CROSBY — When Crow Wing County Commissioner Doug Houge was reelected after running unopposed in 2016, he thought this year would mark his last after more than 13 serving as District 5 representative on the county board.

But after some rocky budget cycles and 2020 bringing with it the daunting challenges of COVID-19, Houge said he was inspired to keep serving. To do so, he’ll have to best at least one of two challengers in an Aug. 11 primary contest — Tom Nixon or Michael Starry — along with topping the field on Election Day.

“The reason for going these next four years is to just use that experience that I have to get us through these challenging times,” Houge said earlier this month on the patio at Crosby Bar & Grill, which he owns. “Are we going to be through them in four years? Maybe not, but I think we can position ourselves at least enough that, you know, the next boards can move forward with the work that we’ve done, see the accomplishments of what we’ve done and continue to move in a positive direction.

“To do that, I think it just requires right now the experience, the knowledge of county government and where the focus needs to be, more so than trying to get sucked into a little rabbit hole over one issue. That's just a responsibility of a county commissioner.”

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Houge, 57, said he’s proud of the improvements in the delivery of county government he’s been a part of, from restructuring land and community services, to improving the focus on customer service, to overseeing a shift to pay-for-performance for county staff.

Eliminating the vast majority of the county’s debt and maintaining a flat or reduced property tax levy for many years were key financial successes, he said. But he said with the help of department leaders, he saw the writing on the wall for an impending budgetary crisis. He said he took a stand against levy reductions toward the end of that run in an effort to spread out impending increases for taxpayers, but was outvoted. Now, those reductions have been wiped away and then some, and Houge wants to be part of righting the ship.

Beyond the budget, Houge said he’d like to see continued successes in the areas of mental health, environmental protection, the advancement of recreational opportunities and maintaining an excellent county workforce up to the difficult tasks ahead.

Making changes

Houge’s journey in county government began when former Commissioner John “Jinx” Ferrari appointed him to the planning and zoning commission. Before this experience, the Irondale Township resident said he didn’t have much familiarity with county processes, but what he saw was eye-opening — and not in a good way.

When Ferrari died unexpectedly in 2007, Houge decided to run for the board to fill the remainder of his term. Once elected, changing the culture in land services from punitive to customer-friendly and streamlined was a priority, he said.

“That’s what kind of drove me to going to the next level as running for commissioner when Jinx did pass away, seeing a lot of deficiencies and a lot of unsatisfied, unhappy customers, I guess if you would, in that area,” Houge said. “So recognizing that I thought, well, this is why people get involved, and I wanted to jump in and try to straighten that department out.

“ … We’ve made some big changes in land services, consolidating many departments into one. The biggest thing, and always in my mind is the level of customer service, which has, I believe, improved tenfold. … And to do that with less people is I think pretty, pretty impressive.”

Another success Houge pointed to was the elimination of a majority of the county’s debt incurred as part of building a new judicial center and community services complex — 2020 was the first year the annual $5 million payment was no longer on the books. While over the years Houge opined about using those recaptured funds to lessen the tax load or to bolster the highway department budget in lieu of a sales tax, the future had different ideas.

Various unexpected expenditures — particularly in the area of out-of-home placements of children, which increased at an unexpectedly high rate and required levying more taxes — have made the budget picture less clear. As for the property tax levy, Houge said it was easy at first to find areas to cut and innovations to undertake. But over time, he said it began to have negative impacts that made him uncomfortable, such as drawing down savings and driving away good employees. Now, with the coronavirus added to the mix and its unknown future impacts, Houge said he believes this to be the toughest budget year he’s faced as a commissioner. But he remains optimistic.

“I know we’ll get there. We’ve got some great talent. Our senior management team understands that, they've been on board with this budget process for a number of years now and they know the position the county’s in and so it makes the process a lot easier but yet, still challenging,” he said.

Houge said as a bar and restaurant owner, he’s keenly aware county government isn’t the only entity facing budgetary concerns, and he wants to be able to help the community make it through the pandemic. The recent acquisition of federal dollars through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — and planned distribution to those in need — is one way to make that possible.

Improving mental health outcomes

The areas of mental health and substance abuse have presented numerous obstacles for Crow Wing County in recent years, but Houge said he thinks things are headed in the right direction. A pilot project placing social workers in the county jail in an effort to reduce recidivism and more intensive services for people facing substance use disorders have already been shown to have an impact, he said. He’d like to see those successes continue for a long-term benefit to the community as well as the county’s bottom line.

