DEERWOOD — Tom Nixon is no stranger to public service.

At 38 years old, he’s the youngest candidate seeking to represent District 5 on the Crow Wing County Board, but his age belies his experience. He served as a Deerwood City Council member, a member of the Crosby-Ironton School Board and a four-year stint on the Rural Health Advisory Committee after he was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

He’s run for other offices, too — in 2012, he sought but didn’t receive the Republican nomination for Minnesota House District 10B, and later that year, he unsuccessfully challenged Commissioner Doug Houge in a primary election for the same seat he’s seeking now. This year, he joined Ironton resident Michael Starry in running against Houge, setting the race up for another primary challenge on Aug. 11.

Nixon said his candidacy is driven by a desire to provide needed leadership in county government and make it easier for the public to know if the board is achieving its goals.

“I can see that we lack some leadership in our county and not so much that people aren’t doing their job but to the fact that we could be doing a lot better,” Nixon said during an interview earlier this month at the Deerwood Fire Department. “What I was able to extrapolate from other experiences, when you have a clear strategy and you measure what you’re trying to reach for a goal, you usually reach your goals and you can demonstrate that to the public.”

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Nixon said as a fiscal conservative, he’d like to see the county leverage its efficiencies in ways that offset deficiencies. He wants to find ways to reduce taxes while allowing residents to utilize their properties as freely as possible and enjoy their constitutionally enshrined freedoms.

Transparency and responsibility

A lifelong Cuyuna Range resident, Nixon’s a 19-year veteran of the Deerwood Fire Department and provides emergency response with both Cuyuna Regional Medical Center and North Memorial Health ambulances. He’s the regional program director for Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths and a project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And he and his wife are the parents to seven children. Each of these roles, Nixon said, has provided the opportunity to engage with governments at all levels and have shown him the value of transparency.

On the school board, Nixon said he played a role in establishing a graphical dashboard clearly communicating to residents how tax dollars are spent and whether the district is meeting its goals. He’d like to see something similar implemented at the county level — sharing things such as road miles managed, traffic stops per hour, constituents connected with or permits issued — in a centralized location.

“I think that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re clearly transparent because we have public meetings and we produce reports,” Nixon said. “ … What I believe we’re short on is a clear depiction of what our finances are in our county. In the last couple years we’ve seen a return of tax load. I believe what we have in our hands right now is a healthy county, and I'm not going to say that … they have not done well. But there's definitely places they could do better.”

Recycling services in the county is one area Nixon said he’d like to see improvement, noting he feels it’s something residents want. The county board recently approved the reduction of drop-off sites to two countywide in 2021, after at one time offering 12. While county officials have cited a lack of support via a state grant program, Nixon said that’s passing the buck.

“Currently what they need to do is come up with a plan for how to perpetuate that (recycling) and potentially advocate to the community,” he said. “This will go away if you don't support this. We need to see you to go to your city councils to say you support this, we need you to tell your townships. We need you to support this. Or it will go away.”

Crow Wing County Board candidate Tom Nixon. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
Crow Wing County Board candidate Tom Nixon. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

He said it’s an example of dependency on grant funding he’d like to reduce in favor of establishing long-term solutions to keep programs going. This includes recent grants backing efforts to address mental health concerns and engage in prevention efforts in the county, which he identified as major priorities he thinks needs greater board support. He said drastic changes to the structure of community services in recent years have led to employees doing more with less and ultimately doing less overall, which creates more issues downstream.

“We know that there is a challenge in our country with mental health issues. But our county has had a tendency to push that off into saying, that’s not our problem, that’s another entity, someone else needs to fix that,” he said.

While supporting such programs means a willingness to spend money, Nixon said this aligns with being a fiscal conservative in two ways: recognizing a good return on investment that saves money in the long run, and identifying spending where the return isn’t as good to reallocate those dollars.

“I'm a fiscal conservative. So to look at adding staff or to adding to a program, … to get my vote, I need to be shown that there’s value in what we’re going to go spend money on,” he said. “ … Here in the county, there is a lot of great people doing the work in this and by no means is there anything about this that I’m saying they’re not doing their part. But they need more support at the board table.”

