Winona County Board candidates debate




The jail, the environment, and growth were top issues at a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum late last month as incumbent Winona County Board member Greg Olson and challenger Craig Zeches laid out their positions. Olson and Zeches are seeking to represent the fourth district (central Winona). County Board member Steve Jacob, who is running unopposed for reelection in the third district (northern and western Winona County), also participated.

Reminding voters of his record, Olson pointed to both cost-saving measures and environmental protection. “Through building consolidation, operational changes, and investments in programs and technology, we’ve achieved efficiencies envied by other counties,” Olson said, noting that next year’s budget includes no tax increase. That’s possible, in part, because the county is using reserves to balance its budget next year. Turning to nitrate contamination of rural drinking water, he added, “Some have suggested we compromise on the protection of our greatest resource. I stand firm on protecting our bluffs and our groundwater.”

“I’m an Eagle scout and that has taught me how to deal with the conservation issues and citizenship that are needed in this county,” he said. In interviews, Zeches has discussed wanting to increase the county’s population and support new businesses. “Now we are decreasing in numbers,” he said at the forum. “We need to find a way to grow. And my opportunity at this point is to bring forth methods to help this county grow, so that we do have sustainability and future options for the people to come to this county and enjoy as much as I have and my family.”

Both Zeches and Olson named the jail as one of the top issues facing the county. It is a crucial decision, but by 2021, the die may already be cast. The county has to do something to replace its condemned, substandard jail that the state has promised to shut down by October 2021. A committee of community leaders, criminal justice officials, and jail planning experts spent years studying the issue before recommending that building a new, full-sized jail would be the most cost-effective option in the long run. Though a new jail is estimated to cost taxpayers $25 million, the committee found the county would spend even more in the long run if it had to shuttle inmates back and forth from neighboring jails. The County Board already hired architects to design both a 98-bed or 78-bed jail, and the board is expected to vote later in November on whether to borrow $10 million, the first of multiple loans for the project.

“The jail is a big issue and obviously we have to do something about it,” Zeches said. “The size we need is what is questionable.” He continued, “Right now, we have approximately 17 people incarcerated in our county jail; I’m not so sure we need one for 100 at this point, but we do need options to take care of those that we bring to the facility.”

The county has a particularly low jail population now because it released prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the jail. Jail officials say a 98-bed facility is needed, even though the county averages closer to 50 inmates, because extra space is required to separate inmates for safety reasons and to handle weekend peaks in jail population.

Olson said of COVID precautions and the transportation costs of shuttling inmates to other jails, “While that’s a temporary measure that we have in place that has deflated the demand on [the jail], we have to remember that currently we pay over $300,000 a year … to house 15 inmates at another facility. That’s not the transportation cost, that’s just to house them. That cost can only go up. So the facility in Winona has to be the right sized facility.”

Winona County needs a smaller jail than what is being proposed, Jacob said. He successfully pushed for considering a 78-bed jail and has since advocated for an even smaller facility. The estimated cost of the new jail keeps going up, Jacob pointed out. The county should set a maximum budget for the project, but the board majority, including Olson, won’t do that, Jacob argued.

The LWV moderator asked candidates about groundwater protection, something Olson has made a major theme in his campaign. Asked about steps the county has or will take to address water quality, Olson pointed to the Root River One Watershed One Plan project in which the county is participating and the county’s response to frac sand mining. He voted to ban frac sand mining in 2016.

“I don’t know the workings of the water outside the fact of what goes through the water control systems in the city and possibly throughout in the county are apparently doing a good job, because I don’t know of anybody who is becoming ill from the water,” Zeches said. “I don’t think anybody out there wants water that isn’t clean. But if we need steps to take to go forward and develop programs that will clean up some of these problems, then I think we need to address them and focus on them,” he added.

“The main thing we need to do is support our SWCD [Soil and Water Conservation District],” Jacob said of addressing water quality problems. Pointing to urban runoff fueling phosphorus contamination in Lake Winona, he stated, “We need to understand this is everybody’s problem, not just farmers’ problem … We need to figure out where the real problem is and not be pointing the fingers at farmers.”

Growth has been a big campaign theme for Zeches. “I’d like to see opportunities brought forth to allow this county to grow in a regulated way,” he said in his opening remarks. When the moderator asked candidates what the barriers to growth in the county are, Zeches responded, “Unfortunately some of the barriers that prevent growth in Winona County are ourselves. We get caught up in some of the things in life that we want and we maybe don’t want to go beyond that. I’ve heard people say there’s no place for housing, there’s no place to grow. There are plenty of places if you want to look at them, and if you want to be able to free up some area for people to be able to use the land for the best value they’re paying for.”

Posed the same question, Olson answered, “The biggest barrier we have right now facing us in Winona County is our aging workforce. We have manufacturers here in Winona County that cannot find a workforce. They have idle assembly lines … We need to focus on not only retaining our students that are attending our universities, but making our community more receptive to allow and invite more people in.”

“The barriers are overbearing regulations,” Jacob said, “and that’s something I’ve worked on in the last eight years in office.” Jacob authored zoning changes that eased regulations on rural properties, and he touted his voting record on development permits. “Nearly every application that comes through, if I can figure out a way to support that application, I do,” he stated.

The LWV moderator also asked candidates whether they believed in climate change and what they would do about it.

“I do believe the climate is changing, and we are seeing more and more frequently weather extremes that we’ve never experienced here before,” Olson said. He noted that many small-scale solar power plants — known as solar gardens — have been erected locally. “We’re seeing that happen frequently in Winona County, and I support that,” he stated.

“Climate control is one of those combinations of words that creates an either you’re for or you’re against. I think it’s necessary to take steps to preserve the climate that we have,” Zeches said. People should have their choice of sources for heat, cooling, and electricity, he stated. Lots of wind turbines and solar plants are being built, Zeches noted, adding, “If that’s helping, then fine, we should support that, but not force anybody to go that route.”

“I definitely believe in climate change. Whether it’s manmade or naturally occurring I don’t know how much of each,” Jacob responded. “You don’t ever hear about volcanoes that erupt underwater. Seventy percent of the Earth is covered by the ocean, and how does that contribute to climate change? How do naturally occurring forest fires contribute to climate change?” he asked. Whatever is causing it, practicing conservation is important, Jacob said, adding, “I feel it’s inappropriate for me to tax the Winona County citizens to try to solve a national or global problem.”

According to NASA, 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists across the globe agree that humans are causing climate change.

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