mentioned the staffing shortage, as the department is budgeted to have 27 officers but only has 21 right now.
Stenglein said her father worked in law enforcement, so she understands the wonderful work they do to protect and help citizens in tough times. It’s also exhausting and tiring work, she said, so asking them to put in overtime and hold off on vacations because there aren’t enough officers is not fair to them or the community.
Erickson pointed to another challenge as well — replacing Chief Corky McQuiston upon his upcoming retirement. The council will be very involved in that process and must make wise decisions.
Stunek reminded voters increasing police staff will not raise taxes, as the city has already budgeted for 27 officers. The council needs to work diligently with the city’s police and fire civil services commission to fill those openings, he said.
To address the shortage, Lambert said the city should look at internship opportunities with Central Lakes College so potential candidates can get a feel for the department and the field before committing to a job, which may help with turnover.
As police officers have one of the most dangerous jobs out there, O’Day said the city needs to look at police salaries and take the risk factor into account. The city is better off short one or two officers than six, he said, adding he has nothing but respect for police.
Petersen said she liked Lambert’s idea of working with CLC and added in the idea of substantial hiring bonus available after two years or so to retain officers. She also said the council can involve nonprofits and other organizations to help deal with drug issues, which bog down police.
Water tower and splash pad
In a rapid fire format, candidates had 30 seconds to state their views on ongoing projects like saving the water tower and putting a splash pad in Memorial Park. All candidates supported the projects but added concerns and other observations.
Stenglein said the city needs to make sure it can continue maintaining the water tower, while Lambert said it should be marketed as more of a historic structure rather than a water tower, as it is not in use anymore. Erickson also noted the historical value, while Stunek and O’Day praised the committee working on it. Petersen said she supports saving the tower “199%.”
Though supporting a splash pad, Stunek and O’Day said it’s not their highest priority at the moment, and Erickson said the city needs to be financially responsible. Lambert would rather see it in Gregory Park in the center of town, while Petersen wants to see it as its own entity outside the park system. Stenglein said she supports any amenities that draw people to parks, as more people will likely cut down on crime and vandalism. Parks staff and police have dealt with several acts of vandalism in Gregory Park over the last few months.
In closing, the candidates made final appeals to voters.
O’Day: “I have a lot of passion for this town. I care about it deeply, almost nerd-like. … The big thing for me is bringing in business. So if you’re someone who thinks the council needs someone who is going to focus more of their time and effort on economic progress, I’d like to think that I’m that person.”
Petersen: “I started this venture for one reason, and that had to do with my dog rescue. I’m continuing on for many, many, many reasons. I’m more interested in the issues than I guess I thought I was. And I think all of us always have ideas of what we would do if we could. I do, so that’s why I’m running.”
Stunek: “I’m a good listener. I like to listen to people. If you have issues, you know you can call me. I’m trustworthy. I’m honest. I’m reliable. I would encourage everyone to get out and vote on Nov. 3. … The last couple words I would like to say are: Brainerd is open. Lakes proud.”
Lambert: “I feel that I can serve another four years and serve it proudly and be very beneficial for our city. … I just feel that I have a lot left to offer, and there’s things that we’ve started that I would like to see through.”
Stenglein: “I really look forward to working together to build a better Brainerd, to bring us forward and build our community stronger coming out of this pandemic than we have been before. … I’m going to ask everyone watching this at home, streaming this, share this video with a friend. Help us get more people involved. Help us build our community and bring people together.”
Erickson: “I want to put people first, not projects. … I’m someone who has raised a big family, and family is important. And families are important to the Brainerd area. … I’m someone who will listen. I’ll take the time; I’m available. You’re not going to get put on hold, or you’re not going to go to my voicemail. I’m someone who's going to pick up the phone.”
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .