Jobs and taxes highlight of debate

Published 10:42 am Saturday, October 13, 2012

Questions about job growth, the downtown and property taxes took center stage Thursday during a forum between candidates for Albert Lea and Freeborn County offices.

Incumbent Mayor Vern Rasmussen and opponent Keith Porter, along with incumbent 3rd Ward Councilor Ellen Kehr and opponent George Marin, participated in the city portion of the forum. Incumbent 1st District Commissioner Glen Mathiason and opponent Neal Gjersvik, along with incumbent 3rd District Commissioner Jim Nelson and opponent Ron Steckman, took part in the county portion.

Look to Sunday’s Tribune for more information on the county races.

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The forum was sponsored by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce.

Rasmussen, who has been in office for eight years, said he thinks the city needs to focus on maintaining infrastructure and keeping taxes at a tolerable level to bring job growth.

“The biggest thing we have to do is to continue to make our playing field as successful as we can for local businesses,” Rasmussen said.

Porter, a former Freeborn County commissioner, said the challenge is to bring jobs to town, noting that the city competes with every other city in the country when it tries to bring jobs here.

Marin, who served two terms on the council previously, said the city can offer land, infrastructure and a healthy business climate to potential businesses. He spoke of some of the innovators in Albert Lea, including Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen and said it is important to foster this innovation in the city.

Kehr, who is at the end of her first term, said while the city is not typically the lead partner on bringing a large business to the community, it can support the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency in its efforts and help in infrastructure needs.

There are also many things that can happen on a state level that impact the ability to create jobs locally, she said.


Downtown redevelopment

Kehr said she is in favor of the downtown Broadway reconstruction and streetscape project, noting that the reconstruction of Broadway is a necessity to Albert Lea. When it comes to the extra amenities on top of the street, such as lighting and other decoration, Kehr said the city should choose something nice.

She touted the $1 million in bonding funds the city received for this project and said she does not think the project can wait.

Rasmussen said the infrastructure portion of the project is a “no-brainer.” The city has scaled back some of the amenities planned for the top of the street, he said, and the project is a chance for Albert Lea to recreate itself.

“We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve done before and expect different results,” he said.

He said he supports making downtown Albert Lea a showcase for the community.

“If we put it back the way it is, I don’t think this does that.”

Marin said while he agreed the project is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and the infrastructure needs to be replaced, he is not in favor of losing downtown businesses because of it.

Porter said he thinks the project would be nice when it’s completed but questioned whether it was a good time to use the money for it.


Community involvement

One question focused on what the council can do to encourage residents to be involved in the community and in local government.

Rasmussen said the city needs to use social media, including Twitter and Facebook, along with the radio, newspaper and television to reach out to the community.

“When people think they’re being listened to, that’s when they’ll come out,” he said.

Kehr said Albert Lea’s community survey showed that city officials are not as good at communicating as they need to be. She said the community picnics this summer were a good way to involve the community, and said she thinks elected officials need to be out in the community listening to people.

Marin said his answer involved four main steps: communication, modeling, listening and taking action.

Porter said more people should run for office and more ideas should be encouraged.


Property taxes

Kehr said if she is re-elected she supports moving forward as a fiscal conservative because of uncertainties on the state level.

She said every year since she has been in office, the council and city staff have looked at every department and every source of revenue when making the budget. She said the city needs to be in a position where it can handle anything that comes up and noted she has voted for a zero percent tax levy increase two out of three of her years in office.

Marin said on his eight years previously on the council he fought hard to keep taxes down.

The city needs to continue to look outside of the box and work with state legislators to secure local government aid dollars, Marin said.

Porter said while everyone wants better taxes, he recognizes that taxes pay for many important things in the community such as the Fire Department and roads.

Rasmussen said he thinks the city needs to build its tax base, look at ways to become more efficient and look at new technology.

“It may cost us some money today, but it will save us money in the long run,” he said.


National Vitality Center

Rasmussen, Kehr and Marin said they think the Vitality Project, which has been run by mainly volunteers, has been positive for the city.

Rasmussen said he thinks people should support its efforts as individuals but he does not support contributing tax money to the project.

Kehr said she thinks the group needs to work on getting more grants.

Porter said he did not see where the Vitality Project had done any good and said he wouldn’t care if the Vitality Center closed.


Half cent sales tax for lakes

All of the candidates said they support the Shell Rock River Watershed District’s efforts to dredge Fountain Lake.

Candidates also answered questions about increasing population, using grant money and what they would do differently than their opponent.

After the city portion of the forum, people in attendance also heard brief presentations for and against the proposed charter amendment asking to expand Albert Lea mayoral terms to four years.

Look to Sunday’s edition for more on this issue.