Council candidates debate taxes, spending

Support voiced for basic services, public engagement

Jill Schramm/MDN Scott Samuelson, right, answers a question at the Minot City Council candidate forum Wednesday. From left are Mike Blessum, Scott Burlingame, Rob Fuller, Mike Gietzen and Stephan Podrygula. Not shown is Leif Snyder.

Taxes, spending and having citizen voices heard were key topics at a Minot City Council candidate forum Wednesday.

Seven candidates are vying for three open positions on the council in the June 11 city election. Incumbents Scott Burlingame and Stephan Podrygula are joined by Mike Blessum, Rob Fuller, Mike Gietzen, Scott Samuelson and Leif Snyder.

“We have to get more community involvement,” Samuelson said. “We need to listen to what the citizens are saying – what they want – and I will do that. I want engagement. I want people to show up at the city council meetings.

“And we absolutely have to do something with property tax,” he added. “We need to lower them and actually we need to eliminate them.”

“I believe our budget is bloated. I think there’s a lot of wasteful spending that’s being done,” Fuller said. “I don’t mean wasteful/unecessary, but is it something we should be doing right now?”

The need to reconsider economic development programs was a common theme of candidates.

“For far too long it was all about trying to encourage businesses into your community, but right now we need to look at it as how do we recruit workforce,” Burlingame said.

Blessum said government needs to get out of the way.

“We need to make sure that people are able to make their own way in the world without getting held down by taxes and regulations,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily think that it’s our role as a council to always look for economic growth. I want to get back to basic services and let the growth be what the growth is,” Snyder said. He cited high rent costs as a major hurdle to recruiting entry level labor and blamed a morale problem within city government for the level of turnover.

Fuller agreed that attracting a workforce means lowering the cost of living in Minot, which in a large part is due to the tax burden.

“What has the City of Minot done for us over the last five years? They have continued to raise property taxes for every little thing they want to do. That’s their way to bail out everything. And so, we need to stop that. We need to make it an affordable place to live,” Fuller said.

Burlingame said tax credits to encourage housing construction have worked.

“We need more housing so we can trim the price of housing down so that they can be more affordable,” he said.

There was some consensus on the city’s need to prioritize fundamental city services, such as streets, water and public safety.

Blessum would prioritize fundamental services and reevaluation of economic development programs. Burlingame said his budget priority will be increasing childcare, followed by sustainable budgeting and infrastructure needs, while Fuller listed driving down property tax and ensuring TIF funding is used for low-income projects as top concerns.

“I really believe that we have to stop frivolous spending within the City of Minot,” Fuller said. “Why do we need a million dollars in consulting fees?”

Gietzen also listed property taxes and spending as his top issues, calling for more transparency. While not prepared to support eliminating property taxes, he said they need to be addressed.

Podrygula, who listed public safety and maintaining basic services as priorities, took issue with some remarks about taxes.

“I am getting a little annoyed here about all these complaints about property taxes,” he said. “When it comes to the entire tax burden, special assessments, property taxes and sales taxes, we are number five out of the top 12 cities (in North Dakota). So maybe more than you or I feel comfortable with and maybe more than you would like, but don’t keep saying the property taxes are so high because they are not. North Dakota is also a very low tax state to begin with – 43rd out of the 50 states in overall tax burden. Again, we can be more efficient. We should be more efficient, but please, let’s be realistic about this.”

Podrygula also noted the city has $520 million in deferred maintenance on its streets.

“We’ve tried to scrimp and save for years and years and it’s caught up with us,” he said. He said investing prudently means hiring consultants to look at the situation and develop scientific information for prioritizing the work.

Snyder said his priority is to get people to pay attention to what is going on in their city.

Snyder challenged the Tax Increment Financing for EPIC Companies’ The Tracks in southwest Minot, noting there was nothing blighted about the wheat field it is being built on to warrant a TIF. The TIF is supporting development of community space.

“So the TIF is for a concert venue, a water feature, a media board and a hockey rink in the winter,” Snyder said. “Anytime you give a tax abatement for some, others have to make up the difference.”

Several candidates also suggested cuts to spending and taxes in the next city budget.

“I think we have to recognize the fact that we’re going to have to start saying no. Whatever those ‘nos’ are, I don’t have any specifics on them, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Gietzen said.

Samuelson suggested cutting the facade program, wayfinding signage and administration costs for economic development and the MAGIC Fund.

“There are places that we can cut and we need to cut and we need to look at everything,” he said.

Blessum mentioned the tax dollars going to the airport, cemetery, public transportation and library, suggesting the city look at other options for funding those more directly.

“Quality of life matters, but even I, as pedestrian as I am, do not like, for instance, the $4.7 million pedestrian bridge that is still in the city CIP (Capital Improvements Plan),” Snyder said. “I came to a meeting where they were talking about special assessing my neighborhood in northeast Minot in order to pay for it when there’s already the Victoria bridge.

“I do not think the current council listens. People are not happy,” Snyder added. “Not just listening but communicating back to those people on what you want to do with the city is vital.”

“I think we have an obligation to listen but we don’t necessarily have an obligation to agree,” Podrygula said, although he agreed, “We do have an obligation to explain our decisions and why we’re moving in a certain direction.”


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