Economic development, property taxes and election systems were among the topics brought up at a Ward County Commission candidate forum Thursday in Minot.
The Minot Area Chamber EDC sponsored the forum, featuring John Fjeldahl, former commissioner Alan Walter, Lance Makeeff and Jason Olson. They are running for two open seats on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The candidates indicated they want a collaborative approach to economic development.
“We seem to be competing against each other within our own county,” Fjeldahl said.
“We must work together with the cities” Walter said “It brings together a business-friendly attitude that businesses like.”
A good county road system and progress on the proposed Southwest Beltway around Minot can help address business needs, he added.
“I think the businesses coming in want lower property taxes,” Makeeff said. He said the county can work with existing economic development programs at the community level, but does not support business incentives that increase the burden on other taxpayers.
“The county, I don’t think, should be picking winners and losers in economic development.” he said
“It’s important to send the message that the county has a business-friendly environment,” Olson said. “I think we need to be involved in promoting this area as a great place to do business and we need planning and zoning regulations, a tax situation and a business-friendly workforce.”
Fjeldahl said he opposed tax increment financing as an incentive to develop the Big M building in Minot, largely because of the associated loan. He said he believes the county should develop a policy that is consistent with requests for these incentives.
Walter also supported developing a policy, but noted that in the meantime, a TIF for the Big M building needed to be decided.
“I thought it was a no-brainer that it should be approved,” he said “This building has been empty for many years.”
Olson said the building was at risk of becoming county property because of delinquent taxes.
“It had asbestos issues that were going to become a huge burden on the taxpayers to take possession of that building. So the details of that TIF I paid close attention to and it made sense.”
While he understands the concerns surrounding the Big M building, Makeeff said, he’s not entirely committed to using TIF as a tool because he doesn’t like shifting the tax burden to other taxpayers.
The candidates shared similar views on protecting electoral integrity.
Olson said he prefers to vote in person, but the county needs to consider people who can’t make it to the polls and must vote absentee.
Fjeldahl said he would keep absentee voting, but encourage more polling places on Election Day and longer early voting.
“I still think in-person voting is the most reliable method you can have,” he said
Walter agreed that the vote should be done in person and that it should be done in one day.
“We always did. We can still do it. It’s just a matter of having the will to do it.” he said
Candidates also cited the importance of cyber security and secure election software.
“I still want everyone to have the opportunity to vote countywide, but I want to keep it as safe as possible.” Makeeff said. “Be ahead of the curve and not behind the curve on election issues because it’s very important to us as a county.”
The candidates also agreed on the need to be fiscally responsible and hold the line on property taxes.
“My first thoughts always go to the taxpayers,” Makeeff said “They’re in hard times, too. We’re looking at hard times ahead.”
However, the candidates took more time to discuss the entry of a Bismarck campaign finance organization into the race to support Olson and Walter. Both Olson and Walter stated that they have no ties to the Brighter Future Alliance.
“This is completely out of our control,” Olson said. “In the same way, I am happy to have the support of people who want to support me. I just don’t want the public to get confused about where those dollars are coming from and where they’re coming from, because they’re not coming from us.
Walter said he also has no idea where the support is coming from, but appreciates any support.
“It’s dirty money,” Makeeff said. “But it’s legal for them to do it. It’s never been done before. I don’t know how the county pulls back, but I sure want the county to know what’s going on.”
He said he would tell voters to ask questions if his name was on the Brighter Future billboards because such outside support brings scrutiny to the motives behind the votes cast if elected. Fjeldahl, who believes his voting record could have made him the target of the campaign, said he would have a conversation with anyone who launched such a campaign without his permission.
“I don’t know if it’s dirty politics, but it’s the worst politics,” he said