Candidates Nelson, Shoff debate costs, watershed

Published 9:13 am Friday, October 10, 2008

In the race for Freeborn County Commissioner District 3, a few issues separate incumbent Jim Nelson, a farmer, from challenger David Shoff, a motel manager.

The two candidates took part Thursday night in the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce forum for county candidates.

On questions of equipment for law enforcement vehicles and the proposed dam for Albert Lea Lake, the two offered different approaches.

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For example, one question from the audience asked, “Would you approve spending $10,000 per patrol car to put a computer in each car?”

Shoff said the county needs to make some purchases to make jobs safer and more efficient. He said he wouldn’t outright veto the idea, but would need to know the benefits.

Nelson, who is finishing his first four-year term on the county board, said it would depend on the facts. Given the budget situation, he said he would probably vote against it.

A related question asked. “At any given time, the county sheriff’s department has one to 1 1/2 deputies in the field … Do you feel a county as large as Freeborn can be adequately served by the few deputies we have on staff?”

Nelson said high turnover is part of the problem, as staff shortages lead to fewer deputies on patrol. He agreed that the current staffing level probably isn’t enough.

Shoff said people tell him not to cut the sheriff’s budget because they want to feel safe. If the county gets it budget under control, then it might be able to afford additional deputies. He would like to see an increase in the sheriff’s staff and noted the progress made in recent years by Sheriff Mark Harig.

Another question asked how the candidates would make more efficient use of the county jail.

Shoff said the county needs to reach out more to other counties for contracting with Freeborn County instead of expanding their jails or building new ones.

Nelson said the county has taken this step and has a contract with the state of Minnesota for housing inmates. He added that the jail must call in more staff when reaching a certain threshold of prisoners.

District 3 surrounds much of Albert Lea and includes some of the east and northeast parts of the city. It also includes the outlet of Albert Lea Lake at the Shell Rock River, for which a proposed dam project has been a hot topic.

Question: Have you been to the dam at the outlet of Albert Lea Lake and have you spoken to landowner Greg Jensen?”

Nelson said he’s been to the dam many times and spoken to Jensen many times. The county board is working with Jensen to reach an agreement for the benefit of the county and the watershed.

“It’s just a matter of time before this is put together,” he said.

Shoff said he’s been to the dam area, and added he would speak to Jensen about the issue if elected.

“I believe this is an issue that can be discussed and we can find a solution to the situation,” he added.

Question: Earlier this week, the county board derailed the watershed board’s plan for a joint County Road 19 bridge-Albert Lea Lake dam with over $200,000 already invested and $250,000 in DNR funding that is now in jeopardy. Please explain how you would vote on the issue.

Shoff said he would need more information, but would have probably voted in favor of the combined bridge-dam structure.

Nelson said it was a tough decision to vote down the proposed dam-bridge structure, but he feared losing state funding for replacing the bridge next year. The county board needed to make a decision to pursue a lone bridge structure to lock in that funding. He added that he doesn’t believe in obtaining land by condemnation, which the proposed bridge-dam structure may have required.

Question: Do you believe the Shell Rock River is a public waterway for all to enjoy or to be controlled by private landowners?

Nelson said the river runs through his property where he’s lived for more than 50 years. He agrees that the water is public but that people need to use public accesses to get on the river, not private land. He also said his family used to fence the river for cattle crossing and it was aggravating to have people in boats cut the fence.

“I don’t mind them out there, but they need to ask,” he said.

Shoff agreed that the waterway is public but that private land is private.

Appointing managers to the Shell Rock River Watershed District Board was another topic at Thursday’s forum. The Freeborn County Board appoints the seven managers of the watershed board for 3-year terms.

Question: Would you seek managers for the watershed district board that have experience in hydrology, not just agriculture?

Shoff said he would like to improve the process for appointing watershed board managers, expanding the process from just a letter of interest to include interviews. Watershed managers should come from all walks of life and all types of business, he said, and there should be a core competency for why the managers are selected.

Nelson agreed that the watershed board needs a more varied representation. On the other hand, he added, it’s hard to find people willing to make the time commitment to the board.

Other questions centered on balancing the county’s 2009 budget, which commissioners need to cut by $1.5 million.

Question: What experience do you have that would be most helpful in balancing the county budget?

Nelson said the last four years on the board help him “tremendously,” as he knows the situation.

Commissioners are grappling with the decision to cut rides for the elderly, funding to the fair, funding to the city library and other services.

“We’re going to lose services someplace along the line,” he warned of the budget cuts.

Shoff noted his degrees in accounting and finance, his passing the Certified Public Accountant exam, and his experience in running two motels, down to the budget decision of how many soap bars to place in each room.

The budget is a big issue here. We’re going to face some big cutbacks here. But we can do it in a disciplined manner,” he added.

Question: If the Legislature again cuts state aid or shifts more expenses to the county, but does not reduce mandates on the county, what would you do?

Shoff said those cuts are already happening. The county needs to look at how it funds programs mandated by the state. A mandate doesn’t force the county to spend a certain level of money, he said. In addition, the county may need to look at staff layoffs.

Nelson said the best solution is for all 87 counties in Minnesota to tell the state Legislature to either pay for mandated programs or the counties will refuse to do those jobs. But that’s not going to happen, he added, so the county will need to cut the budget of several departments.

Taxpayers should be glad to know that both candidates agreed to cut the commissioners’ annual salary of $23,000, or not take a pay raise, if needed to balance the budget.

Other questions concerned county laws and staff conduct.

Question: Due to the high concentration of hog confinement buildings in Freeborn County, would you favor a countywide ordinance to one-half mile setback over the current one-fourth mile?

Shoff said he’s not sure that setback needs to be moved. The county needs to look at the hog operation as a whole for complying with ordinances.

Nelson said, “I’m not in favor of the half mile. The quarter-mile is kind of the state standard.”

Feedlot operators have worked with the county on building away from homes with small children, planting wind breaks, and taking other steps to reduce odor, he added.

And some questions focused on the character of the candidate.

Question: Please name something you have been involved with that shows you’re a team player instead of a solo shooter?

Nelson said of county commissioners, who often vote 3-2 on issues, “We can disagree at that board meeting, but when we leave, we’re all united – most of the time.”

Shoff said he makes management decisions in his work, but he puts policies and procedures out to his staff for discussion and feedback.

Question: Would you be for or against county assessors entering private homes or dwellings without announcement or prior approval? And would you agree or disagree that this is an invasion of privacy or considered invasion of privacy?

Both candidates agreed that such conduct would be trespassing or invasion of privacy.

After half an hour of questions, the candidates had a chance to make closing statements.

Nelson said he’s up to balancing the budget. He emphasized that the last four years have been a real learning experience.

“The people of District 3 have put their time into me, and their money into me and now I’d like to pay it back,” he said.

Shoff said his main reason for running is to help Freeborn County with its budget and make the tough decisions.

“We need to get the budget in a position so Freeborn County can grow. We often talk about Freeborn County and why it doesn’t grow. One of the reasons is the property tax basis … The primary reason I’m running is to get the budget balanced and us moving forward,” he said.

District 3 voters will make their choice between Nelson and Shoff on Nov. 4. For information about the elections, go to To see a detailed map of the commissioner districts, go to