For Crow Wing County residents with questions as to whom to vote for in November's general election, this was the place to be.

The Crow Wing County Land Services Building in Brainerd was the site of a candidate forum Tuesday, Oct. 2, for county commissioner candidates hoping to represent District 2 or District 3.

"We're here to get more information about the candidates," said Jon Swanson, a 51-year-old from Brainerd in attendance with his wife.

District 2 candidates include Bill Brekken, a 67-year-old RE/MAX associate from Brainerd, and County Board Chairman Paul Thiede, a 71-year-old resident of Pequot Lakes.

"Everybody trash talks everybody on the radio, on the TV," Swanson said before the commissioners' portion of the forum ended. "We'd rather see them in person."

Baxter City Council member Steve Barrows and businessman Keith Johnson look to succeed Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom in District 3. Nystrom did not seek a fourth term, citing her recent purchase of a retirement home in Thiede's district as a disqualifier.

"We get the pamphlets and read all that stuff, but we want to hear directly from them," Swanson said before the sheriff candidates portion of the forum started Tuesday evening.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen of Baxter represents District 4 and is running unopposed for a fourth term. But she was at the candidate forum in the audience.

Candidate forum

Wayne Holtmeyer of the League of Women Voters moderated the timed forum presented by the Brainerd Lakes, Pequot Lakes and Crosslake chambers of commerce, the Brainerd Dispatch, League of Women Voters and Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government.

"As the incumbent District 2 commissioner, as an Air Force veteran and as an eight-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives ... the core of my character is service to country and community," Thiede said as part of his opening statement.

District 2 includes the cities of Crosslake, Jenkins, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point and Nisswa.

Brekken managed the Herberger's department store chain for 17 years at the Brainerd location and later served on the board of directors for Lakewood Bank (now BlackRidgeBANK), and later was its business development coordinator for seven years.

"This is a very good time for me to step up and be in the public arena, and give back to Crow Wing County and its people in a more beneficial and meaningful way," Brekken said.

Brekken was the executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation and worked with the Center for Lifelong Learning at Central Lakes College. He cited his experience in business, education and nonprofits to back his claim of being a "bridge-builder" if elected.

Johnson is a 42-year-old husband and father of four. The self-employed Brainerd resident made an unsuccessful bid for an at-large seat on the Brainerd City Council in 2016.

"District 3 is, in essence, the southside of (Highway) 210-Baxter, Brainerd and a little sliver of northeast Brainerd. In these areas, we have problems-mainly drugs," Johnson said in his opening statement.

"One of those big problems with drugs is the Pinnacle methadone clinic located on the south end of South Sixth Street. ... These problems have to be taken care of."

Barrows is a 70-year-old husband and father who worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Services for almost three decades before becoming a senior accounting supervisor for the department's sex offender program before retiring in 2011.

"In 2015, I was elected to the position of Baxter city councilman, which I have now served for three-plus years, and I understand the difficulty in developing and delivering a budget that appropriately addresses difficult issues for local government," he said in his opening statement.

"My top priority is to provide a budget that responsibly addresses the safety concerns of the citizens of Crow Wing County. We all must acknowledge that there's a limited amount of finances that we can ask the taxpayers of Crow Wing County to pay."

County board

There are five members of the county board and each represents one of five districts. Board members, in partnership with county staff, "work to ensure the delivery of services and programs essential to the continued prosperity of Crow Wing County," according to the county's website.

"The challenge that we have is-as I've attended some of the budget meetings-is the methamphetamine issue and the drug issue in our county, and these are what's driving some of these costs ... and are the two challenges that we have," Barrows said.

Tuesday's forum is just one in a series of candidate forums this month in the Brainerd lakes area. Attendees had the opportunity to submit written questions in this interactive forum.

"For eight straight years, commissioners have lowered the tax levy and applied other revenue sources to fund the county budget. What are your thoughts in this direction, and how do you propose funding the county budget in the future?" Holtmeyer asked of the candidates.

Brekken said, "Now this year, we're looking at a 6.99 percent levy increase. ... Staff has paid the price in regards to the services we provide for our county."

Driving the county's 2019 preliminary budget are increasing meth use and rising county employee health insurance costs, according to county officials. Final board approval of the budget is slated for December.

"Eight years of a zero levy with the idea that they've reduced our debt on the county buildings is to be admired, and I applaud the current board for that effort," Barrows said.

"We need to make sure that as we go forward that we're taking a hard look at those services that are asked for by the citizens ... and that we invest in those services and the staff, so we can continue to provide those services."

Commissioners Paul Koering of District 1 and Doug Houge of District 5 are not up for election this year. Their terms end in 2021.

"I certainly am not going to sit here and apologize for eight consecutive years of zero levy ... I challenge you to say that the services have been cut," Thiede said to the packed room.

"We never said we were going to continue it forever. What we've said is we need to re-evaluate what we're doing and how we're doing it and make it more efficient, more transparent, and I've proud of what we've accomplished."

Questions, answers

Candidates were also asked what were their priorities around managing and preserving the county's natural resources ... and about whether the county should hand out condoms, which the board decided not to continue last year through Crow Wing County Community Services.

The county was distributing condoms and lubrication to a targeted population of those served through the family home visiting program, one of several items included in a postpartum packet.

"I think that if condoms can prevent pregnancies, if condoms can prevent infections and disease, my question would be why wouldn't we," Brekken said.

Thiede said, "I have been pro-life from conception to death. This is another issue that is controversial. It's not going to be resolved today. ... We are still going to argue about it, but that's what democracy is about."

Johnson is a small business owner and Brainerd High School graduate who has never served in an elected office, just like Brekken, while Thiede is finishing his fourth term on the county board. Commissioners serve a four-year term and are paid $30,900 a year.

"Distributing condoms to possible parents that cannot afford to have children-and then depending upon taxpayers to support their children-I definitely support giving away condoms. ... My stance on that might or might not get me elected," Johnson said about condom use.

Barrows said, "This is about risky behavior, and risky behavior costs every one of us as taxpayers money, so to address that issue, I believe we have to have every tool in the toolbox to address that issue."

The general election is Nov. 6, but early voting is now available at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse, 326 Laurel St., in Brainerd until Nov. 5.