Houge said these successes only come from listening to the county’s senior leaders who can provide the expertise he doesn’t have.

“I’m not an expert in mental health. I’m not an expert in the programs needed to keep these people out of our systems,” he said. “But I listen to them, I can assist in making those programs work. That’s, again, another responsibility of a county commissioner.”

He said some of these efforts have led to the flattening of the out-of-home placements curve, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely. While that goal may seem lofty, Houge said it’s important to aim high.

“Our goal is to see zero out-of-home placement. If we don't have an aggressive goal, then we shouldn't be in the game,” he said. “ … Without the support of the commissioners, that work wouldn’t be doable. But we’ve got a long way to go. Even with the COVID, it’s putting additional stress on people and we’re seeing some numbers increase throughout the state, throughout the country.

“But we can’t give up on that. We’ve got to continue to, you know, to fight those challenges, and we’ve got to continue to be able to fund those challenges.”

Balancing recreation with conservation

Houge said he sees the protection of Crow Wing County’s natural resources as critical. He pointed to an increased focus on maintaining water quality and battling aquatic invasive species along with managing forestlands with these goals in mind.

He said he’s also a longtime supporter of any and all recreational opportunities that can draw people to visit the county, from silent sports to motorized. Most recently, he’s met with a cross-country ski group concerned about how the elimination of grooming equipment in land services will impact the future of ski trails and is involved in a pending project to lease tax-forfeited county land in his district for a shooting range. The latter would bring closer to home the opportunity for area youths to participate in trap shooting.

At times, however, motorized use on public lands has created conflict with funding sources and criticism from constituents. Most recently, the board tabled an offer to receive forested acreage for free from The Conservation Fund over concerns a ban on new trails would hamstring the county in potential future trail development. Houge was critical of the restrictions, noting all-terrain vehicles are a popular pastime in the area and trails bring visitors to enjoy county lands.

“If we continue to allow that to happen, you know, eventually we’re going to be spattered with all of these properties and no ability to even consider expansion of trails, motorized trails,” he said. “And the fact that some of these properties already have trails and they’re good to keep, we can continue to use those, is nice. But that doesn’t make it possible in some cases to make connecting trails.”

Houge suggested in that specific case, requesting a change in the conservation plan with the funding source — the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council — to allow zero net gain of trails on the property. This would require decommissioning an existing trail to allow for a new one. But ultimately, Houge said he’d have to consider what’s best for the county overall, even if that offer is refused. If that means protecting land that might otherwise be developed in a critical wildlife area, he said he’d likely support moving forward.

Houge answers criticisms

Houge’s faced criticism from some who didn’t approve of his stances on the Second Amendment dedicated county resolution issue. While Houge maintains he strongly supports the right to bear arms, he expressed concerns over whether the resolution sought by county activists — including his election opponent Starry — had the potential to put the county in legal and financial jeopardy.

“There's more to a Crow Wing County commissioner’s responsibility than putting 60,000 people at risk of having to apply levy dollars to fight a lawsuit that really is a lawsuit that belongs to the state or federal levels of decision-making,” Houge said. “You know, I understand their passion towards this. Again, I’m a gun owner, I support the Second Amendment, I’m a hunter. But I think it’s, they’ve taken it to the wrong level of government.”

Houge said he prides himself in being a good listener, taking the time to do his research and in his willingness to reach a compromise. While he does not attend committee meetings as frequently as other commissioners, he said he will attend when his district is involved. He noted although his work may keep him from being physically present, his evenings often involve reading and sending questions to staff when needed. And he’s never collected a per diem for attending meetings, despite that being offered for most of his time on the board.

Houge said he expects he’ll be able to attend more meetings with the impending sale of his bar, set to be finalized in September. With more free time outside of county government, Houge said he wants to spend it with his daughters and put more energy into fundraising efforts on behalf of diabetes awareness — a passion he undertook following the unexpected death of his son Brandon in 2015 due to complications associated with Type 1 diabetes.

But he said he still has four good years in him as commissioner.

“I just hope that people recognize, you know, the roles and responsibilities of county commissioner and vote for continued progress for Crow Wing County residents.”

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