CROSBY — One candidate sought to reinforce the importance of his experience under challenging circumstances while the other positioned himself as an outsider bringing a fresh perspective to county government.

This is what a small in-person crowd along with virtual attendees saw Tuesday, Sept. 15, when District 5 candidates Doug Houge and Michael Starry participated in a debate at John Spalj Arena at the Hallett Community Center in Crosby. The event, hosted by the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area, featured the incumbent Houge and challenger Starry, both of whom will appear on the general election ballot after advancing through the primary election in August.

The debate featured a fair amount of agreement between the two: both said they’d focus on keeping taxes down, agreed the county plays an important role in providing diverse recreational opportunities and found common ground on pursuing preventative programming in the realms of mental health care and addressing addiction.

Philosophical differences emerged when the candidates discussed the support the county should offer to individuals and businesses during the pandemic and how they’d approach the budgeting process.

Taxes and budget

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Starry and Houge both identified the rising property tax levy as a major challenge for the county looking ahead.

Starry said it’s important to prioritize needs and if those things are needed, the costs must be offset somewhere else. He pointed to an early version of the county’s 2021 budget, which he said indicated a 14% rise in the levy.

“So that’s the first thing is figuring out which departments need to take a cut, which ones need to take maybe a sit back, and which ones actually deserve the increase,” Starry said. “And then as far as the rest of it, it’s constantly sticking your nose in it. Find out whatever department is doing, analyze every single ounce of the budget and figure out where every little bit of spending is taking place and when it’s not being done properly, holding those people accountable.”

Houge pushed back on Starry’s characterization of the potential levy increase, noting every year the budgeting process begins with a higher proposed number and it takes months of work and concessions to whittle it down. He said while budget proposals from staff sat at an 11% increase at one time this year, that figure is down to about 5.5% with time to go ahead of finalizing the levy.

“The key to doing all that is, again, making sure that we keep our citizens safe, supplying the service, the programs that are required for some people, and doing all that while maintaining a reasonable budget is a lengthy process, but it’s one that we’ve been very proud of,” Houge said.

Starry said over the past few years the levy has increased after years of reductions and he thinks there’s a possibility of returning to a budget that wouldn’t increase the levy. Houge said the idea of a zero levy doesn’t work, citing the unknowns of personnel costs such as health insurance rates as well as upfront spending on programs that will ultimately save taxpayers money.

Houge said in addition to his 13 years of experience on the county board, he’s also overseen budgeting for his own small businesses. Starry said in a previous employment role, he prepared and presented budgets, including those concerning capital expenditures on machinery.

When asked about their positions on the current fund balance policy, Starry initially said he couldn’t answer the question because he was unfamiliar with the term. Houge explained how the county was in the process of rebuilding those unallocated funds — akin to savings accounts — after spending down the dollars for both unexpected budget strains as well as ongoing expenses. He said they were following the recommendations of the state as to what percentage of the budget should be maintained in those funds.

Following Houge’s answer, Starry said a “rainy day fund” is a fantastic idea, but he did not appreciate the state’s involvement in the county’s spending and saving decisions.

“I think the county can determine what your overall needs are,” Starry said. “So I’m not a real big fan of state government being involved in how our county saves our money for future rainy day use.”

Houge said the state doesn’t dictate the funds, but does offer recommendations.

“There are offices in a state that I believe are valuable and worth listening to, so we do take their recommendations serious and I think it’s just good business practice to follow their recommendations,” Houge said.

Pandemic response

When asked how the county can support businesses and individuals during the coronavirus pandemic, Houge pointed to the ongoing effort to distribute federal relief funding directly to small businesses and nonprofits in the form of $10,000 grants.

“We’ve got other opportunities that we are using some of those funds to help broaden the broadband in our area that will hopefully help out some of the distant learning folks. But you know, right now, the biggest thing that we've done is CARES Act dollars, if we can at least give them some money to keep their businesses operating,” Houge said. “We did take action early on to delay property tax payments, giving some people, you know, businesses time to recoup and rebound, get their doors back open before they were forced to pay their property taxes without penalty.”

Starry, who wore a face covering with the word “placebo” printed across it, said he’d rather see the county board push back on some of the restrictions in place at the state level as part of pandemic mitigation “that seem to me like a bit of nonsense.” He also said he’d like to see government out of people’s lives and offered an alternative suggestion that would’ve seen the county not collecting property taxes at all this year.

“I think the county has an opportunity as well with some of the county held lands, tax-forfeited lands … you could actually probably work out a deal, and maybe there’s some legalities, … where you can use some of those funds to offset your property tax losses and forego the property taxes for a year, rather than just push them out or delay,” Starry said.

Houge emphasized the county wasn’t on “mask patrol,” but without government, there wouldn’t be maintained roads for people to drive on to go to work and he sees the county’s involvement as necessary in times like these.

“The county doesn’t impose a mask mandate, but the county can also fight against some of those things. Maybe not win, but at least give the people a voice,” Starry said.

Extremist, experienced

After an evening of several agreements, Starry made clear he disagrees with Houge on a number of issues in his closing statement.

“I’m a far more hardline kind of guy when it comes to taxes, when it comes to increases, when it comes to liberty, when it comes to the Constitution,” Starry said. “I admit, I'll say it outright, I’m extremist, because I believe that the idea of freedom and what we have in this community is pretty extreme in other parts of the world. There are always going to be disagreements in the county board, there are going to be disagreements amongst people, that’s what happens. It’s how you handle it as an adult. I think I've proven myself to be able to overcome all of these things in my lifetime, from drug addiction to homelessness to where I’m at now with a loving family, farm and sitting up in front of all of you having a debate.”

Houge said in today’s world, it’s important to have a commissioner with the experience he brings to the table and the knowledge of how county government works, along with “the ability to work and respect my counterparts as well as the 60,000 bosses that I do have.”

“I can say that District 5, from the day I got on to today, has changed dramatically in a good way. And I’ve been involved firsthand with some of those changes and others I haven’t. Kudos to those folks that have been passionate about some of this change, but we've got a long way to go,” Houge said. “I think it helps to get there with experience and knowledge that I've got through the past 13 years.”

Write-in candidate

In the audience was Tom Nixon, a third candidate for the District 5 seat who placed third in the August primary. Despite the loss, Nixon is pursuing a write-in candidacy. He was not permitted to participate in the debate because of the primary loss, but he said he intends to share what his answers would’ve been to each of the questions posed to candidates on his candidate Facebook page.

“I want to let them know where I stand on these issues, and I do have a differing opinion on a number of them,” Nixon said. “I wanted to be here. I wanted to see the reactions and what people had to say about it. … People do need to see what they’re for and what people are going to speak to on those issues, but as I watched today, it seems as though there was a lot of agreement in people that say they’re so opposed to each other.”

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