Three candidates vying to represent District 5 on the Crow Wing County Board sought to differentiate themselves Thursday, July 30, during a candidate forum.
Before a small, masked audience at Mayberry Auditorium in Crosby-Ironton High School, incumbent Commissioner Doug Houge touted his 13 years of county government experience, while challengers Tom Nixon and Michael Starry each made the case for a fresh face.
Put on by the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the Brainerd Lakes Area League of Women Voters, along with moderation by Tom Martin of R & J Broadcasting, the morning forum also appeared live online via Zoom.
The three candidates will be narrowed to two following a Tuesday, Aug. 11, primary election. District 5 covers the northeastern portion of the county, including the cities of Crosby, Cuyuna, Deerwood, Emily, Fifty Lakes, Ironton, Manhattan Beach, Riverton and Trommald.
In his opening statement, Houge offered examples of successes he’s been a part of on the board - standing alone among counties in the state by holding down the property tax levy for eight years, eliminating a majority of the county’s debt and supporting the local option sales tax, among others. The latter, Houge said, resulted in 300 miles of road improvements so far, one-third of which were located in District 5.
“Having experience at this time, I believe, is important to carry Crow Wing County through these challenging times current, and yet to come,” Houge said, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nixon said he could bring a creative angle to the county board. The former school board member and city council member said it’s important to be able to work together with other representatives to accomplish things together. He noted keeping the levy down also required deficit spending, and if he were elected, he would push for building up fund balances in the county’s budget.
“You have to work with your board peers. You have to come up with solutions to problems that have differing viewpoints and you’re going to challenge each other to come up with that solution,” Nixon said. “I’m ready for that.”
Starry said as a first-time candidate, he may not know some of the terminologies, but he offers real-world experience. He said his lack of knowledge of county processes is a benefit, and his own personal struggle to make ends meet while raising a family gives him a perspective helpful to evaluating county finances. Starry said he was homeless for 10 years but overcame, raising six children, only two of which were his biological kids.
“So I brought myself up from a whole world of nothing to a position of relative comfort and decency, and now that’s provided me the opportunity to run for local office and try to bring the knowledge that I gained from real-world experience, from fighting what every other person in this county does every day, figuring out how to make ends meet, while raising a family, and I look at things a little differently,” Starry said.
Martin proceeded to ask the candidates about 10 questions, a combination of those prepared by sponsors and those collected from the audience. They covered topics such as county finances and taxes, balancing recreation and water quality, affordable housing, mental health and the Second Amendment.
So what would the candidates do if they had a $1 million grant they could use for anything? Starry said he’d place it in a rainy day fund, noting it doesn’t need to be spent just because it’s there. Nixon said he’d look for something that presented the best return for the investment, referencing the debt restructuring the county previously undertook. Houge said he’d like to see fund balances rebuilt, but noted it would be a board decision to discuss options.
As for how the candidates would promote affordable housing, Nixon noted he’d look to the business community to be partners in development and noted investing in affordable housing was an example of a front-end investment that could have an impact downstream.
“If we invest wisely there, we may find that we have more business growth, more residents here contributing to the tax base, more residents purchasing and involved in the economy,” Nixon said. “At that point, the investment becomes a return.”
Houge said he was interested in learning more about a study from the Crow Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority exploring the availability of affordable housing, and would use that information to offer solutions.
Starry said the county suffers a severe lack of affordable housing, and he noted some homes listed as “affordable” are unattainable for many in the area, even those who might make more money than the average county resident.
Candidates agreed there wasn’t any part of the county budget in particular they’d shelter from cuts. Houge said each department faces unique challenges and often must fund state or federal mandates that can be unpredictable. Starry said in a rare moment, he agreed with Houge.
WATCH THE FORUM
“You should be allowed and willing to make cuts where cuts are needed. They’re always going to change,” Starry said. “Needs of the county change hourly. So, what you thought should have been protected this morning may not need to be protected this afternoon because we might get a COVID pandemic and suddenly everything changes.”
Nixon said although he had no specific area he would shield, he believes protection and safety of county residents is something that needs to be taken very seriously. He said he’d like to see a strategic plan to approaching the budget prioritizing what’s required to meet this goal.
Mixed in with the serious questions was one giving voters a chance to get to know the candidates better. Martin asked them to explain where they lived and why, along with their favorite places to spend time in the area.
Starry lives on a country road with five other houses in Irondale Township, because he likes living away from people and it’s only a mile away from a dairy farm he spent weekends on as a child. He said he’s an avid ice fisherman and can usually be found sitting on a bucket in the middle of a frozen lake.
Nixon lives in Deerwood Township on the same property where his grandparents lived and where he played as a child. With seven children, he said he spends a lot of time at the school, but also likes to go boating and spend time hiking and hunting.
Houge lives on Blackhoof Lake in Irondale Township. He said between his county responsibilities and being a business owner, he doesn’t get too much leisure time, but the impending sale of his bar will make that more possible.
“When I do have the opportunity to break loose and just get away and sit and relax, I make several trips up to the Milford Mine (Memorial Park),” Houge said. “If nobody has been out there, it is one of the best designed parks in the county, probably in the state.”
In closing statements, candidates had two minutes for one last pitch.
Nixon thanked his opponents for being kind to one another and encouraged people to check whether they’re registered to vote or if they’re supposed to receive a mail ballot. He said the forum only allowed for a narrow window into the candidates’ positions and he hoped to speak with more residents to share his vision.
“Who are we when we’re not in front of the stage? Have that conversation, find out who we are,” Nixon said. “I think you’re going to get to know us as good people, but we all approach life differently.”
Houge reiterated his experience and its importance as the county looks ahead to possibly years of navigating the pandemic.
“I’m a commissioner also that’s going to listen and treat people fairly, a commissioner that’s going to continue to protect our waters and streams, a commissioner that’s supporting all of our recreational opportunities that bring the people to our area,” Houge said. “All of this is important without losing focus of these challenges.”
Starry said he wasn’t uniquely qualified for the position because there are no unique qualifications, beyond residency and being of voting age. He said his approach to life and the office, should he win it, is different and comes from a place of finding solutions in everyday life.
“How do we handle this like humans, how do we maintain dignity and how do we support liberty throughout all of that? Err on the side of freedom is the only mantra that I live by,” Starry said. “So, my closing statement is if you want somebody new, something different, a change, somebody that’s going to maintain humanity the whole time, give me a look. If not, the other guys are available on the ballot, too.”