Q&A: Albert Lea City Council candidates
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of question-and-answer stories that will print in the Tribune in the next few weeks outlining opinions of local candidates running for office.
Voters in wards 1, 3 and 5 in Albert Lea will be asked to choose councilors to represent them in the upcoming election.
Incumbent 1st Ward Councilor Rich Murray and 3rd Ward Councilor Jason Howland are unopposed in the race, while 5th Ward Councilor Robert Rasmussen will face off against former 5th Ward Councilor John Severtson.
The following are questions asked of each candidate and their answers. Look to the Tribune’s Election Guide later this month for additional questions and answers with each of the candidates.
Q: What do you think are your greatest assets to bring to the City Council?
Murray: I think the top attributes that I bring to the City Council are my financial skills, especially in light of what the city could be facing here over the next few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we will be looking at a leaner budget with costs continuing to rise, and it’s going to take a lot of work to keep our finances in line so that we do not become a burden on citizens of Albert Lea due to increases in taxes. I think the other thing that I bring to the City Council is the ability to work with others whether I agree with them or not on an issue. We can sit down, discuss issues, work through things and try to figure out good solutions. The council and staff for the city are here to help improve the city, provide services for the city and we all have a goal of doing that in the best manner possible. Third, I believe I can help solve issues or problems by identifying possible alternative solutions as I think most issues can be resolved with good creative thinking.
Howland: I’m not afraid to speak my mind and ask the tough questions. I’m also very open, honest and will always try to find an answer or resolution for any constituent question or concern.
Rasmussen: I think that I have good people skills to meet and talk to people from various backgrounds. I think my experience in the Army National Guard for seven years helped me in various areas such as communications and how to work as a team. Being on the City Council, you have to have the ability to work with council members and peers with varying backgrounds, and they may also have different views than your own. When you have varying different views you have to find common ground to meet in the middle on different issues at hand.
Severtson: I’ve been part of the City Council since 1985. I worked with the VFW, Human Rights Commission, Planning Commission, Port Authority and Airport Advisory. I have helped fundraise, organize and I was a financial adviser for Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Beyond the Yellow Ribbon has reached statewide and has helped thousands of families. What I would like to do to really help the people of Albert Lea is to listen. I have been part of the City Council for many years and I already know what we have done in the past. I would like to see some change and improvement of businesses in Albert Lea, and I think that would start with listening to the people of Albert Lea.
Q: What are some things you think the city does well at and should continue?
Murray: I think as a city, we do a good job of making Albert Lea an inviting and welcoming community. Some of our greatest assets in this community are our parks, trails and lakes. We have to continue to work on making them inviting and welcoming to people both within the community and those coming into the community to enjoy and make use of the wonderful assets we have. We have a beautiful downtown that has developed very nicely over the past 10 years, so we need to continue looking at ways to expand businesses in the downtown community and also throughout all of Albert Lea to again bring goods and services to the people in the community so that they can have a good quality of life right here in Albert Lea.
Howland: I think city staff and the council are very mindful of the budget and its impact on the taxpayers. For nearly a decade, the city has not increased the general fund tax levy, which is really an amazing feat and certainly not the norm compared to other cities and counties in this region. And the city has done this for the most part without eliminating services. While a levy increase is inevitable, based on inflation, increasing costs — specifically health care insurance for personnel — and will likely occur in 2021, I know that the council and city staff work diligently to crunch the budget numbers these next few months and keep that increase as low as possible.
Rasmussen: I think the city of Albert Lea has some great pieces in place. I think we have a great finance department that works really hard at keeping our budget in order and as low as we can keep the expenses. I think that ALEDA is trying to do good things in trying to maintain our business sector under the difficult financial times due to COVID-19. I think the incoming city manager, Patrick “Ian” Riggs, is excited to try and build on the great things that make Albert Lea a great place to live. I think the departments top to bottom do a great job of fulfilling their duties and making an impact on the community.
Severtson: The city has been doing a great job maintaining while we are dealing with the COVID-19.
Q: What are some things you think the city needs to improve on or change?
Murray: I think as a city we need to constantly work on improving our services and looking for ways to provide city services in a more streamlined, cost effective manner. People work hard at their jobs to pay taxes to the city, and we need to continue to make sure that we are good stewards with those tax dollars and that we are using that money in the proper way to provide good services and make the community a better place to live for everyone living here. We also need to continue working with the businesses in the community to both show our appreciation to them for being a part of this community and helping them grow and prosper because if they are doing well we will all do well.
