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5 candidates to face off for Beltrami County District 2 seat

The five candidates seeking the District 2 seat on the Beltrami County Board share their thoughts ahead of the Tuesday, Aug. 9, primary election.

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From left: Adam Bommersbach, Joe Gould, Don Heinonen, James Ravnikar and Darren Tobey are vying for the District 2 seat on the Beltrami County Board.
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BEMIDJI — With an upcoming primary on Tuesday, Aug. 9, candidates seeking the District 2 seat of the Beltrami County Board are sharing their thoughts on issues ranging from the county budget to public safety before the field is narrowed down.

Of the five, Adam Bommersbach, Joe Gould, Don Heinonen, James Ravnikar and Darren Tobey, only two will proceed to the general election in November.

Adam Bommersbach

Adam Bommersbach, 33, is a food, pools and lodging inspector for the state of Minnesota, and has lived in Bemidji since 2013 with his wife and two daughters.

Bommersbach said that he would approach the county budget with programs and services as a priority.

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Adam Bommersbach

“There are certain things that the state requires a county to provide,” he explained. “(It’s ensuring) that we can budget in a way that provides for the health and safety of our residents, making sure that those services people need to support them.”

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Working to direct more state funding would also be a priority for Bommersbach when it comes to the county budget.

“The bigger part of balancing the budget starts well outside the budget process, and that’s continuing to work with our state representatives to try and increase the funding for our counties through state aid,” he added.

This would also include working with legislators to see if there’s a way to take Beltrami County’s predicament of having a large amount of nontaxable land into account when looking to provide local county aid.

“I think Beltrami County needs to continue to make its case to the state that we are a unique situation, that we should be looked at with a bit of a different lens when it comes to state aid because of our situation where so much of our property isn’t taxable,” Bommersbach explained.

He also wants to prioritize public safety, while taking into account the different factors leading to higher crime rates.

“Generally speaking crimes are on the rise because we have issues with substance abuse, though substance abuse itself does not occur in a vacuum,” Bommersbach said. “The substance abuse occurs because of underlying situations, whether its mental health or poverty that lead people into points of despair.”

He hopes to address the issue by coordinating with law enforcement and meeting their needs while working to provide support for vulnerable members of the community, particularly those already involved with the criminal justice system.

“That starts in our jail,” Bommersbach said. “We need to have better coordination of services so that they’re lined up and set up for success before they leave so that we can get those individuals on a path that doesn’t put them in the same spiral that led them into jail in the first place.”

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The biggest challenge facing the county, Bommersbach believes, is the issue of finding revenue for the county without increasing taxes on county residents.

“It comes back to our property tax structure,” Bommersbach said. “The question is always we can have as many bright ideas as we want, but how do you fund those when there’s no money out there? The challenge is how do you increase revenue without increasing the tax burden on those people who live here.”

Bommersbach also hopes to continue to advocate for economic development and drawing in more residents and businesses to the county.

“(I want to) continue to be an advocate for Beltrami County,” Bommersbach said. “I think it’s a great place to be, and I think we just need to continue to share that message with people and recruit them to our county and expand that tax base.”

Joe Gould

Joe Gould, 35, is a Bemidji State University graduate and a sixth-grade teacher in the Cass Lake-Bena school district.

Gould hopes to approach the budget with the goal of getting more state funding directed to Beltrami County through being in regular contact with state representatives.

“It’s tough, there’s not a lot of wiggle room currently, so what I would like to do is contact our legislators every week,” Gould said. “I think our leaders in St. Paul need to do a better job to support our counties in terms of county aid and (Payment in Lieu of Property Taxes).”

Gould said he would also go after state bonding dollars to help pay for infrastructure and other costs while keeping the county taxes low.

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Joe Gould

“If we can get more bonding dollars, which will help pay for roads and bridges, county aid and PILT will keep property taxes as low as possible,” Gould said.

As for how Gould would approach public safety, he emphasized that creating a good relationship with the new sheriff and other law enforcement agencies would be vital.

“Public safety is a top priority of any government,” he explained. “I would want to create a positive relationship with the new sheriff, whoever that’s going to be, and be brought up to speed on the issues facing law enforcement.”

Public safety also ties into another of Gould’s priorities, which is investing in children's mental health throughout the county.

“One of the main reasons I’m running is to invest in children’s mental health and mental health support for families as a preventable measure to help bring down the crime rate,” he explained.

