County board candidates make final pitch before primary
A few hot-button topics – including employee morale, Alomere Health, lake quality and more – were discussed at a public forum Monday night by the six county commissioner candidates who are vying for two seats on the Douglas County Board.
District 2 commissioner candidates are Judy Backhaus, Tim Kalina and Jim Stratton, while the District 4 candidates are Charlie Meyer, Beth Teeuwen and Michael Woods.
The Alexandria Area League of Women Voters and Alexandria chapter of the American Association of University Women sponsored the forum for the candidates, who are running in the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 14.
With a crowd of about 60 gathered at Alexandria City Hall, each candidate received two minutes at the start of the forum to introduce themselves and then 90 seconds to answer each of the questions, which were submitted by people in the audience. Ken Howell, a member of the League of Women Voters, was the moderator of the 90-minute forum.
The first question had multiple parts, all dealing with the morale of county employees. The candidates were asked how they would describe the morale of county workers, what they would do to improve it and what they would do to improve trust between employees and commissioners.
Kalina, who works for the county highway department, said morale is down and it stems from an issue with health insurance and the types of benefits for union and non-union employees, calling it an issue of “the haves and the have nots.”
He believes the commissioners need to sit in on negotiations with the unions and not rely on the county coordinator to fill them in. He doesn’t believe the commissioners know what is going on.
Stratton said there is a certain amount of misinformation and that the commissioners need to fix it. “We need to find out what it is we don’t know,” he said.
He offered up a solution in the way of a job satisfaction survey given out to employees to find out how many employees are really upset. He said, however, that the survey would have to be run by an outside company and not the county.
Stratton, who is the District 2 incumbent, said he always hears that the county needs to be fiscally responsible. “We are fiscally responsible. Sometimes, we have to cut corners and insurance is one of those areas,” he said.
Meyer, the District 4 incumbent, said dealing with seven different unions within the county is difficult job and that the county is going to end up with different types of deals with each union.
He also said that not everybody is going to get what they want, but he believes there are a few happy people who work for the county. Insurance, he said, is frustrating not only for the employees, but also for commissioners.
“We need to try and make it better, but I can’t promise I can make it better,” Meyer said.
Teeuwen, who worked in social services for more than 30 years, said it could be very simple management, but that it hasn’t happened yet. The board, she said, needs to be held accountable. She said she doesn’t minimize the problems with insurance, but also questioned per diems and salaries.
Woods, who also spent many years in social services with several years as the head of the Douglas County Social Services department, said he has received letters, phone calls and text messages from employees and “they’re really not happy.”
He suggested identifying the problem and then establishing a relationship with the employees. He would want employees to feel free to communicate with him as a commissioner without the fear of repercussion.
Woods added that if morale remains at its current level, the county will end up with not very good employees.
Backhaus said she heard about the morale issues when doing her homework and talked with many employees. She believes the buck stops with the commissioners and that they have to make a point to know what is going on with their employees. She feels employees should be treated with respect and appreciation.
Insurance, said Backhaus, is complicated and difficult but she felt communication was lacking within the negotiations.
She also touched on the time clock system that was put in place not that long ago for employees because she heard there were issues with it.
“Time clocks – I don’t like them,” Backhaus said. “I’m not wild about them for hourly employees and they don’t make sense for salaried employees.”
The question of whether Alomere Health should remain a county-owned hospital, along with the name change from Douglas County Hospital to Alomere, seemed to strike a nerve with some candidates.
Woods said the hospital needs to remain county-owned because “we need local control and don’t need some big corporation” owning it.
Teeuwen believes that it shouldn’t be owned by the taxpayers and that other options need to be explored.
Backhaus said with the hospital ranked in the Top 100 in the nation, it must be doing something right.
“They are doing a phenomenal job and I am proud it,” she said. “If it’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing.”
Stratton agreed with Backhaus and said it is a well-run hospital.
“We looked at making it a 501c3 (non-profit), but we don’t want to go there,” said Stratton. “It’s a well-run, efficient hospital.”
Kalina said he doesn't have any concerns with the hospital and that it draws people in from the surrounding area.
“I just didn’t care for the name change. Douglas County Hospital is a landmark,” he said.
Meyer also called it a phenomenal hospital with roughly 900 employees. He said the last time it has seen red ink was in the 1980s. Meyer said he wasn’t keen on the name change at first.
“I’m about as Douglas County as you can get but it is a health system and it serves many different zip codes,” he said. “The hospital has been doing us proud.”
When it came to the question of lake quality issues, Stratton asked which problem people wanted to talk about – phosphorus, chloride, aquatic invasive species or other threats.
“There are all kinds of problems with no distinct picture or no one answer,” he said.
Stratton stressed that people need to be diligent; they need to watch, be aware and try and understand the issues, especially with aquatic invasive species. He also noted that he serves on many different boards and committees that deal with water quality and lake issues.
Meyer, who also has served on various boards, called it a huge issue and one that is very important to this area. He said Douglas County has made a commitment to do what it can when it comes to keeping the lakes clean, as it is part of the area’s livelihood.
Teeuwen said although she hasn’t done a lot of research, it seems like the horse is already out of the barn when it comes to solutions for water quality problems.
“I have no real ideas,” she said, but said a good place to start would be with the Alexandria Lake Area Sewer District and seeing if it could be discharging cleaner water.
Woods, who has spent time at the beaches as a boat inspector, said a lot of education can still be done, especially when it comes to aquatic invasive species.
Backhaus said lake issues are huge in this area and a large part of the economy. But it takes money to combat issues, she said. Backhaus said she doesn’t like raising taxes, but suggested that a half-cent sales tax could generate about $3 million per year. She said to set a time limit, maybe for five years. A sales tax was successful in paying for roads and bridges, she said, so it could be helpful for protecting lakes.
Kalina feels one option to help increase lake quality would be to control the geese population. Geese, he said, are the biggest pollutants around.
The primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 14. The two candidates who receive the most votes in each district will appear on the ballot for the general election on Nov. 6.