Barrows, Erickson give insight into Crow Wing County Board candidacies
Barrows, a one-term county commissioner and retired Minnesota Department of Human Services employee, and Erickson, a Brainerd City Council member and Region Five Development Commission transportation planner, are running to represent District 3 on the Crow Wing County Board.
BRAINERD — Incumbent Commissioner Steve Barrows and challenger Tad Erickson provided voters a deeper look into what motivates them and how they planned to lead during a Sept. 13 candidate forum.
Barrows, a one-term county commissioner and retired Minnesota Department of Human Services employee, and Erickson, a Brainerd City Council member and Region Five Development Commission transportation planner, are running to represent District 3 on the Crow Wing County Board. District 3 includes the southern half of the city of Baxter and a majority of the city of Brainerd.
The forum — moderated by Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president, and sponsored by the chamber, Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters and the Brainerd Dispatch — drew about 75 attendees to the Crow Wing County Land Services Building along with a virtual audience.
Erickson said over the last decade, his work on transportation planning gave him the chance to coordinate with multiple county boards and county staff. It’s helped him to understand how counties function, he said.
“It has really given me the opportunity to understand internally the different services that are provided by counties and the challenges that counties face — not only internally but also from the external — how the counties have to comply with state statutes, how they interact with the cities within the county, townships, I could go on and on … but ultimately, the policies that the county sets, how they impact, how they affect, and how they benefit residents, taxpayers,” Erickson said. “And so with my extensive background in local government and my current elected role on the Brainerd City Council, I think I have the skills, the capabilities and ultimately the judgment to be the next Crow Wing County commissioner for District 3.”
Erickson said his top priority should he be elected is tax relief for the families, workers and senior citizens facing economic hardships with inflation and high taxes.
“They’re not getting it (tax relief) anywhere else. This is an economic pressure cooker, and I don’t see, with the type of government spending that’s going on at the upper levels, I think we’re just seeing the beginning of the inflation,” Erickson said. “So we’ve got to provide some relief and one way we can do that is through taxes.”
Barrows said during his last four years on the County Board, the county accomplished wonderful things and he hopes to continue that progress. He said his previous service on the Baxter City Council means he’s served constituents within the district for the last eight years.
“I think that this is an opportunity to move this county forward and recognize and make us the place that Minnesota wants to come to. I look at it as bigger than that — I look at Crow Wing County as the central park for the central part of the country,” Barrows said. “So I’m excited about some of the initiatives that I have in my mind to move forward and make our county that attractive place that everybody wants to go to recreate, but also to live.”
As for his top priority, Barrows said he wants to continue the momentum of positive financial progress in county government. He pointed to two serious situations he helped to address in his time as a commissioner: shoring up the county’s financial reserves and a cash flow problem.
“Both were very serious situations and we resolved that. We have now reduced our levy by almost 70% over the course of these three years and we replenished our reserves,” Barrows said. “And so with that, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to move the county forward financially.”
While Barrows cited a 70% reduction in the property tax levy, he appeared to be instead referencing a reduction in the levy increases year over year. In 2018, the County Board approved a levy increase of 6.99% for 2019 after eight years of flat or reduced levies. Although commissioners have yet to approve a preliminary levy for 2023, an expected 2.89% increase is in the wings, or 58.6% lower than the highest increase during Barrows’ tenure.
Taxes and budget
Kilian asked candidates to explain their approach to setting future tax rates and balancing the county’s budget amid recent increases in property values.
Barrows noted valuations are informed by state law and not the sole purview of county land services. If the county does not value property within a certain set of parameters, the state can step in, he said. The County Board has an impact on the property tax levy by controlling spending, but he noted the Legislature has a role to play as well in providing relief.
“For homeowners, we look to the state to address the credit that we get for owning our homes, and currently that’s expired. We need to raise that amount with new valuations,” Barrows said. “ … We need the state to do their job, we will do our job in terms of controlling spending.”
