Speaking with District 1 commissioner candidates

Rhonda Silence

Although it seems as if the 2014 general election is far away, primary mail ballots go out to Cook County citizens in the middle of July. The August 12 primary will narrow the ballot from six candidates to two. It’s time to start thinking about who you want to represent you as Cook County commissioner. The News- Herald interviewed the candidates in Commissioner District 1 to get their opinions on a few topics.

These questions barely scratch the surface of the many issues commissioners must be up-to-date on. Catch up with the candidates yourself to ask your own questions about matters important to you. To hear more of the candidates’ thoughts, tune in to hear a live in-studio candidate forum with WTIP’s Jay Andersen and News-Herald Editor Rhonda Silence on WTIP community radio at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16.

Tune your dial to 90.7 FM, 91.7 Gunflint Trail, or 90.1 Grand Portage.

What sort of biographical information would you like to share about yourself?

John W. Bockovich: I wasn’t born in Cook County. I was born in Lake County. I went to school there and graduated from William Kelley High School in 1979. Most of the things that have served me well I learned at home, not at school. When I lived in the Cities, I used the things I learned from my dad at home.

In the Cities I worked as a production welder, production machinist and installed underground sprinkler systems. I lived in Cook County after graduating, then the Cities for 11 years. We moved back here in 1995 and I’ve worked at Hedstrom Lumber, with Grand Portage Construction and at the school.

I live in Hovland with my wife Sandy and two kids. Hovland is home. Kristin DeArruda Wharton: I live in Colvill with my husband and our children. I moved to Cook County in 2000. We’ve lived here 12 of the last 14 years. The other two years we lived on the Navajo Nation in Arizona where I was earning loan repayment working for Indian Health Services.

Our family runs a small farm in Colvill. We’ve been landowners for 12 years.

I grew up in Duluth and Ely. My family has been on the North Shore for five generations and that historic connection is important to me.

For the past five years I’ve been working with the community and local government on community health programs such as Moving Matters, Safe Routes to School and with SHIP [State Health Improvement Program]. I’ve had the opportunity to work with the community as a nurse at the school, hospital, ER and clinic. Harry Drabik: From age 15 to the present, my whole background is northern Minnesota—in Hoyt Lakes and Hovland. I’ve lived in Hovland since 1967, when I replaced Marian Jacobsen as the English teacher.

Since then, I did a lot of things— snowplowing, maple syruping, wild ricing. Back then a teacher’s salary wasn’t that good. I didn’t have running water for 10 years.

I’ve earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in education and my specialty is in programming. For example, I worked with the Boy Scouts handling programming, which means getting people involved in activities, learning something; learning how to cook together and cooperate in other ways.

Programming is drawing resources from individuals. I see that as a role of county commissioner—using our resources—and by that, I mean people too. We’ve got some really good people up here. Steve Fleace: As far as my accounting and business experience, I have been involved in those for over 30 years. I graduated from college for professional accounting and computer science in 1985.

My wife Mary Kay and I live on Boulder Boulevard on Tom Lake, north of Hovland. Jerry Hiniker: Most significant is that I’ve been involved one way or another in public service most of my life. I studied art, engineering and forestry, but I’ve been drawn to public policy more and more. I now have over 20 years experience in elected offices and many years in appointed office. I have an idea of how the process works. I tend to be more process orientated than issue orientated.

Add to that my business experience. I have experience on both sides, which brings a little more unique perspective.

Add to that community service, working as a volunteer helps you understand your other roles.

I think I have the most experience for this office.

Geographically—I live in the Colvill area, up the hill. I’ve lived there over five years now, but the connection to Grand Marais was made when I first visited in 1952. I was drawn to Grand Marais, to the Boundary Waters. There is no other place like it. Frank Moe: I used to serve in the Minnesota legislature. I didn’t run for reelection in 2008 and when we were trying to decide where we wanted to live, we asked ourselves “If we could live anywhere in Minnesota, where would we go?” We were here for the Gunflint Mail Fun Run in 2007 and that was it. We looked for a place here and Sherri got the job as the first director at Oshki Ogimaag.

Sherri and I were both involved in politics for many years, so many people have asked me since then, “Why don’t you run for “fill in the blank”? I didn’t think I had lived here long enough— and I also supported Jan Hall. But now that I’ve been here longer, I think I could make a contribution.

