Election roundup: City Commission race Part I

Chuck Wickenhofer

PART I: THE INCUMBENTS

Dale Robbins

Water Commissioner Dale Robbins, who has served one full term on the City Commission after being a mid-term appointment prior to being elected, believes that progress has been made regarding the city’s infrastructure during his six years of service.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is infrastructure,” Robbins said. Water, sewer, streets: There’s still a lot of work still to be done, but I think that’s the primary thing that’s getting done that I think might get overlooked at times. There’s been a lot of money been spent on doing those types of things the last couple of years.”

Though Robbins reports that the commission has been successful in their efforts to manage the city’s progress and maintain its viability through infrastructure spending, there are some areas that he sees an opportunity to improve.

One of those areas is the relationship between Forward Devils Lake and the City Commission.

“Anything to do with Forward Devils Lake can be a little bit spirited at times. I think we’re going to be addressing that, hopefully in the near future, once this Ultra Green thing is done,” Robbins said. “I think we have to maybe retool. Forward Devils Lake does a good job, but a lot of the stuff that they do is given to the city to rubber stamp, basically. That’s maybe not a good thing.”

The issues with Ultra Green are well known by now, and Robbins seems to think that refining the process by which business is promoted in the city could help avoid such failures in the future.

“We had some discussion (about Ultra Green), but I think maybe we could have had more,” Robbins said. “Nothing against anybody on Forward Devils Lake, but they get it first, they do all of the process, they do all of the decision making, and then it gets presented at the meeting. We could take it upon ourselves to get really involved with Forward Devils Lake, but that hasn’t been the case. They approve it, we approve it. I think that’s going to change.”

The fallout from the Ultra Green closure has perhaps reinforced Robbins’ philosophy of focusing more on lending a hand to smaller businesses in the city, rather than swinging for the fences on large projects.

“I’ve always said that (we should) try to build off of what we have already,” Robbins said. “Anything you can do locally to build your base, I think, is going to pay dividends more than throwing all your eggs in one basket and trying to hit the home run on one big thing. Every once in a while, you swing and you miss.”

Another contested issue that came before the city was the Eagles Ledge oil refinery that is on hiatus. Robbins spoke of the project as if he thinks the refinery is unlikely to be constructed at this point.

“That was so controversial when it was happening. It looked like the golden goose, and it would have been,” Robbins said. “It would have been great for the community; it would have been a great revenue stream. They were going to pay a huge property tax, so there might have been money to do some things in town. If it would have happened, it would have been a funding source for the tourism center. That’s what would made it really attractive.”

In light of the losses incurred by the oil refinery in Dickinson, which opened last year, and possible environmental issues, Robbins now seems to believe that the city might be better off without the project.

“Price per barrel is down so much that they can’t refine (oil) and make enough money off of it to make it viable,” Robbins said. “It might be a blessing that everything happened when it did. Had they got in the middle of construction, it could have been problematic.

“They lead you to believe that it’s not going to be an environmental problem,” Robbins added. “You don’t know, you just have to trust them when they’re telling you that. It was a tough one.”

Another tough issue for the commission is the budget shortfalls created by the dwindling funding from the state.

Though Robbins says the city has done a good job managing revenue while lowering property taxes, the statewide budget cuts may force the commission to change its approach.

“We haven’t raised our property tax in the six years I’ve been on (the commission). Our spending has been flat for six years, and I think that’s been due the fact that we’ve been good managers,” Robbins said. “If the state keeps going the way it’s going, and they can’t provide that property tax relief, it might be unfortunate, but property taxes might go up. With the state in the shape it’s in, it’s going to be tough to hold that line if you want to keep improving infrastructure and things like that.

“The dollars aren’t going to be there like they were,” Robbins added.

Though the commission has dealt with an array of issues while Robbins has served, he looks forward to helping manage the city’s future while crediting the city’s employees for their efforts to help keep Devils Lake running smoothly.

“I think city employees are some of the best ones you can find,” Robbins said. “We have some pretty dedicated employees.

“I’ve been doing it for six years. I enjoy it.”

Tim Heisler

Engineering Commissioner Tim Heisler has seen a lot during his years serving Devils Lake, but perhaps his biggest challenge involved the encroaching floodwaters that Heisler says threatened the city’s survival.

“It’s been a lot of work, it’s dealing a lot with the public and the people along the embankment,” Heisler said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have the infrastructure we have; quite frankly, we’d have so many problems that I’m not sure if we’d have a city because of where the water would be.”

The well known effort at all levels of government to mitigate the effect that the rising lake has had on the region is largely in the past, according to Heisler. With the installation of outlets to help manage the lake, the balance of that work is likely in the past, Heisler predicts.

“At the end of this year we’re finally, I think, going to be done with the city embankment,” Heisler said.

That has allowed the commission to address other infrastructure concerns in the city in order to facilitate business growth and serve citizens, and Heisler believes that the improvements have been managed well.

“With all the infrastructure work we’ve done around the city, the use of our sales tax has been really interesting and exciting to work with,” Heisler said. “We can use those funds to pave some streets.

“(We) initiated a sidewalk program with matching money from the city residents; it’s worked every year (because) we’re seeing some of our broken sidewalks getting replaced,” Heisler added. “It’s been great.”

Heisler detailed some of the progress the city has made with regard to attracting new business during his tenure.

“The growth along Highway 2 from east to west, now the new City Plaza; wow, what an attraction,” Heisler said. “The new motels, of course Walmart, the Cenex station looks great. Now we can promote our city so much better than five to eight years ago when we were in a flood situation.”

Of course, infrastructure is only one among a range of issues that Heisler and the commission have dealt with over the years.

“The biggest challenge as a commissioner is all the different things that come in front of the board,” Heisler said. “You can deal with such a variety of things. The growth, the ordinances that you have to adopt, such as the smoking ordinance, was a tough one for awhile.”

Another challenge, according to Heisler, will be reacting to the projected budget shortfalls that have resulted from cuts statewide. Because much of the city’s budget relies on state revenue, Devils Lake joins cities and institutions across North Dakota that will be forced to adjust to the new economic reality.

“We’re going to have another challenge this year with city budgets because of the shortfall of a couple hundred thousand dollars from the state,” Heisler said. “We’ll deal with it, but we might have to have some unique changes to adapt to losing that kind of funding.

“We’ll get through it. We’ll have to tackle that in the upcoming year, the upcoming budget,” Heisler continued. “That’s where we’re going to have to (determine) how we’re going to be affected by the loss of the revenue from the state. The new budget will be dealing with that a little more.”

Though the state’s budget issues will almost certainly adversely affect the city’s coffers, Heisler believes that Devils Lake is good financial condition. Still, he pointed out that adjustments might need to be made.

“The sales tax is looking very good. City property values are going up,” Heisler said. “Working with the assessing department, the taxes, it’s always a situation you have to deal with. Are (property values) going to rise, or are they going to stay the same?

“Taxes might have to go up a little bit, but we’ve been trying to hold true to where they are now,” Heisler added.

Though Heisler believes that this will be his last term if elected, he maintains his enthusiasm about the future of Devils Lake and is satisfied with the city’s progress in the face of the threat caused by the rising lake.

“The city is in good shape. We’re progressing. It’s been a pleasure and it would continue to be a pleasure to work for the citizens of Devils Lake,” Heisler said. “We’re growing; I want to see economic development. I want to continue to upgrade the infrastructure in the city. We’ve got good city department heads, we’ve got good city employees. It’s been going very, very well.”