Candidates for Morrison County commissioner share views on taxes, spending and per diems

To provide our readers with information to help them in their decision-making at the polls, the Record sent out a questionnaire to each of the candidates for the Morrison County Board of Commissioners. Candidates are seeking seats in Districts 1, 2 and 3.

The candidates were asked to introduce themselves and to respond to the following questions. The responses to each of the following questions were limited to 100 words:

1) How will the county address the needs of its residents if the state continues to shift more of the tax burden to county governments?

2) What can the county do to reduce spending, or spend its revenue smarter, to keep from overburdening taxpayers?

3) What should the county’s policy be on per diem? Should commissioners be allowed to accept a per diem from more than one source for the same meeting?  If not, how should the county decide which per diem to accept?

Sharon Ballou • Candidate, District 1

Sharon Ballou

Introduction: Married to Duane, 43 years, with four adult children. I currently sit on the Region 5 Development Board, Camp Ripley Citizen Advisory, Mid-State Education Board, Community Services Advisory, State Active Healthy Living Advisory.  I’m treasurer of the Randall VFW Auxiliary 9073 and vice chair of the Little Falls School Board. I bring experience in union negotiations, agri-business, public speaking, budgeting, community networking, recruitment of paid staff and volunteer personnel, review of programs in various fields and grant writing. I network with many who have concerns and connections with Morrison County. I’m running for commissioner to continue serving Morrison County at a new level.

Question 1: If the state continues to shift tax burdens to the county, Morrison County resident needs and safety must remain our top priority. Every department has this responsibility. The obvious is law enforcement, however public works must keep roads and bridges safe, Public Health and Social Services need to ensure the health and welfare of our residents. With this focus, looking at budget trimming again, brings the determination of what duties and properties can be shared between departments saving on equipment, maintenance and staffing costs.

Question 2: Demand for county services will increase while tax revenues will not, especially if we do not work to develop new businesses. That means you need commissioners who will think of every tax dollar as if it were coming from their own pocket, and who will constantly look for more efficient ways to provide services. Cross training is already happening, but some areas have to determine the legal ramifications because of data privacy laws. There comes a point when the county has to look at bringing in new revenues as much as reducing costs.

Question 3: The literal Latin translation of “per diem” is “per day,” referring to any pay or reimbursement that is made by the day should be limited to “one source per meeting.” Because state law requires that commissioners serve on boards of other public organizations, I suggest a review of what the average total payment for a year has been, adjust the salary; then the only other payments budgeted for would be those with receipts required. I also question the number of organization meetings that commissioners need to be at with today’s electronic messaging and other communication tools.

Kevin Maurer • Candidate, District 1

Kevin Maurer

Introduction: I’m a lifelong resident of Morrison County, growing up in Little Falls and I have lived in District 1 for 24 years. I live with my wife, Julie Kuchinski, in the log home we built by Cushing. We have two adult children, Dustin who’s in the landscaping program at Brained Community College (BCC) and Shauna, who’s at University Minnesota – Duluth. Education: 1973 Little Falls graduate, 1978 LPN program at BCC, 1983 Natural Resources Program at BCC and 1985 Counselor Program at Fergus Falls State Hospital. I have assisted the residents of Morrison County with problems/issues for over 35 years.

Question 1: We need to utilize the great amount of expertise that the people who live and prosper in our communities have. State, counties, cities, townships, school districts, business, owners and residents have a wealth of information. We need to utilize this vast amount of expertise. I have assisted the residents of Morrison County and surrounding counties, in addressing issues which are affecting their ability to continue to thrive. The key to assisting individuals or groups is to help them identify common goals and objectives necessary to achieve the desired outcome. We “need” to work together for the common good.

Question 2: Home is a large part of the American dream. We need to keep people in their homes, where they thrive. Excessive taxes are a temporary solution, but lost revenue from empty homes and the need of government to support those that lose their homes, means we lose on both ends. We need to pool our resources, from a knowledge, intelligence and financial perspective. There are thriving business owners in these tough economic times. We need to utilize all of their expertise and assistance in running government effectively and efficiently. We need to realize how interdependent we are on one another.

Question 3: Commissioners should not be allowed to collect per diem from more than one source and only for the day of the meeting. A consistent per diem needs to be set for all meetings, internal and external. Higher per diems could inappropriately influence decisions made on a board. The County Board needs to remove any room for inappropriate influence on any board. Commissioners need to be held to the highest standard of behavior at meetings and in any interaction with the public. The County Board Room needs to be a place where the public and staff feel comfortable, free from verbal abuse and intimidating behavior.

Jeffrey J. Jelinski • Candidate, District 2

Jeffrey J. Jelinski

Introduction: I’m Jeffrey J. Jelinski, a lifelong resident of Morrison County and an 18-year resident of Belle Prairie Township where I live with my wife Barb. I have spent the past 33 years in public service, all while working in public safety communications. I want to bring open communications to the County Board along with accountability, integrity and the true sense of public service, all while working as a cooperative team. I’m currently an emergency manager for Morrison County, certified by the Emergency Management Institute and state of Minnesota. I also serve as the co-administrator on the ARMER Project.

Question 1: Very carefully. “If” this is the case, the county will once again have to assess each and every part of county government along with county government spending. As uncomfortable as this is, department heads would be forced to stretch and cut as deep as necessary, all while keeping essential services up front. We all have to work within our means, make the right choices and do what’s right for the citizens of Morrison County. Further, Morrison County has to continue to go after whatever grants are available from the state and federal side in an effort to offset taxes.