I have a significant connection to the Capitol.

I have long felt that our end of the county didn’t get its fair share of county resources. For example, our district doesn’t benefit from the county subsidizing a large community center or a $6 million golf course. Then, driving by the Colvill and the Hovland Town Halls, or driving County Road 17 in Grand Portage, I realized I want to see a greater amount of our resources spent on the east end of the county.

Are you aware of the current county board’s support of the U.S. Forest Service proposal to construct the South Fowl snowmobile access between McFarland and South Fowl lakes in Hovland? Would you support or oppose continued efforts to complete the trail?

Bockovich: I think anytime we can add any kind of multiple use trails in the county it’s a good thing. In fact, I don’t know why we don’t have an offroad truck facility. I think that would be really popular.

I would support the trail. DeArruda Wharton: I’m aware of the ongoing issues and legal challenges. But I’d need to learn more about where the legal process is at today and hear from the people in the area. Having grown up in Ely, I’m really aware of the strong feelings on both sides of the wilderness issue.

Since the county board has already supported this and it’s not a current issue in front of the board, I’m looking forward, not backward. Drabik: It’s a tricky question, because going up there also brings up an issue with Homeland Security. In the past, when a snowmobile trail was proposed going to Canada, that was a concern. Canada was opposed to that. I was opposed to it at that time. It wasn’t because I was opposed to snowmobiling, but it was a bad plan.

I would have told the Friends of the Boundary Waters to leave this trail alone

My instinctive reaction says no, as this gives a larger area for the snowmobile groups to cover and for emergency services to cover. Fleace: Yes, I’m very aware of it and yes, I would absolutely support it, due to the fact that it has to do with continuing the access that people have had to this area for decades. Hiniker: It is in process. We’re committed to looking at this. Whether I support or oppose it is not pertinent. The final decision is what fits the people of Cook County and what they want.

This comes back to land use. I serve on Planning & Zoning and Soil & Water. Those offices deal with issues in land use planning. We need to ask, does it fit our land use planning? Our long-range goal? If there is no conflict with that, we need to complete the plan and complete the process. Moe: I’m very aware of it. I have read the timeline put together by the Arrowhead Coalition for Multiple Use and I had an upset stomach when I was done. Of the people I’ve talked to in this district, there is nobody opposed to it.

I know the county has supported it in the past and I would continue lobbying my fellow county commissioners to support it. The trail is not in the Boundary Waters. It’s about a trail that was used historically. The historic use is as a snowmobile trail and to ban snowmobiles from a non-wilderness trail is a dangerous precedent.

What changes, if any, would you like to implement to ensure that the county does not have to increase the tax levy?

Bockovich: To begin with, we have an awful lot of things that are money pits. We can stop inventing those. A good example is biomass—the school tried to heat using wood chips, it didn’t work. My brother tried a system. Anyone who has dealt with it knows it just doesn’t work.

And, a lot of people don’t realize that biomass uses a lot of electricity, to run the augers and fans. DeArruda Wharton: I consider the county budget to be reflective of citizen priorities, as well as our requirements from the state for the services we must provide. The county tax levy, at least last year, funded 29 percent of the county’s overall budget. For example, the county received reimbursement for social services and federal highway department funding. I think holding the tax levy where it’s at is really important to people but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

In addition to not increasing the tax levy, I’d like to look closely at the county’s expenditures and that other 81 percent income that balances our county’s budget.

If I’m elected to the board, I’m one vote out of five. Unless the state and federal government change how they are funding counties, it appears to me that the levy is only going to increase. That is why we need a commissioner to advocate for the county on the state and federal level. Drabik: There’s only one answer—watch spending. Spending has costs and consequences that reach far into the future. I think everyone knows they have to pay taxes for basic services, but incrementally it sneaks up on us.

A little less earning power, higher utility costs, and higher costs of services— you end up with the lack of ability to compete with other areas.

I’d be very reluctant to take on new spending projects. We need to buckle down and make use of existing resources and people.

An example is when the community center was being planned. There was talk of having a place for weddings. I talked to a local resident who said people who come here get married in Lutsen or up the Gunflint Trail. That’s where they want to be, so we don’t need a big convention hall in Grand Marais.

I asked questions and got an answer. That’s the kind of commissioner I’d be—I’d talk to people. Fleace: That’s a good question. The budget should be looked at closely, especially the large departments. I’d like to see property taxes reduced substantially.

