Lubke, Sylvester offer visions for Crow Wing County Board
The victor between the two will succeed Commissioner Bill Brekken, who chose not to run for reelection, to represent District 2.
BRAINERD — A longtime mayor and the director of the state transportation department’s financial management office both seek to join the Crow Wing County Board.
Jenkins Mayor Jon Lubke and Robin Sylvester, transportation finance management director for MnDOT, described their reasons for running for county commissioner and what they’d like to accomplish during a Sept. 13 candidate forum. The victor will succeed Commissioner Bill Brekken, who chose not to run for reelection, to represent District 2. The district covers the northwest portion of the county including the cities of Crosslake, Jenkins, Breezy Point, Pequot Lakes and Nisswa.
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 land services building along with a virtual audience.
Before leading the financial office at MnDOT, Sylvester previously worked for the Department of Human Services in Brainerd as well as the Department of Corrections, part of her 25-year career with the state. She also once worked at Camp Ripley with her husband, a military veteran, and at Bemidji State University. Sylvester noted she’s also run a small business and partners with family on a current venture.
Sylvester said her strong financial background would be an asset if elected. She said her top reasons for running are to get rid of obsolete or unnecessary laws to simplify government and prepare the county for tough economic times ahead.
“I have an opportunity to make a change right here at home and help our programs shift into where we’re headed. We are headed into an economic situation that, who knows what are property taxes are going to be? Who knows how much it’s going to cost for gas?” Sylvester said. “People on a fixed income are going to be struggling if they’re not already. And I’m here as a financial leader of the state, here to help lead teams and be a voice for ‘we the people.’”
Lubke said he’s lived in Crow Wing County for 49 years, three decades of which he operated a group of automotive parts stores before retiring and being elected mayor of Jenkins in 2007. He’s since become involved in a number of nonprofit and governmental organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, the Region Five Development Commission, League of Minnesota Cities and One Watershed One Plan.
Lubke said he’s running because he wants to be part of the future of a county he loves and where he raised his family. He cited his experience budgeting for a small business and a small city and said a recent effort he took part in to secure a deal to bring broadband internet to nearly 2,000 unserved households and businesses demonstrated collaboration.
“Something I could have never done … alone, something I don’t think the county could have done … alone — but together, we can do those things together,” Lubke said. “I love it here. I want to stay here the rest of my life.”
Taxes and budget
Kilian asked the candidates to explain their approaches to setting tax rates and balancing the county’s budget, in light of the recent increase in property values .
Lubke said the value increases are a matter of supply and demand and reflect people’s desires to live in Crow Wing County. They rise and fall with the economy, he said, relating his experience of buying a home in the early ‘80s with high interest rates and pointing to the housing bubble before the Great Recession.
“Even in our little city of Jenkins, our property values went up immensely. We have to look at, what do we actually need to keep the doors of the city of Jenkins open?” Lubke said. “ … I’d hate to put everything on and say because right now, we happen to be on a high with the valuation of properties out there, that it’s all going to be reflected back on taxes. I think just look at what it takes to run the place, and that’s what we should charge. That’s where I’m at.”
Sylvester said she agreed with Lubke, adding she favors a zero-based budgeting strategy to focus on what the county needs first, followed by determining what changes must be made to accommodate those needs. She pointed to District 2’s outsized contribution to the county’s tax revenue and said it’s about finding a balance to achieve what’s best for taxpayers.
“How do we balance the new permanent residency with a new revenue brought in on those taxes with holding the rest of us harmless or at least stable on what the county needs to collect from us?” Sylvester said. “ … I would be interested in a zero percent levy if we could live with it. But you’ve got to look at your business.”
Candidates were asked to express their opinions on whether the 2020 election was conducted fairly along with any changes they would pursue to county election procedures.
Sylvester said she could not offer an opinion of what happened or if the election was fair because she did not serve as an election judge and was not educated on election laws. She praised Crow Wing County’s election administration and volunteers and what she characterized as the county’s leadership on the issue. The County Board voted both to request a 2020 election audit from the state and to double the number of precincts reviewed in its post-election audit this November.
“I appreciate Crow Wing County’s leadership and bringing us along with what the laws today read and where there are opportunities to close the gap in those laws,” Sylvester said.
When it comes to voting machines, however, Sylvester said she has questions. She compared it to preparing a bank deposit for a business, recording it in an accounting system and then taking it to the bank. She said she would ask the bank for a receipt to reconcile the deposit.
“That’s all I would like to see, is if we have folks that want to see that information, how do we do that for them?” Sylvester said.
Sylvester has appeared multiple times before commissioners in the last 11 months as part of a citizen group expressing skepticism about the validity of the 2020 election. She spearheaded a door-to-door foot canvas in Crow Wing County with the goal of rooting out alleged irregularities in the voting process. Although information the group said was gathered during the canvas appeared in the comments of multiple people doubting the election results over the months, no signed affidavits describing the issues materialized.
Lubke said it would help to not have to conduct a major election during a pandemic, which he said contributed to division and conspiracy theories. As the only county Lubke said he’s ever voted in, Crow Wing County conducted its elections well, he said.
“They have a history of doing it well and will continue to do it well,” Lubke said. “If there are other things we should be looking at, I think it should always be double check your research. You know, it’s one thing to trust, but it’s always validate, validate, validate. And I think that’s very important and I think that should always be done.”
Mental health services
A question from the audience sought to illuminate candidates’ views on whether they would seek cuts or refocus efforts in health and human services.
Lubke said these services should not be cut but bolstered instead. He said money the county received as part of an opioid settlement could be used toward curbing substance use. The mental health problem worsened during the last two to three years after what society went through, he said, causing a lot of people to suffer.
“I think that mental health needs to be addressed out here. No, I do not think it should be cut at all. I think we need to ramp it up,” Lubke said. “Because it also has a lot of other problems that come down that the sheriff’s department has to deal with.”
Sylvester said she couldn’t speak to whether the budget should be increased or decreased and would seek the opinions of subject matter experts to ensure the right balance of services are delivered. She predicted a higher demand for mental health services based on economic conditions as well as the impacts on children from the upheaval in education during the pandemic.
In her time with the Department of Human Services, Sylvester said the area lost beds with the closure of the state hospital.
“We have to provide services for folks in need, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Sylvester said. “I also believe that our sheriff’s office has a great opportunity to partner with our mental health and have mental health there on site, on scene, whenever there’s a domestic or a need. Because if we don’t, we’ll be in a higher need down the road.”
Asked to describe the most significant difference between himself and the other candidate, Lubke said he doesn’t know Sylvester well because she hasn’t lived here very long.
“I’ve never seen her be involved in any community area, any local area, any boards,” Lubke said. “ … So I really have a hard time answering that question. All I can tell you is that I have served many boards in this local area. I continue to serve those boards. I enjoy it. I love it. I have full time to devote to it.”
Sylvester said her profession meant moving with her family and she pointed to her shirt bearing the words “God, family and country,” which she said is No. 1 for her. She said she’s visited the Brainerd lakes area since 1974 and when the pandemic happened, it provided her the opportunity to work remotely and move here upon her husband’s retirement to help her father with the property and business.
“If Jon hasn’t been around — which he’s a super close neighbor since 1974 — to get to know the family, my apologies, Jon,” Sylvester said. “I am proud to be here in Crow Wing County and I love the beauty and I’ve been coming up since I’ve been very young. And I’d be honored to serve the people in Crow Wing County.”