The homestead market value exclusion to which Barrows referred is not expired, although critics say it needs updating to maintain pace with skyrocketing property values and more effectively offer assistance to taxpayers. Changes supported by both parties were proposed during the 2022 legislative session, although the Legislature’s failure to pass several large bills means it remains untouched as of now.
Erickson said pursuing economic development in the county would have the effect of broadening the tax base to bring taxes down for everyone. Reducing spending is another tool, he said, although he noted inflation makes that difficult for governments, too.
“The county has a $100 million budget, 42% of that … comes from the property taxes. And I think we have to find other ways to bring those taxes down and cut costs, particularly in the area of health and human services, even though that’s an increasing need,” Erickson said. “And don’t get me wrong, there’s certain needs there as well.”
Asked to weigh in on whether the 2020 elections were conducted fairly and if changes should be made to county election procedures, Erickson said it depends on which election to which the question referred. He said he believes secretaries of state throughout the country exceeded their purview in setting policy for the way votes were counted and the manner in which the election was conducted. He said he does not believe election fraud occurred locally — although he said he’s not confident in the reliability of voting machines.
“I’m not technical enough to know whether the machines were hackable, but what we’re told when asked is, ‘They’re not connected online.’ When pressed on that, ‘OK, they’re connected online, but they’re not hackable.’ Then when pressed on that, they say, ‘Well, they are hackable, but there’s no evidence of fraud,’” Erickson said. “So my level of confidence in machines is not there.”
Although unclear to whom Erickson referred as providing these responses, the local elections head has repeatedly dispelled misinformation concerning the county’s Dominion Voting Systems tabulators and whether they connect to the internet. State law prohibits any internet connectivity beyond wired connections within a polling place, and Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson — no relation to Tad Erickson — has noted Crow Wing County is more restrictive than the law by not connecting the machines to anything at all.
Barrows said his position on this matter is well known. He was the only commissioner to vote against requesting an additional audit for the 2020 election beyond what the law calls for, and he also was the lone “nay” vote on a motion to increase the number of precincts counted by hand during the state-prescribed post-election review.
“The fact is that we should always make sure that there’s secure elections in place for us, but we know that the accuracy of these machines is greater than when we manually count these ballots. We also know that there’s a cost factor and anybody that says there’s not a cost factor is only fooling themselves,” Barrows said. “ … There are no facts in Crow Wing County proving that our elections here had any kind of fraudulent behavior taking place.”
A question from an audience member asked candidates how they would respond to an unfunded state mandate thrust upon the county.
Barrows said a number of unfunded mandates can be found in the social services area, providing commissioners no choice but to ask taxpayers to fund some of the required services in that department.
“My position is that we should all work together to address the federal level of government and the state level of government to make any legislation that they pass that has a financial component to it, that they have to find the dollars to fund it,” Barrows said.
Erickson said at some point, there’s only so much government can ask of its residents.
“If we can only make the federal government stop, you know, passing legislation requiring us to do things and stop spending money — that’s not going to happen in the near future,” Erickson said. “ … We need to find local solutions. If we can partner with nonprofits and find local solutions to these issues, then we’re going to have to do it.”
Both candidates again touted their experience in local government when asked what made them stand out.
In distinguishing himself from his opponent, Erickson said something that jumps out to him after watching County Board meetings is his own “emphatic determination for individual liberties, freedoms, freedom of speech and less government spending.”
He pushed back on the idea that commissioners couldn’t have careers outside of government.
“One of the things that I wanted to show with my campaign is that, you know, you can be involved in government and you can get elected, and you don’t have to be a retired person to do that,” Erickson said.
Erickson’s comment came after Barrows, in his answer, contrasted his ability to devote himself full-time to being a county commissioner with Erickson’s other employment.
“I don’t have any outside interests or any outside jobs that would prevent me from being the full-time commissioner for District 3, which I believe is what they expect and what should be required of us,” Barrows said.
CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .