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Hauber faces Leckner in mayoral debate

Both candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot for mayor of Park Rapids were present at a League of Women Voters candidate forum Thursday in the new city hall council chambers.

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Pam Hauber, a candidate for Park Rapids mayor, answers a question during the League of Women Voters forum Friday at City Hall. Beside her is Ryan Leckner, who filed as an official write-in candidate after incumbent Mayor Pat Mikesh withdrew from the race. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Both candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot for mayor of Park Rapids were present at a League of Women Voters candidate forum Thursday in the new city hall council chambers.

However, incumbent Pat Mikesh sat it out, watching challenger Pam Hauber field pre-screened questions alongside official write-in candidate Ryan Leckner.

Mikesh, who has been mayor since 2013, announced on Oct. 3 that he will step down as mayor at the end of the year, and though his name cannot be removed from the ballot, he will not serve if elected. The following day, Leckner, a city council member since 2015, entered the race.

"I officially declared my candidacy as a write-in by sending an official letter to the county auditor's office and the city clerk of Park Rapids," Leckner said in his opening statement. "A write-in vote for me is a valid vote, and will count on the final tally of votes."

Leckner described himself as a business owner who lives in the Discovery Circle neighborhood. He said he feels qualified for the position of mayor, having chaired the Henrietta Township Board for six years before joining the city council in 2015. Born and raised in Park Rapids, he and his wife have five children, of whom four are still in the Park Rapids school system and one has graduated.

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Hauber said she grew up in Osage and went to school in Park Rapids. She studied to be a medical secretary and accounting clerk at Minnesota State Community College in Detroit Lakes. She worked several years in the restaurant business and has been an employee at RDO/Lamb Weston since 2001.

Married and living at the west end of town, Hauber has an adult son who lives in Vergas. She described her passions as hunting, fishing, gardening and the outdoors.

Speaking to the issues

About the job: Leckner said the mayor's job is "to lead the council in following policy," and to use good judgment to evaluate the work done by city staff. Hauber said it is "working with the council members to guide them to make the best decisions you can for Park Rapids."

Leadership style: Hauber described herself as a "perfectionist" and admitted that, at times, she needs "to step back and...really listen to what's going on around me." Drawing on his background as an employer, Leckner emphasized treating people with respect and "keeping everybody on the same page."

Top challenges: Leckner said his top two priorities as mayor would be to encourage economic growth and to try to keep the city's tax levy as low as possible. Hauber said her short-term goals are to curb spending and slow the rise of city taxes. "Long-term," she added, "I would like to have all the streets fixed in Park Rapids."

Revitalization: Asked how they would use vacant buildings, like the beach house in Red Bridge Park for city revitalization, Hauber said, "I would hate to see it go anywhere. What we can actually do with it, I don't know." Leckner said he would push the priorities of the city's Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), but "we only have so much money to work with. To try to keep the taxes low, those projects get pushed back" in favor of higher priorities, like street improvements.

Infrastructure: As to priorities for updating the city's infrastructure, Hauber noted that the Highway 71 roundabout project and higher bond payments are already set for 2019. "We have to find a happy medium with all of that," she said, but did not propose specific actions. Leckner fell back on the CIP, saying, "We're trying to get there, and we have a good plan in place. We just have to keep on it."

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Downtown parking: Asked how they would address visibility issues at downtown intersections, Hauber said the council could ask residents for ideas as "to what they'd like to see, and gather information and go from there." Leckner cautioned against any action that would take away parking spaces on Main Street.

Library needs: Responding to a 2015 study showing that the public library needs to be updated and expanded, Leckner said the council "will figure out a way to do it. I know we will, following that CIP again, when we get the money for it." Hauber commented that the library could do a better job of keeping up with new releases.

Public vandalism: About recent vandalism of public restrooms, art walk sculptures and other areas, Hauber said, "I don't have answers, but I really wish we wouldn't have to be going through this." Leckner voiced interest in having "volunteer cops" patrol the city and report suspicious activity to the police.

Winter tourism: Regarding plans to develop local tourism during the winter, Hauber suggested promoting ice fishing and clearing walking paths. Leckner said, "We have to be snowmobile-friendly," and said he has been pushing for the city to have trails and parking areas connecting snowmobilers to the downtown area.

Spending priorities: Given a scenario where the city could expand its budget by 5 percent, Hauber said her priorities would be to "pay off all our bonds, so we could start fresh," followed by street and infrastructure improvements. Leckner suggested completing such projects as the Depot Park tennis courts.

Cutting priorities: Asked what they would cut if the city's budget needed to be reduced by 5 percent, Leckner said cuts are made every year as the city sets budget priorities. "We'd go with our needs first...and then we'd have to put off projects that we'd like," such as street and park projects. Hauber suggested cutting equipment buying, road repair and parks. "We'd have to cut back and find a way to make it hold together until we can get back on our feet," she said.

Armory project: Regarding the city's role in the Armory Square project, "Where they're all at with that, I don't know," Hauber said. "It sounds to me like it's going to go through. We'll have to wait and see and go from there." Leckner said, "My view of it on the council has been to keep Park Rapids paying as little money as possible into the program. That's why I'm happy with the agreement that we have now."

Affordable housing: As to how Park Rapids can provide affordable housing to attract a workforce to the community, Leckner discussed a recent proposal to offer market-rate (as opposed to income-based) apartments at a rate low enough for workers to afford. Hauber said she isn't sure where housing is affordable, but noted that she has co-workers from Bemidji, Wadena, Detroit Lakes and Walker. "If they could get closer, that would help them," she said.

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Living wages: Regarding how the city can attract businesses that pay a living wage, Hauber admitted, "I don't have the answers to that." Leckner discussed Tax Increment Financing and the Revolving Loan Fund, then noted that the city first needs to address the availability of affordable housing and child care in order to ensure a workforce is in place.

Balancing city needs vs. the tax burden: "Sometimes, we take a risk," said Leckner. "If we want to make something go that's going to help the town in the future, we might raise the taxes a little to cover that. You just have to weigh out what you really need." Hauber said raising taxes hurts certain groups, such as the elderly, who live on a fixed income and worry about losing their homes.

In conclusion

There were also questions on such topics as property taxes, seasonal housing, elder services, watershed protection, management of city forests, interagency cooperation and economic development. There was little difference between the candidates on these issues.

"I feel, with my experience, I can do a good job," Leckner said in his closing statement. "I'll do the best I can for the city of Park Rapids."

Hauber concluded, "I'd just like to get back on track, curb the spending, curb the rising taxes, and start over."

Moderator Sue Tomte reminded the audience that the League's next forum, featuring the candidates for Hubbard County Sheriff, is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 at Northwoods Bank in Park Rapids.

"They're both good candidates," Denny Ulmer, Leckner's campaign manager and treasurer, observed afterward. "They respect one another."

Tom Petschl, who helped the League of Women Voters organize the event, said he believes the forum will be helpful both for voters who attended it, read about it in the newspaper or watch the video at lwvparkrapidsarea.blogspot.com.

"It lets everybody know what (the candidates) are thinking," agreed Mikesh, "and hopefully, their plans for the future."

Recognizing that she was unable to answer several questions, Hauber said the forum went "the best I can expect. I'm not involved in the day-to-day operations at this point. I wish to be. I hope to be."

Leckner also felt the debate went well, and called it "a great opportunity to be heard in the community."

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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