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Five candidates seek Ward County Commission seats

Candidates bring varied backgrounds to race

Ward County voters will select three candidates from a field of five running for the county commission Nov. 3.

Incumbents Shelly Weppler, Alan Walter and Jim Rostad are running, along with former commissioner Larry Louser and newcomer Howard “Bucky” Anderson.

Anderson, who lives south of Minot, said his goal would be to lessen the urban-rural divide that exists. His background is in education and agriculture, and he has served on school and rural electric cooperative boards. As the newcomer in the race, he said he understands the learning curve with any new board and is open to learning and getting himself up to speed.

Walter, a Minot resident who is seeking his third four-year term, said he wants to follow through with work already started, particularly the sales tax funding for roads and bridges and seeing progress made on a southwest bypass around Minot.

“Some years ago, there was a motion passed by the commission that we not pave any more county roads. I want to get that changed so we do get pavement to improve our county for everybody in the whole region,” he said.

Walter said his experience is the biggest asset he brings to the table. He worked 44 years for the City of Minot Public Works Department, including 20 years as director.

“All of that work that I did during those years brings a lot of experience here. We’re dealing with the same kinds of issues,” said Walter. He said he has been able to use his experience in serving on the county highway committee, in working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in developing a county comprehensive plan.

Rostad, rural Minot, said he brings a mix of representation to the county.

“From never letting go of my roots growing up in the Carpio area to living in the city of Minot and now rural Minot for the last 28 years, I truly have a deep understanding for the Ward County area. I am concerned and feel I represent all of Ward County residents and will continue to dedicate myself to serving all of Ward County to the very best of my ability,” he said.

Rostad is retired from the auto body industry and has served on the Minot Public School Board for more than 20 years. He also serves on the North Dakota School Boards Association’s board of directors. He is a past president of the Minot Area Development Corp.

Rostad said important decisions have been made in his first term on the county commission.

“We have reconfigured the responsibilities of some of the departments for better efficiency and added new department heads. I am comfortable that they were good choices in helping the commissioners lead the county. I brought with me over 30 years of professional and community leadership experience, both locally and in statewide positions, which has served Ward County well. I look forward to continuing to serve the citizens of Ward County in the process regarding roads, personnel and the highway building development over the next four years,” he said.

Louser also brings a mix of representation. He grew up in Garrison and on a farm near there and still holds farmland interests.

“I can touch or identify with every citizens within the county,” he said, noting his background in agriculture, in small towns and in the city of Minot as a current resident. He has been a teacher and business owner.

He served on the county commission from 2012 to 2016. He said a variety of reasons played into his decision not to seek re-election at that time, but he misses being able to contribute to the county as a commissioner. He also feels an obligation to serve the county, much like the obligation to the country he felt when he joined the Navy years ago, he said.

Weppler, of rural Minot, is seeking her third term to continue working on behalf of the county.

“I would like to continue to serve as a commissioner because this is my home, the place where I grew up, a member of the first class to graduate from the ‘new’ high school (Magic City Campus) and where my husband and I raised our family. Our three sons attended Des Lacs Burlington schools,” she said. “I would like to continue working on projects that are in the works, like the 2021 Salary Study, Health Insurance Benefits review and Comprehensive Land Use Plan review and implementation. I am concerned about the health and welfare of all residents in Ward County, our roads and bridges, property tax structure, flood protection and, most importantly, public safety and want to help ensure that our families, our children and grandchildren, will have all of the opportunities to live, work and play in the safety of Ward County.”

Weppler served with the military police in the U.S. Army in Germany, graduated with a business degree from Minot State University and a master’s degree in philanthropy and development from St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, and worked in the banking industry for 18 years. She later worked with Minot State University as the Annual Fund director and has more than 35 years of board experience in the Ward County area, including leadership roles on local, statewide and international boards. She is president of St. Joseph’s Community Health Foundation.

The candidates stress the need to manage the county budget well.

Walter said his interest is in keeping the county fiscally responsible while also being progressive. He said he would work with the county’s new auditor/treasurer to find ways to more efficiently use county resources to avoid higher taxes and to identify state mandates that are raising costs and then lobby legislators for changes.

