Nystrom wants county's successes to continue

Crow Wing County District 3 Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom feels most at home when she's the one asking the questions. The 30-year veteran of radio journalism covered countless meetings of boards and councils over the years and credits her exp...

Crow Wing County Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom talks about her plans for the future of the county. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

Crow Wing County District 3 Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom feels most at home when she's the one asking the questions.

The 30-year veteran of radio journalism covered countless meetings of boards and councils over the years and credits her experience posing queries to these officials with preparing her for county government.

"As it turns out, that is a great skill to have for a county commissioner, asking the right questions and then continuing to ask questions until you get the information you need," she said. "I am curious. I've always been curious. I'm asking questions that I really have no business asking, but I still ask them."

Nystrom talked about her entry into county government and why she wants to return to the board during an interview at the Brainerd Dispatch earlier this month.

Eight years ago, when she and husband Bob heard of the impending retirement of Commissioner Terry Sluss, they asked around the neighborhood to gauge interest in finding his replacement.


"We couldn't even get someone to say, 'I'll think about it,'" she said.

After some consideration, the recently retired Nystrom thought her experience covering meetings -- and the frustration she often experienced with ineptitude at these meetings -- could translate to performing the duties of a county commissioner.

"I covered a lot of county boards. I would think, 'Boy, it's got to be easier than this.' These long conversations going around and around, I just thought, 'How hard could it be?'"

After winning the 2006 election by fewer than 100 votes, Nystrom said the challenges of the position appeared with more intensity and frequency than she anticipated.

"It looks much easier than it is," she said. "In any issue, it's not horribly wrong or very right, it's all just shades of gray. These are difficult decisions. These are people's lives and their property and their health and their lakes. It's everything that you hold dear to yourself. And I don't take that lightly. When people are in front of us, they're sharing their lives with us and asking us to help. That's a responsibility, and I really take it to heart."

With eight years of challenges behind her, the 59-year-old is seeking her third term on the county board and said her experience in the office is important to grasping the complexity of what she calls a "really big, big job."

"The learning curve for county government is so steep," she said. "I could honestly say the first two years were just like elementary school in county government. Just at the end of that first term, I really was getting my feet under me."

After growing up in Kansas City and spending childhood summers on Burntside Lake in Ely, Nystrom landed at Bemidji State University to study journalism and has not left the state since. She moved to the area when she took a job as news director at KLIZ-FM and went on to work for Minnesota Public Radio, where she was managing producer for a rural news unit based in Brainerd. She raised her family here and is active at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter, where she's led study trips to Israel on eight occasions.


Nystrom said she was interested in government even before she covered it as a journalist.

"I think I've voted in every party, both sides of the ticket, independent," she said. "Love to watch the debates, even when I was young. I'm just a news head."

Nystrom hopes to be re-elected to continue with the current county board's successes, she said, and is particularly proud of the managers and supervisors the county has hired during her tenure, staff that are upholding the board's vision of accomplishing more with less. Serving on the personnel committee, Nystrom has the opportunity to keep her interviewing skills sharpened while evaluating whether a candidate is a good fit for the county.

"We have a full complement of our hires, and they are doing a great job," she said. "We're saving money. This is five straight years of a levy drop. That does not happen, because costs are going up, salaries are going up, everything's going up. We haven't just held the line, we've reduced it."

Between 2010 and 2014, the property tax levy in Crow Wing County has been reduced by $1.56 million and the preliminary levy for 2015 is set to decrease by an additional $195,000. The county has reduced its full-time employees from a peak of 485 in 2008 to 422 in 2014, with a reduction of three additional employees planned for 2015. Many of these employees are now under contracts that include pay-for-performance raises rather than those based on seniority.

"You know these old stereotypes of Andy (Griffith) and Mayberry, laying in the jail, playing cards or whatever," Nystrom said. "It's not like that anymore. ... Everybody has to pull their weight. To reduce that many employees, everyone's working hard."

Nystrom said at the same time staff reductions and the department consolidations in land services and community services have taken place, customer satisfaction has increased.

"It isn't just cheaper, it's better," she said. "There were 1,400 surveys taken in the last year, and the average score was 89.9 percent. They're giving us an A-minus."


Two years ago, more cuts were difficult to imagine, Nystrom said, but incorporating technology and making permit applications available online has allowed the county to increase efficiency while reducing personnel costs. The limits of the cuts might have been reached, however, she said.

"We have so many fixed costs. Of course, our biggest is our salaries. We are charged to do this, to have good, safe roads, to keep our lakes clean, to have an appropriate facility to house people who break the laws, court system where we have to adjudicate those people. ... It's hard to picture where we're going to cut from here. I see that our employees are, they are doing a huge, huge job, and I don't know how much we can stretch it."

There are items in the budget Nystrom would fight for, including funding for the RSVP Volunteer Services program.

"They're the ones who deliver Meals on Wheels, and they are the people who drive people to their appointments that they couldn't get to. They're constructing ramps on houses for people in wheelchairs. They do incredible things," she said. "That organization has come up for discussion, but we just can't bear to take the funding away from it. It really, it pays for itself over and over and over again."

Nystrom also considers funding for the Kitchigami Regional Library system "critical." She served on the library board on behalf of the county for seven years and is currently the alternate member.

"I go in there (the Brainerd library) and it is jammed with people, with seniors, with moms with young kids, there's a reading hour," she said. "It's a vital, vibrant, crowded public library."

Nystrom serves on 21 committees in addition to the personnel committee, including those on benefits, Extension, public health preparedness and the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission, where she and her opponent, Jeff Czeczok, both serve.

In 2011, Czeczok, who was not yet on the commission, raised a potential conflict of interest with former airport Commissioner Doug Kuepers and his construction company's financial ties to an airport remodeling project. Kuepers Architects & Builders was hired by engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson (SEH), Inc. as an on-site construction manager for a sum of $135,000.


At the time, Nystrom spoke at a county board meeting on the issue and said it was SEH's decision, not the airport commission's, and she did not believe it was a conflict of interest. Czeczok cites Nystrom's involvement in the conflict of interest case as a reason for his candidacy.

For her part, Nystrom admits the way the situation was handled by the commission was a mistake.

"I don't think the due diligence was there," she said. "It's a different day now. We have a new airport manager, we have those procedures and protocols now. I think that was a mistake."

She said commissioners now go through conflict of interest training and fill out financial disclosure forms. It's important to go the "extra mile" to ensure there's no semblance of a conflict of interest, she said.

"There won't be a mistake like that again," she said. "But there was no nefarious intent. There wasn't. To characterize it as someone trying to pull the wool over somebody's eyes, or the public's eyes, that didn't happen."

For Nystrom, two priorities emerge as she looks forward to a possible third term on the county board: getting people back to work and retaining county employees. Persistent unemployment in the county is a problem many are concerned about, she said, and salaries are lower compared to the state average.

She said county government should continue to work with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation and area cities to streamline processes that will attract business prospects to the area.

As for county employees, she said the county is working on developing a leadership program to continue to develop the "best and the brightest."


Nystrom said she's learned from her mistakes as county commissioner and does not let disagreements or antagonism get to her. Her time as a journalist helps her to not take things personally, she said.

She described her leadership style as "fearless" and said if re-elected, she will continue to share her opinion, whether anyone wants to hear it or not.

"There are a lot of times when I'm the only person on one side of an issue," she said.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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