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Gravel pits and budget among issues Larson, Graves debate

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Larson and his challenger for the District 2 seat, William Graves, responded to questions about budget cuts, gravel pits and county buildings during an hour-long debate Tuesday in Willmar.

There was little disagreement between the two candidates on the issues and Graves commended Larson for being an "honorable opponent" who has done a "phenomenal" job serving on the County Board.

But Graves said he's heard repeated comments from constituents that it's "time for a change" and that he'd bring a "new set of eyes" and a "new set of ears" to the board.

Larson said he's proven himself in the 12 years of doing a "decent job" on the County Board and his experience and credentials are "very favorable."

District 2 includes Willmar Township, all of Ward 4 and most of Ward 3 in Willmar.

The county budget, and how it could be affected by the national economic downturn, was the topic of several questions.

"I like numbers," said Graves, who questioned the county's $60 million budget for 2009 in light of declining property values. He said some "tough decisions" would have to be made and some people, including those who access family service programs, may have to be told "no" and turned away.

Larson said the final budget won't be approved until Dec. 15 and that additional reductions will be considered before then.

Larson said more than half of the county's family services' budget is used for elderly residents who need nursing home care. "We're the form of government people come to," he said, which can be a challenge when other residents say programs should be cut. The county is "caught in the middle," Larson said.

In responding to some questions, Graves lacked the details that Larson was able to present.

When the candidates were asked if they'd support putting county money to the Grass Lake restoration project, Graves admitted he wasn't well-versed on the issue and declined to respond.

By contrast, Larson explained the project's history, the state grant and efforts to acquire land. He said he expects the county, along with the city of Willmar and numerous other agencies, to provide money to Grass Lake.

To a question about whether a new courthouse should be built away from downtown Willmar, Graves said moving the courthouse could hurt downtown but if a construction project was feasible he'd support it.

Larson, who sat on an intergovernmental committee several years ago to consider moving the courthouse, said changes to the facility were made in order to keep it in place. But as the flagship county in the eighth judicial district, Larson said a new courthouse may have to be built if courthouses in other counties in the district are closed. To build a new courthouse downtown would involve the purchase of a considerable amount of property, he said.

Larson said replacement of the county rescue squad building is long over-due because of its deplorable condition. The county has money in savings to pay for construction, but he said if costs exceed estimates it may have to be delayed a year.

Graves said the county should consider renovating an existing building for the rescue squad facility because the county budget can't handle the extra cost now. Graves, a Willmar-based businessman, said he doesn't believe the economy will turn around quickly and that there will be "changing times" for the county.

The candidates agreed that the county's gravel resource is a valuable commodity and regulations are in place for proper siting an reclamation; that economic development is crucial for the growth of the county; that the county's trail system should be expanded; that an incinerator should be considered in the future instead of a landfill; and that conducting County Board meetings in evening hours should be considered.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750