Howland: I’d like to see the city do more outreach with our citizens and local businesses. If we want to continue to improve our community, we need to do it together and draw insight from the people who work and live here.
Rasmussen: I think in a world of online shopping and due to COVID, it has been a tough environment for business. I think the city manager and ALEDA need to work on growing and developing business. I think we need to keep working on building on our housing stock in the city. We need to keep thinking of things within the Parks Department for the youth to keep them engaged.
Severtson: We need to be more aggressive at change, being excited to have growth in Albert Lea, and encouraging our younger generation to do more in our communities, but if we don’t have a community what are we going to encourage our children to do? By exploring our options for expansion in business and promoting it to the outside world, we could liven up Albert Lea again. I want to encourage the people who are in charge of this to do a better job.
Q: What do you think the city can do better to attract businesses and encourage entrepreneurship?
Murray: I think we need a multi-pronged approach to attracting business and encouraging additional entrepreneurship. We need to continue working on improving on how people outside of Albert Lea view our city. If people have a positive view of the city, they’re going to be more inclined to start a business, grow a business or expand a business here. People will be more inclined to come to the community to seek out opportunities. I think we have a few things working for us right now from the standpoint of trying to help entrepreneurs start businesses with the incubator out in the industrial park. We have several businesses there that have started over the past few years. We are constantly looking for additional businesses that we can help get started by providing space to rent, monetary help where we can, marketing help and guidance to start their business and build their business until they can grow to the point where they can go out and find their own permanent location within the community.
Howland: As a city, we need to continue to provide as many tools in the toolbox as we can — things like tax increment financing, low-interest and forgivable loans — that are contingent on job growth. The city has an economic development fund that has been useful in bringing in new businesses and helping our local businesses expand. I will say I would like to see our city do a better job at marketing ourselves with potential new businesses and even new citizens. It’s a digital world we live in, and we should be marketing ourselves online more and more as the place to live, work and play.
Rasmussen: I think the business loans or incentives are great to get and attract business to the city. Having a good business program at the local college is great to have. I think the new city manager will have to come up with some fresh ideas on how to get new business in the city, while working with business in the city that is already here. The city manager and staff will have to work alongside ALEDA on working on business ideas and ways to encourage entrepreneurship. The chamber and CVB need to keep doing a great job at marketing Albert Lea as a great place to work and play.
Severtson: The city has been stuck in the same businesses that we have had for 40 years. Albert lea is one of the only towns that hasn’t moved forward when it comes to business growth such as many other towns. By eliminating programs and older businesses, we could have room for other business expansion. Gathering new generational ideas and plans is the only way we can get any change to Albert Lea.
Q: What is the top issue facing your ward, and what are your suggestions for how to solve it?
Murray: I think as I look across my ward, Ward 1, and at the issues that are faced there, I hear a number of people are talking about property taxes. They’ve watched their house values increase over the last number of years, but with that comes an increasing property tax burden — not only with the city, but also increased taxes through the school district and county. I think that we need to constantly take a look at that and again try to make sure that we’re not overburdening the citizens of the community, the citizens of Ward 1 and making sure that the amount of taxes that they are paying are not exorbitant and are being used in the proper manner so that the constituents can at least look at it and say they’re doing a good job with the money that we are providing them. We are getting good services and, therefore, a good value for those tax dollars.
Howland: Storm water flooding is an issue in some neighborhoods in Ward 3. Basements get water backed up, backyards are inundated and, in some cases, the streets become raging rivers. Much of the flooding issues on the south side of town stem from the topography of the neighborhoods, many of which are located on lower ground. Because of this, there aren’t any quick fixes, but I will continue to press this issue with our public works officials to find solutions to lessen the flooding in Ward 3 and throughout the city when we do have significant rains and minimize the damage to public and private property.
Rasmussen: I would say the top issues are jobs and housing. We as a city and council need to keep trying to make affordable housing a top issue in the city. We need to work with the HRA and work with interested developers or parties on bringing new housing in the city, while maintaining our existing housing stock. I think the jobs and housing work hand in hand. Try to recruit new business to the city, which helps to build more housing. We need to work with the city manager and ALEDA on these two big issues.
Severtson: The Blazing Star Landing needs to be developed. We had a plan to build an RV park on the south end to bring into the city off the interstate. The city shot this down because they fear it was a 100-year flood zone and could not build in that area. I think that building a park for our trail is still a good idea. The trail is one of Albert Lea’s sight attractions. Fixing that area can be a great thing for our communities and a positive thing for Albert Lea.