Weppler said she believes the budget reflects a fair representation of the needs in Ward County, but one area she would like to address is the amount needed in the budget for medical and dental care for pretrial detainees. The county is responsible for these costs because federal health insurance programs such as Medicaid, Veterans Administration and children’s health insurance programs are denied to adults and juveniles who are in jail awaiting trial.

“Counties are paying to fill this gap and local taxpayers are paying for it,” Weppler said. “Another big item in the county budget is salaries and health insurance. With the addition of a Human Resource Department we have been able to conduct a salary study in 2019 and have budgeted for another study for 2021 to review all salaries to make sure that we are being competitive and fair to employees and taxpayers. Health insurance costs rise historically at an alarming rate of 15-28% per year. In 2018 we reviewed the county health plan and were able to reduce costs by $450,000 through an administrative change. We continue to review the health insurance plan to monitor costs and review options that will allow us to be fair to employees and taxpayers.”

Louser said good budgeting requires balancing the needs and desires of taxpayers who often have different priorities.

“I think we get, in this state, a pretty good bang for our buck on taxes,” he said. “I think the county has always been very frugal.”

One of his priorities is county infrastructure. Many township and county roads were built in the 1940s and 1950s and weren’t designed for the heavy equipment that travels them today.

“We, unfortunately, live in a county that has a large area with two rivers running through it. It means a lot of bridges,” Louser said. “Some of those bridges are getting old and need to be repaired.”

Rostad said the commission does a good job in deciding how to spend tax dollars to provide the most benefit to the residents.

“I don’t think any of the commissioners wish to spend taxpayer funds frivolously. There is a fine line between being frugal and funding needs adequately and I think we do a good job at striking a balance between the two. There will always be unanticipated expenses and we are working toward building a contingency fund for those occasions. Sometimes you have to grab a bargain when it presents itself, such as the recent purchase of the Halliburton property for our highway department, which will be a tremendous asset for Ward County for decades to come,” Rostad said.

“My position on property taxes is we have to provide services,” Anderson said. The goal is to provide those services while controlling costs that lead to higher taxes and fees, he said.

Anderson stresses upkeep and maintenance to avoid costly replacement and supports a focus on good employees, which he said is key to a well run government.

“If you have good employees, these things seem to work very, very well,” he said. “You have to retain and you have recruit and you have to provide a safe working environment.”

Candidates support efforts to keep the public informed of the work being done and decisions being made by their county government.

“The government needs to be as open and transparent as possible,” Anderson said. He said the move to online meetings has been good, but he is concerned that online resources aren’t accessible to all.

“You could do more, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be used more,” he said. “Maybe we need to assess what has been done so far and see if it’s working.”

Louser said the commission could do more at budgeting time to solicit public input and make its budget-drafting meetings available through public broadcasts.

“It’s important to get as much input as we can,” he said. He recalled a number of years ago when a committee traveled to communities in the county to get the thoughts of citizens regarding the county’s future. Even if that doesn’t happen again, Louser said, he personally wants to hear from residents and is willing to meet over coffee with anyone with ideas to share.

Rostad noted the county already is making information available through compliance with open meetings laws, publication of meeting agendas and minutes in the newspaper and online and the willingness of commissioners and department heads to make themselves accessible to the public.

Walter cited the county’s website as a tool the county could use more fully to inform residents. The biggest need, he said, is to provide information explaining commission actions so the public understands what is happening.

Weppler said the COVID-19 pandemic forced the commission to come up with alternative ways for people to attend meetings, and the positive result was the airing of meetings online and via telephone conference. However, a recent meeting found only seven people watching.

“Could we do more? Sure, we could create a Public Relations Department; however, that comes with a cost, and I am not sure at this point where cuts would be made to make that happen. I have not heard from anyone asking for meetings to be held on another day or time and would consider a different time or day if it would increase public attendance,” Weppler said.

She added, though, that people who have concerns are finding ways to attend meetings or they call or email to voice their concerns.

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