Chamber forum becomes heated
Before a packed house, Lakeville mayoral candidates faced off at a Lakeville Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum at City Hall on Oct. 9.
Mayor Mark Bellows and Council Member Matt Little sparred back-and-forth for much of the debate with Council Member Laurie Rieb making her case for her candidacy in the middle, mostly outside of the fight.
Chamber forums typically are not full-on debates, but instead focus on exposing to an audience and cable viewers candidates’ positions on various topics.
Executive Director Todd Bornhauser emphasized to the candidates before air-time and to the audience that “this is not a debate.”
However, Little and Bellows – foes on the council since early 2011’s swearing in of the current term – took to calling each other out on alleged fallacies and misrepresentations.
Bellows, pastor of Hope Community Church in Lakeville, accused Little of being a liberal, big-government candidate who uses special interest groups for political gain. He said that Little’s vote against outsourcing the city’s electrical inspection – a $90,000 savings – is evidence of this.
Little, a U of M law student, countered that he is “not worried about saving the city money. I’m worried about saving the taxpayer money. Wait times are increased now and service is reduced.”
He said that a public/private compromise he supported would have retained revenue at a time when “permitting is on the rise” while saving taxpayers money.
One of the questions asked centered on the three top challenges Lakeville faces.
Rieb, development director for 360 Communities, said aging infrastructure and the tax consequences on residents and businesses was a major challenge.
As the city’s streets age, they need to be replaced or reconstructed. This puts a burden on “residents assessed 40 percent of the project cost and is also a burden to taxpayers who shoulder the other 60 percent.”
Bellows agreed that roads are an issue, whether it is their maintenance, replacement or easing excessive traffic loads thus ensuring better, safer roads.
“It’s a significant price tag,” he said.
Balancing people’s expectations with financial constraints is a huge challenge, he said.
“The council is forced to make choices where it can’t make everyone happy,” he said. “We have to differentiate between wants and needs.”
He said another challenge is making the city more competitive.
“We’re trying to attract new businesses and industries to the city, but so is every other city,” he said. “We have to take a hard look at developers’ fees, (city) policies and (the city’s) marketing strategies.”
Little said public safety needs will only grow as the city adds thousands of more people over the coming decades. Public safety is the city’s largest expense.
In addition to infrastructure needs, Little said that the economic recession taught Lakeville that diversified commercial and industrial sectors are important. Lakeville’s primarily manufacturing-based sector left it vulnerable, he said.
Another question asked candidates to define and prove their fiscal conservatism.
Little, first elected to the council in 2010, said it is about “spending our money smart in a way that doesn’t just save money tomorrow, but saves money long into the future.”
He referred to his 2011 advocacy for the return of a police records technician – to take the burden off police officers and keep them on the streets – as an example.
“It was wasted money,” he said. “A records technician costs much less than a police officer.”
Bellows, who first was elected to the City Council in 2000, referred to his opening remarks from the night, when he said, quoting former Mayor Bob Johnson, that he is “a reflection of Lakeville’s values and principles.”
“I believe in smaller, more efficient and less intrusive government,” Bellows said. “I believe the private sector takes precedence over the public sector.”
He said his vote for outsourcing the electrical inspector is an example of his fiscal conservatism. He then pointed out that Police Chief Tom Vonhof had budgeted a full-time records technician for 2013.
He then wondered why “Little attempted to bring (the position) on six months” before the police even wanted it.
Rieb, who has served on the council as long as Bellows, said it is about spending taxpayers’ money wisely and efficiently.
Collaboration with other governments was evidence of her fiscally conservative leanings, she said, referring to the Dakota County Communications Center and the joint ISD 194/city of Lakeville-owned Hasse Arena.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” she said.
Another question asked about the city’s services and if any should be eliminated.
They all agreed that public safety, infrastructure and water and sewer were essential services.
Little and Rieb added that “youth and senior services” such as the parks, recreation and the Heritage Center are important parts of the city and offer, as Rieb said, “a quality of life in all stages.”
She said that Lakeville has managed to be a high- amenity city while having some of the lowest tax rates in the metro.
Little said in addition to the recreational elements, a city should attempt to attract businesses within its borders.
He pointed to his recently-released 17-page policy document, inside which is a Four-Point Job Creation Plan that consists of a business competition package, leveraging a new marketing plan, encouraging small-business growth and streamlining the city’s development process.
Bellows said that businesses reacted to “the new economic normal” by becoming leaner and more efficient.
“Government is expected to be leaner, too,” he said.
In 2008, when the fiscal winds blew their stench into the mix, the city started to make preparations. Departments recommended cuts and efficiencies.
“(Finance Director) Dennis Feller and staff responded by downsizing the operation,” Bellows said. “We reduced the number of employees quite dramatically since 2008.”
In their closing remarks, the candidates defined themselves and Bellows and Little made some references to each other.
“Mayor Bellows and I trade back and forth … it’s a little ‘inside baseball,’ ” Little said. “But our job up here isn’t rocket science. It’s not about details, labels, old or young and certainly not about yard signs. It’s not about us up here. It’s about coming together to build a better city.”
“In the end, being a good leader in our community means working with people to solve problems and build a better city,” he said. “If elected mayor, that’s what I will do.”
Bellows said he is a “watchdog for the taxpayer. I will lead with principle and reflect Lakeville’s values. It has been an honor to be your mayor.”
He said that Little has made him out to be a “conservative who wants to push granny off the cliff, in typical liberal fashion” because he opposed the Heritage Center.
He opposed the Heritage Center, he said, because he thought selling the building to pay off debt incurred from building a new police station would have been a better option.
“The vacant building was a monument to government inefficiency,” Bellows said.
Also, the Heritage Center is not visionary enough, he said, referring to former Parks and Recreation Director Steve Michaud’s assessment that the Heritage Center would serve seniors for eight years.
Rieb said she is running for mayor “because I have a passion for Lakeville.”
“I have been involved in volunteering since I moved here 25 years ago,” she said. “I have no higher political aspirations.”
She then said she wants to “help lead Lakeville into the future. I believe I have the temperament, skills and leadership to do that.”
The forum in full is available to stream online at the city’s website or by tuning into the city’s cable channel.
The next chamber-sponsored forum focuses on City Council candidates Doug Anderson, Dave Bares and incumbent Kerrin Swecker, who are competing for two seats. It will be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 at City Hall.
As with the other forums, it will be broadcast live and recorded for later consumption.