Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede started the Tuesday, Oct. 9, county board meeting by taking aim at Bill Brekken, Thiede's opponent in the Nov. 6 general election.
Thiede briefly relinquished his position as chairman to speak as the other candidate for District 2 during the open forum portion of the meeting and left listeners speechless.
"Madame Chairman, I'm taking this unusual step this morning because I believe this board has been unjustly attacked," Thiede emphatically told Vice Chairwoman Rosemary Franzen while addressing the board.
"And as the chairman of this board, I am not going to let such accusations go unanswered. To try to answer such a letter in a timely fashion is almost impossible once such charges hit the street."
An indignant Thiede referenced a Reader Opinion letter by Brekken published Monday in the Brainerd Dispatch.
"Commissioner Thiede insists that services have been unaffected by the (budget) cuts," wrote Brekken, a 67-year-old RE/MAX associate from Brainerd hoping to unseat Thiede.
"We need a proactive approach to our budgeting processes and a county board that pays attention to staff when they sound the alarms. It is time for a board that can listen, learn, and lead!"
Brekken is a familiar sight at board meetings since announcing his bid in June to succeed the 71-year-old commissioner from Pequot Lakes, but he was absent from Tuesday's meeting.
District 2 includes the cities of Crosslake, Jenkins, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point and Nisswa.
"My opponent in this year's campaign had a letter to the editor in yesterday's newspaper. While it named only me, (it) reflects badly on this board," Thiede said of Brekken without mentioning his name.
The 149-word endorsement letter includes Brekken's statements about the growing use of methamphetamine in the county, the rising number of out-of-home-placements for children related to the drug use and the increase in county employee health care costs-repeatedly asking, "Where was our commissioner?"
Brekken's letter to the editor in total states: "I'm running for Crow Wing County commissioner because I believe that my neighbors deserve more from their county board. The dramatic 6.99 percent levy increase is blamed on rising methamphetamine use and the cost of health care. Meth use has been rising steadily in our community since 2009-where was our commissioner? Out-of-home placement, an issue related to meth use, has been rising since 2011-where was our commissioner? Employee health care costs have increased consistently since 2009-where was our commissioner? Commissioner Thiede insists that services have been unaffected by the cuts. The large caseloads and the 'do more with less' attitude has put stress on departments, and has significantly impacted the entire community. We need a proactive approach to our budgeting processes and a county board that pays attention to staff when they sound the alarms. It's time for a board that can listen, learn, and lead!"
The amount the county spends related to meth is not limited to treatment and its community services department; the number of drug cases handled by the county attorney's office has more than doubled in a two-year period, from about 250 in 2015 to about 600 in 2017.
"I am outraged at the inference that this board is responsible for the tripling of methamphetamine use in the county because we have chosen to leave more money in the taxpayers' pockets," Thiede said.
Driving the county's 2019 preliminary budget and property tax levy are increasing meth use and rising county employee health insurance costs, according to county officials. Final board approval of the budget is slated for December.
"I am equally incensed that an accusation would be leveled against us because we had large claims that resulted in a 19 percent increase in our insurance premiums," Thiede told the board.
There are five members of the county board and each represents one of five districts.
"Would my opponent not want us to pay our claims or that it is somehow our responsibility that we have claims that need to be paid?" Thiede rhetorically asked.
The budget committee met Friday to review the 2019 preliminary levy of 6.99 percent. In December, the board passed a reduced levy for 2018 for the eighth consecutive year.
In addition to the levy increase, according to the 2019 preliminary budget and levy presentation at the Sept. 25 board meeting, it is expected the county fund balance would decrease by about $3.06 million.
"That creating more efficiency and transparency puts stress on our departments and the community and equate that to meth use is scurrilous. It is egregious. It is beyond decency and civility," Thiede said of Brekken's letter.
Thiede's two-minute tirade during the board meeting about Brekken's allegations, claims and criticism in his letter to the editor about Thiede, the board and the upcoming election marks a radical shift in the tone in the two-man race for the four-year, $30,900-a-year countywide office.
The Land Services Building in Brainerd was the site of a candidate forum Oct. 2 for county commissioner candidates hoping to represent District 2 or District 3. Brekken and Thiede were civil at the forum presented in part by the Dispatch and refrained from personal attacks.
"As a candidate, I will fight my own battles. ... I am proud of the accomplishments you have had as a board, and on your behalf and as your chairman, I do not intend to let such an outrage go unnoticed," Thiede said before resuming as chairman at Tuesday's board meeting.
"I believe a formal apology to this board is called for, especially in a campaign season that has been exceptionally rancorous, most evidently on a national level. I will await that apology forthwith."
Brekken said he would not comment about the Tuesday board meeting he did not attend until he had the chance to review Thiede's remarks.
The general election is Nov. 6, but early voting is now available at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse, 326 Laurel St., in Brainerd until Nov. 5.