Franzen, Scheffler face off during testy candidate forum
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, a four-term County Board member and retired school district employee, and Troy Scheffler, a Merrifield resident and frequent county government critic, are competing for a seat in the boardroom.
BRAINERD — An incumbent and challenger looking to represent District 4 on the Crow Wing County Board for the next four years presented themselves to voters during a Sept. 13 candidate forum.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, a four-term County Board member and retired school district employee, and Troy Scheffler, a Merrifield resident and frequent county government critic, are competing for a seat in the boardroom. District 4 includes Lake Edward Township, the majority of the First Assessment District, the city of Baxter north of Highway 210 and one precinct in 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.
Franzen described herself as a lifetime resident of the county, having lived with her husband in Baxter for 40 years. Before her 16-year stint on the County Board, she served a term on the Baxter City Council. Franzen also serves as a board member of Northern Pines Mental Health Center. She said after a more than 30-year career in the school district, she quit that job to run for county commissioner.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to do two jobs poorly, I want to do one job well,’” Franzen said.
Franzen said she’s running for reelection because she believes people need a watchdog for their money and she puts in the time necessary to do the job of commissioner well.
“I know how to ask the hard questions to make sure there’s no frivolous spending. I believe elected officials must be accountable to people, and I feel very strongly about this role,” Franzen said. “I guess I just — I have the experience, and I feel very strongly that we need to do that. We need to make sure that we spend everyone’s money wisely.”
Scheffler opted to use his opening statement to criticize Sheriff Scott Goddard’s performance in the sheriff candidate forum occurring just before commissioner candidates took their turn. He reiterated points made by Goddard’s challenger Eric Klang concerning turnover in the office and employee engagement.
“The amount of BS that I just heard from one of the candidates for sheriff is appalling. It’s absolutely appalling,” Scheffler said while standing at the table. “ … People aren’t electing me to not cut through the BS. I’m a populist candidate, talked to thousands of people on the road outside here, and there’s one thing that they’re sick of: the status quo and the good old boys club.”
Turning to his race for office, Scheffler said his top priority is to reduce the county’s dependence on grants and put an end to what he characterized as a shell game at play with the budget. He took aim at Franzen’s support of a 2021 motion to approve the hiring of a social worker and case aide focused on housing resources, the salaries for which are supported by a $341,715 grant from the state. Scheffler claimed the intent of the grant was to import social services-dependent people into Crow Wing County to the detriment of taxpayers.
“We went from 20% grant dependence in 2014, and now we’re up to 35%. That’s insanity. That’s crazy,” Scheffler said. “Where’s it all going? It’s starting to bleed off onto our property taxes. So if anyone would be honest or actually looked at the budget here, they’d be able to explain that to you.”
Scheffler appeared to derive those figures from various publications on the county’s finances. In the 2014 annual budget and capital improvement plan , a pie chart projecting the county’s revenues that year shows 13% came from federal grants and another 7% from state grants, totaling 20%. In the 2022 version of that document , a table breaking down the source of each of the county’s revenues lists a projected $35 million from intergovernmental sources of the $100 million in anticipated revenues, or 35%.
Nick Mielke, county finance director, confirmed Tuesday, Sept. 20, such a comparison is not apples to apples. Intergovernmental revenue encompasses state and federal allocations beyond grants alone, along with cost-sharing agreements with other local governments. Mielke reported operating grants and contributions actually accounted for 29% of total county revenue in 2014, while in the last complete budget year of 2021, that figure dropped to 27%.
Budget and taxes
Asked about his approach to setting future tax rates and balancing the county’s budget amid rising property values, Scheffler again stood to answer while other candidates remained seated. He said valuation can be confusing for people, noting an increase in value doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in tax burden.
What county officials aren’t being truthful about, Scheffler said, is the county’s debt financing. Scheffler claimed the county used COVID-19 relief funds to pay down its debt, and the 15% of the property tax levy once allocated for that purpose should be part of the calculation for how much taxes are really rising.
“They’re trying to masquerade that your taxes are only increasing a modest 3%. … Your taxes are effectively going up 15 or 18%, and that’s where we’re at,” Scheffler said. “And this is the thing that I’m so sick and tired of is this obfuscation of what’s going on. People need to know what’s going on.”
Mielke said Tuesday no COVID-19 relief money was used toward debt, the vast majority of which was paid off in 2020 using levy dollars collected in 2019. For years, the County Board referenced 2020 as when it would be free of debt from its building projects.
After the eight-year run of flat and reduced levies ended in 2019, staff advised commissioners the county would achieve better financial stability if it continued to levy the money once used for debt and redirected those resources to shore up fund balances. The county used these savings accounts to pay for unexpected increases in various state-mandated programs within community services, while also putting savings toward ongoing expenses to achieve commissioners’ desires of maintaining a flat levy.
Franzen said while property values are part of the equation, what really affects taxes is how much the county spends in its budget. She said the preliminary levy increase of 2.89% board members are expected to consider later this month is pretty low, when considering increasing staff costs such as raises negotiated with unions.
“We need to control our spending and we need to get grants,” Franzen said. “We have a $100 million budget and $42 million of that is paid for by taxes. Fifty-eight percent of that was paid for by grants.”
Franzen’s characterization of the impact of grants was also inaccurate, as multiple other sources of revenue beyond grants account for the remainder of the county budget.
When it came to the most significant difference between himself and his opponent, Scheffler reiterated some of the criticisms of Franzen he’d peppered throughout the forum, including her absence in communicating with voters, the board’s handling of a sexual harassment investigation into former Chief Deputy Andy Galles, and the county’s lack of action toward the methadone clinic in Brainerd.
“Honesty. That’s it right there. As far as openness, that’s another thing — being able to stand up for what’s right and tell the truth about that, and push and push and push,” Scheffler said. “That’s certainly on the top of my list.”
Scheffler claimed Franzen is lying about the county’s history with the methadone clinic, which he said is responsible for killing people in the community and yet, commissioners have done nothing about it. While Franzen previously stated commissioners weren’t asked about the clinic locating in Brainerd, there was a letter of support in 2012, Scheffler said.
County Administrator Tim Houle confirmed the 2012 letter of support, but said it was sent without commissioners’ knowledge. That particular letter, in fact, set the course for a new internal policy requiring all letters of support come before the board if their names were to be attached, Houle said. A May 2014 Brainerd Dispatch story supports that narrative, stating, “Board members recalled a letter of support given in the past to a methadone clinic when the board didn’t know anything about it.”
In 2016, the board denied a letter of support upon a change in ownership at the clinic, citing several concerns with the site, its impact on property values and the increased burden on law enforcement.
After spending most of the forum faced away from her opponent, Franzen turned toward Scheffler when giving her response to this question. She pushed back on how Scheffler framed the methadone clinic issue and said an investigation into Galles began immediately before noting she couldn’t say more because of data privacy. This spring, those familiar with the Galles harassment claims maintained the sheriff’s office attempted to at first ignore the complaints without a meaningful investigation.
“There is a lot of difference between my opponent and I, and honesty is the thing. I just don’t subscribe to the truth according to Troy, where there is no honesty in my opinion,” Franzen said. “ … It just seems to me that everything that is told to you, you twist into something that isn’t even accurate. And I am really, really offended by the way that you conduct yourself.”
Scheffler asked if he could rebut Franzen’s response, but Kilian clarified no rebuttals were allowed in the forum.