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Larson says budget issues are not black and white

WILLMAR -- An economic downturn that could bring federal and state budget cuts to county programs will be the biggest challenge facing Kandiyohi County in 2009. It's a challenge that will require "soul searching" to keep the county budget in line, said County Commissioner Richard Larson.

Larson was elected in 1996 and is seeking his fourth term in office.

He is being challenged by political newcomer William Graves for the District 2 seat.

Action has already been taken to reduce expenses, Larson said, including such things as replacing only essential employees, delaying the purchase of equipment and turning down the thermostat in county buildings.

But cutting budgets isn't always a black and white issue.

"When times get a little on the tough side, there's a little more demand for our services," Larson said.

He said many people are misinformed and think the county "gives money away." Programs are designed to help people get back to work, he said, and more than half of the Family Service Department's budget pays for elderly individuals living in nursing homes.

Reducing budgets for public health, corrections, veteran services or family services can end up costing more in the long run when preventative programs are cut in order to save money in the short-term, he said. At the same time, Larson said it's important to keep county taxes in check.

In responding to questions about county projects and issues, Larson said he's pleased with the current success in expanding the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District to four lake communities because it improves water quality in lakes by removing failing septic systems. He said eventually all septic systems in the county may have to undergo mandatory inspections as an environmental safeguard.

The county operates one of the few remaining landfills in the state. Larson said he'd like to get state approval to borrow from the landfill's $4.5 million assurance fund if the county pursues constructing an incinerator when the landfill closes in the future. He said a cooperative effort between the city and county could create a partnership to burn garbage to generate energy for the Willmar Municipal Utilities.

Kandiyohi County is "pro-agriculture" and efforts need to be taken to ensure agriculture remains "one of the top economic drivers in the county." Recent approval by the county commissioners of a conditional use permit of a 9,590-head dairy operation will be a big venture for the county, he said.

Larson also praised the developers of the MinnWest Technology Campus and the County Board's involvement with negotiating the land deal between the state, the private company and Kandiyohi County.

He said MinnWest is expanding and may purchase several more campus buildings from the county.

Considering the sorry shape the economy is in, Larson said, the growth of business on the MinnWest campus is a positive sign for the county.

If the negotiations for the sale of the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center had failed, Larson said there would have been "a bunch of empty buildings, decaying and going backwards."

Larson said the biggest asset he brings to the job is experience. Besides the 12 years he's been a commissioner, he said his 16 years as a barber, "where a lot of politicking goes on," and 24 years as a Willmar city assessor provides a solid foundation to serve another four years on the County Board.

He said his opponent "thinks that I'm an old man. ... But if I'm an old man, I'm a young old man."

Larson said the County Board is not a "good old boys' club" but is a "hard-working commission." He said he's proud of the work they have done and the role he's played.

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

Carolyn Lange

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

(320) 894-9750