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'Fiscal cliff' issues, opioids top county candidate forum

BEMIDJI—Finding solutions to Beltrami County's financial strain was labeled as one of the most important issues by both candidates running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners during an election forum Thursday.

The race to represent Beltrami County District 1 on the board features two Port Hope Township residents, 50-year-old Craig Gaasvig and 59-year-old Natalie Grosfield.

Grosfield is the lease manager and regional office coordinator, as well as the interim contract rights administrator, at Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, while Gaasvig is the regional account manager at North Country Business Products.

During the forum, organized by the independent, non-partisan Citizens for an Informed Electorate group, the candidates were questioned about the county's budget and rising costs in the Health and Human Services Department from children in the out-of-home placement system. In the past several months, the situation has been labeled as a "fiscal cliff."

"Raising taxes wouldn't work, that wouldn't be feasible," Gaasvig said. "We need to work with the Legislature and have a collaborative effort with all the stakeholders to get the issue of out-of-home placement solved.

"We've gotten some Band-Aids from the state Legislature in the past, and that's not enough money at this point. We're sucking up our general fund balance, and that can't continue. That's why so much effort has been made by the other commissioners addressing the issue to bring it to the forefront in the community and to the Legislature."

"The Legislature did appropriate $5 million across the state and the area will get an additional $1.2 million from that," said Grosfield. "From 2015-2025, we will also get $3 million for the out-of-home placements, but that's not enough. The taxpayers can't, nor should they be asked to shoulder the burden.

"In my own budget, when I'm falling short, I look for other ways to increase revenue. Minnesota has a $16.9 billion economy related to tourism. I think we need to look at that. I think expanding the Paul Bunyan Expressway (State Highway 371) is a great idea, not only will it bring more people to us, it will give us easier access to the cities."

Both candidates were also questioned Thursday about the ongoing opioid crisis, as it has contributed to the rising number of children receiving foster care services.

"I will continue to work with what's already been started by the people of the county who've been lobbying and working with the people down at the state capital," Grosfield said. "The opioid crisis, I think, has been especially difficult because of the fallacy that was given to the people, that they weren't addictive. I'm so happy that Beltrami County has become part of the lawsuit to recoup some of the expenses we've had in this crisis. I think all addictions can also be tracked back to mental health, too."

"It's more than just opioids. I think it's methamphetamine and alcohol abuse as well," Gaasvig said. "I think our current county officials are all working very hard to come to some sort of solution to this, but it's not a simple solution. We have to work as a collaborative unit, with all of the different people involved, whether it's the Red Lake Nation or the state Legislature."

With a report released Thursday that zebra mussels had been confirmed in Lake Bemidji, the candidates were also asked about their views on how to address aquatic invasive species.

"I actually spoke with Brent Rud, the director of that department, and talked to him about the aquatic invasive species issue," Gaasvig said. "I'm an avid fisherman, and am very concerned about that kind of stuff getting in our lakes. I think we've done a lot of education over the last several years, and felt that the money might be better used for a rapid response effort, so when we find something like this, we can contain it and stop it from spreading faster than it would otherwise."

"That's frightening news," Grosfield said. "I think we all knew it was just a matter of time before it hit us. I think we still have a great volunteer group in the area checking boats, and I wonder if we can do better, perhaps have more personnel to man the accesses on a more regular basis. I think we also need to work with the DNR and any other interested groups to keep the spread as slow as possible."

Both candidates running for District 1 are newcomers, as the incumbent, Keith Winger, opted to not seek another term. There's another election this year for Beltrami County District 3. However, incumbent Richard Anderson, a retired educator from Solway, is running unopposed.

Beltrami County District 1 includes Bemidji Ward 5, the cities of Turtle River and Tenstrike, as well as Summit, Port Hope, Taylor, Birch, Turtle River, Sugar Bush, Moose Lake, Frohn, Ten Lake and unorganized Brook Lake townships.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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