Nixon was hesitant to identify specific areas he thinks would be available for cuts, noting he’d like to have a handle on the details of the county budget and hear department leaders make their cases for why funding is needed for a given program or priority. He said having an awareness of where spending is most effective will be particularly important as the county looks ahead to upcoming budgetary challenges posed by COVID-19. And although there may be financial impacts from the virus, response to it is not the biggest issue the county faces.

“So, I mentioned that COVID is not a current challenge and the reason I use that word, ‘challenge’ — when we look at COVID, we can't control it,” Nixon said. “It’s an immovable force right now that we’ve watched play out on the national stage, on the international stage. We don't know enough about it.

“... Tough times call for tough decisions sometimes that decision actually will sink a ship. … I think what I get a little passionate about is when we’re told, well you know COVID is at the root of what we’re doing. It has its implications, it’s going to change business, how you respond to that is what’s going to ultimately resolve the issues.”

District advocate

Nixon said if elected, he plans to be a strong advocate for District 5, which covers the northeastern portion of the county, including the cities of Crosby, Cuyuna, Deerwood, Emily, Fifty Lakes, Ironton, Manhattan Beach, Riverton and Trommald. He said he believes resources have not been allocated fairly in his district and the residents of the area want to see more support.

Being a voice for the district means advocating for support of economic development and on behalf of businesses as well as for equitable infrastructure, Nixon said, noting he’s heard from his neighbors that support isn’t strong enough.

“If we look at just the tax share of what goes to services in this part of the county, it’s disproportionate,” he said. “And sometimes it’s based on the population at that time because of tourism. And sometimes it’s, I think it’s maybe nothing more than just, well it’s the other half, that’s the old side, we’re maybe just not considering it as vital as it could be.”

He said this extends to highway improvement priorities, which he believes can be political at times. While the county maintenance fleet is doing a good job delivering what’s asked of them, he said, the decisions on where to focus those efforts should be based on best practice, rather than potential political implications.

Individual liberties

Nixon identified himself as a supporter of individual freedoms, including in areas of land use. He said his time with MnDOT has brought him awareness of environmental challenges, but he wants to make sure those considerations are balanced with people’s rights to use their properties and enjoy the land.

“I firmly believe that we need to keep some things pristine. We need to maintain our respect for the environment, but we also have an ability to responsibly use it,” he said. “And if that means trail use, if that means timber harvest, if we think about trail expansion — all of those items have, every time, a give and a take.

“ … So in my eyes, land use is definitely a challenge, but it’s not like you can’t take care of that challenge. People need to be able to use the land, they're paying taxes on it. They're paying for it. And if we use it responsibly, it should be allowed to be used.”

He said he’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and would have voted to pass a resolution brought forward by a group advocating for Crow Wing County to take a stand on protecting its residents’ rights — led in part by his opponent Starry. He said the controversy recently arising over the issue was driven by months of deliberation when commissioners could have voted to make a statement and moved on. But he said he understood the concerns expressed over legal liability as well.

“I don't like the fact that there are many issues that could be acted upon that take many, many months to make a decision on. And there is a time that you need to get public input, and you invite that,” Nixon said. “In this particular issue, I have concern that despite what the county would decide at the county level, you would be challenged at the Minnesota Supreme Court and our attorney general’s office if there was to be ever a decision made in the future, but it’s not presented itself at this time. … I clearly state I’m a Second Amendment supporter. That's all the more I’ll probably state on that. And if that came to the board table, I would vote on it.”

Commitment to voters

Although a busy father and husband who performs a variety of roles, Nixon said he’s committed to making himself available. He said he has the full support of his family, his employer and his community to take on the challenge.

“I don't have an ax to grind, per se. I don’t have something that brings me that I’m a single-issue candidate,” Nixon said. “What I do have is a toolbox of many experiences that allow me to recognize and understand the programs and the departments and the budgets. … I have not been in county government, but I have worked with 30-plus counties in my time, and I think what needs to happen is someone is willing to step in, challenge the norm, ask the questions and learn from them and then represent the public.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.