Gould hopes that supporting children and families in distress on the front end will help reduce calls to law enforcement and create a safer and more supportive environment in the county.

Another topic Gould discussed was working to retain and recruit county employees, through improving pay and other methods.

“We need to be paying our county employees more and make sure that every office is filled to its capacity,” Gould said. “I think there’s certainly room for improvement there.”

Don Heinonen

Don Heinonen, 58, is a shop and fleet shop manager and a graduate of Northwest Technical College. He has been a resident of Bemidji for 38 years.

Heinonen has been carefully considering how he would approach the county's budget if elected.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research into the county budget, and to be honest there’s not a lot of room for movement,” Heinonen explained. “What I would advocate for moving forward is to make sure we’re keeping a balanced budget.”

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Don Heinonen

To help increase the funds available to the county, Heinonen would work to lobby the state and federal government for more local county aid. This includes taking a look at the formula used by the state government to portion that funding.

“They need to reformulate that so they take into account the economics of a county as well,” Heinonen explained. “It’s a tough thing and tough sell, but I think it’s just one of those things that you’ve got to keep after.”

He also noted the county’s tax levy, which he would like to keep as low as possible.

“As you move forward you really need to make sure that you’re providing the best services you can within the budget and the levy you set forth, and making sure that you keep that levy in that five to six percent annually,” Heinonen said.

Public safety, Heinonen said, is one of his top priorities. He would work to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and try to improve access to mental health services and different support programs for those in the county jail or going through the criminal justice system.

“I think we all need to work together, collaborate and pool those dollars so we can control crime,” Heinonen said. “I think the key is that you’ve got to try and find some more ways to make sure that everybody in the county feels safe.”

Heinonen would also work to increase access to mental health services outside of the criminal justice system.

“(It’s ensuring) there’s enough facilities and collaborating with those facilities to make sure the people that really need those services have access to them,” Heinonen said.

The final topic Heinonen brought up was supporting and improving the county’s infrastructure.

“I think we need to find and leverage some new ways to use county dollars to be able to fix our infrastructure,” Heinonen said. “We need to make sure that we’re looking at all of our infrastructures, whether that’s roads, bridges, parks or even county buildings.”

James Ravnikar

James Ravnikar, 44, is a University of Minnesota graduate and the director of finance and human resources at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School and has lived in Beltrami County with his family for 12 years.

When asked how he would approach the budget, Ravnikar said that he would look at the efficiency of county programs.

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James Ravnikar

“You have to prioritize the services that the county provides and those that they’re mandated to provide and do it as efficiently as possible,” he said.

Ravnikar also said he would look to address the revenue challenges that the county faces by going after state funding and working with state representatives to see if the funding formula for local county aid could be adjusted to have a better outcome for Beltrami County.

“I think (I would try to be) a loud voice with our elected representatives at the state level, trying to get that formula corrected or carve out an exception for Beltrami County,” he explained.

If the county is able to get more funding, Ravnikar hopes that it would lessen the tax burden on residents.

“I think it’s important to try and find a solution to that revenue problem to take the burden off the county’s property taxpayers,” Ravnikar said.

Public safety is also something Ravnikar hopes to address since he believes it’s one of the most important jobs of a government.

“I think public safety is the government’s No. 1 job. Above all else the government exists to provide public safety,” Ravnikar added. “I would probably look to collaborate with the folks at the sheriff’s department to better understand the issues and what the needs are.”

Darren Tobey

Darren Tobey, 51, was born and raised in Bemidji and is a lifelong resident of the city. He is also the owner of Arrowhead Glass.

Tobey said that he would approach the budget with a critical eye, and look at where wasteful spending could be cut.

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Darren Tobey

“(I would) reduce wasteful spending, try and figure out where the money is getting wasted and try and trim it down,” Tobey said. “Some programs there’s obviously more money needed, some there isn’t.”

Another focus of Tobey’s would be lobbying for more funding from the state. He also noted that public safety is a priority, and emphasized that he supports law enforcement.

“I back the blue, just plain and simple,” Tobey said. “Give the police whatever they need, the law comes first. If they need more money, give them more money. If they need more cars, give them more cars. If they need a bigger jail, get them a bigger jail.”

Tobey’s top priority, however, would be working to reduce the county’s property taxes, which he feels are a burden to county residents.

“Our biggest county issue right now is our outrageous property taxes, people who own their homes are having trouble, especially as taxes go up and up,” Tobey said. “That’s my main thing, try to keep property taxes low so people can stay in their homes.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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