I’d also like to see a change for businesses that are being taxed unfairly because of the state fiscal disparities policy. We’re forced to be involved in a seven-county group to be able to receive taconite funding. Businesses valued at $100,000 - $150,000 are forced to pay $600 - $800 more per year than they would if we were not in this group.

Taconite funding is a good thing, but $200,000 - $300,000 is paid out by local businesses to other counties, such as St. Louis County, under this fiscal disparities policy. There should be an allowance that the first $200,000 - $300,000 from taconite funding goes back to those businesses.

If we can promote more prosperous businesses, we’ll have more jobs; more people will be able to shop at local businesses; and we’d have a better business community. Hiniker: The tax levy is somewhat limited. There is a tax levy limit out there.

It’s not the taxes that are driving me. When people say they are going to reduce taxes that means cutting services. You have to look at programs—the highway department is half of the county budget. You have to look at what you’re offering and what you need.

A key way I’ve been looking at programs is through Soil & Water, Planning & Zoning, and the Board of Adjustment. I’ve served on three subcommittees—the subdivision ordinance, the septic ordinance and now the land use planning guide. Very few people understand how we set our policies. The land use guide is sort of a bible—these are our guiding principles. It states that here’s how we see the future of our county.

These policies affect affordable housing, local businesses and more. Important decisions are being made and we’ve got to shift through all this. Moe: A couple things—I’d say borrowing from our bank account to balance the budget has to stop. That is for emergencies and it wasn’t an emergency last year.

I’d like to set a moratorium on new spending until we figure out what our current obligations actually are. The YMCA for example, we don’t know how many members they will have next year. We need to wait until the dust settles to see what we need to spend to meet our obligation.

What actions have you taken personally to support the economy of Cook County?

Bockovich: Personally, by trying to help families that would otherwise leave Cook County. We have five or six families that come get water from us because they can’t afford a well—and probably won’t ever be able to because of rising taxes. We’ve given people money in a pinch. It’s nothing special, it’s just keeping alive the way it used to be, the mentality that everyone helps each other. DeArruda Wharton: The first thing I’ve done is to choose to live and raise our family here. We believe strongly in supporting local businesses, so the dollars we spend in the community stay here.

As small business owners/farmers, we prioritize supporting local businesses in our purchases.

And, as a professional, in my work role, I’ve brought in over $325,000 in grants over four years, which funded four jobs.

Finally, I’m working with the EDA [Cook County/ Grand Marais Economic Development Authority), Blandin and the Cook County Go Team as part of an economic diversification group, looking at ways to support the people that are already here, such as those working in value-added forest products, food production, etc. Drabik: There are two areas. I buy locally as much as I can. I shop locally—when Leng’s was open, I ordered books there. It cost a little bit more, but it was worth it.

Through real estate, I’m helping people buy or develop properties, which is not a bad thing.

When people move into the county, they make a commitment. I’m working with existing taxpayers and future taxpayers. Fleace: Everything we do financially is in Cook County. All of our banking is done in Cook County. Our properties are in Cook County. Everything we purchase is in Cook County.

Any of the candidates— any citizen actually—should take great steps to make sure they spend their dollars locally. Even if it costs a little more money, it comes back to all of us. Hiniker: I worked very actively to develop the mountain bike trails at Pincushion Mountains. I organized a cycling association. We worked with the Forest Service to set the standards.

I think the trail has the real opportunity to be a real draw, working with other mountain biking communities. Cuyuna is becoming a giant draw for mountain bikers—that feeds up the shore and down from Canada.

That’s where I started when I first moved up here. I worked with Mark and Melinda at the Bike Shop. One of the goals of hiring me was not just because I had retail experience in a bike store, but I had experience as an advocate for bicycling. It all fits into what is in the land use guide plan. Moe: We’re small business owners. We own two small businesses in Cook County that contribute significantly to Cook County. We’re both involved in organizations that benefit Cook County. Specifically I’ve been involved in sled dog races, which supports tourism and gets people to come to Cook County. I support ACMU, which also supports multiple use and people coming to Cook County.

Before moving here I was very active in natural resources and recreational tourism issues. While serving in the legislature, I authored the bill to build the Gitchi Gami Bicycle Trail.

And while in the legislature, I worked on forestry issues. I’ve always been a strong supporter of forestry statewide.

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