Question 2: Quite honestly, each and every one of us has to live within our means and balance our own checkbooks. Government is no different. As a board, we have to direct our department heads to continuously be smarter, to work within the parameters of “the checkbook,” all while searching for new and better methods. The County Board needs to be accountable and needs to monitor department heads to assure their accountability is “your” accountability. Keeping technology at the forefront, cutting paper waste equates to cutting landfill waste. Every little bit helps.

Question 3: The current County Board is working on solving this issue. Personally, the law or board policy has to be followed. It’s that simple. A clear determination has to be made by the Board showing exactly what is and what isn’t covered under “per diem” and when a claim can or cannot be made. Once this is accomplished, everyone’s answer to “per diem” should be spelled out crystal clear.

Jeff Schilling • Incumbent, District 2

Jeff Schilling

Question 1: The county will continue to look at the services we provide, both mandated and unfunded mandates. We will continue to prioritize the most important services keeping in mind the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Morrison County.

Question 2: The county has been working with less funds from the state, around $1.3 million over the past number of years. We have implemented ways of saving monies by combining offices, ie: the auditor/treasurer combination. Also, when employees leave or retire we look to see if we can get by without filling the position and still provide good services. We are also utilizing part-time staff when possible. Our levy increases have been 0 percent, 1.5 percent and 0 percent over the past three years. This is due largely to the hard work and cooperating of our department heads and dedicated employees.

Question 3: I believe the county should go to a straight wage for the commissioners and eliminate the per diem model we presently use. If we stay with the per diem model, we need to tighten up our policies and be more specific as to what will or will not be paid.

Rich Collins • Incumbent, District 3

Rich Collins

Introduction: My name is Richard (Rich) Collins. I am married to my wife Linda going on 33 years. We have four children and eight grandchildren. We live in Little Falls Township and I have been a citizen of Morrison County for 34 years. My wife and I attend Faith Lutheran Church in Little Falls. I retired from the state of Minnesota, Department of Military Affairs after 20 years of service in 2009. Currently, I am the commissioner for District 3 Morrison County which includes Ward 3 of the city of Little Falls, Little Falls Township, Bellevue Township and the city of Royalton. I am campaigning for my second four-year term.

Question 1: Adjust the budget to  the best of our ability. Have department heads continue to cut their budgets to help with needed dollars. Depending on the amount of dollars that we may be short, we may have to cut services depending on our projected revenue income. Raising taxes would be the last resort. We can meet with our legislators and Associates of Minnesota Counties (AMC) to express that enough is enough. The county can no longer burden the taxpayers with tax shifts and unfunded mandates.

Question 2: Morrison County will continue to be frugal with the taxpayers’ dollars. The County Board has held the levy to 0 percent three of the last four years. The only year we didn’t was when the 800 megahertz federally-mandated radio communication project. Unnecessary hiring is not taking place and in the last four years, Morrison County has not replaced 15 positions through attrition and will continue to replace employees as needed. Crosstraining and sharing staff whenever possible can be another option, ie: combining treasurer’s office and auditor’s office three years ago. Develop a process to continue our working relationships with surrounding governing bodies such as Camp Ripley and support local businesses to increase dollars spent within our county.

Question 3: To my knowledge, commissioners were not allowed to more than one per diem per day. This information was shared with the County Board in 1994 and 1995 by the county attorney. Three of the commissioners that are on the Board as of today were not given that information and relied on information from the county auditor. No, commissioners should not be allowed to accept a per diem from more than one source for the same meeting. In recent weeks, the county staff and County Board has been working on a new policy to address all issues on per diem. The best way would be to not have per diems and go to a basic salary. There would be no claims for per diem and monitoring would be so much simpler.

Randy H. Winscher • Candidate, District 3

Randy H. Winscher

Introduction: I was born in Little Falls and grew up on a large dairy farm in Buckman Township. I graduated from Royalton High School. My career has been in management and finance. As general manager of a company with a multi-million dollar budget, the position required managing employees, skills in solving problems and extensive work in public relations. Currently I am in my sixth year as an elected Bellevue Township supervisor. My wife Nancy and I have been married for 32 years and have three children and three grandchildren. We now reside on a small farm near Royalton.

Question 1: Having years of finance and management experience, I would address this issue in three ways: one, by cutting expenses, two, generating income, and lastly department budgets. This would require accountability of expenditures at all levels of the county government. Cost sharing with other counties is another possibility. As your county commissioner, I can bring new thoughts and ideas to the county about how to shift that burden, if necessary, with the least amount of challenges to the local taxpayers. Spending money wisely and finding ways to keep taxes down is important and beneficial to all of us.

Question 2: The state and county all face financial challenges. There is wasteful spending in most governments. Some possibilities to reduce excessive spending could include eliminating unnecessary meetings, or purchasing bulk materials and supplies. Currently, as a cost-saving method, Bellevue Township and the city of Royalton share the cost of the fire department. When called out to an auto accident, the city bills their insurance company, collecting thousands of dollars in revenue. We need to continue re-examining other ways of generating funds and reducing financial obligations. As your county commissioner, I will do my best to find ways of spending smarter.

Question 3: County commissioners and county employees should have the per diem set at a pre-determined rate and be accountable for appropriate submissions. I believe the county commissioners should be forthright with their expenses. No one expects personnel to participate in county business at their own expense. My idea would be if additional or duplicate source of payments are received, those funds should be turned over to the county treasurer. As your next county commissioner, I will hold myself accountable for any per diem submitted for reimbursement.