Brief personal background, education, career, bio: 

Jeff Gontarek

Otter Tail County has been my home since 1975. I was raised on one of our beautiful lakes (Big Pelican), on my family’s resort. I graduated from Pelican Rapids High School in 1985, met my wife of twenty-one years, and we raised our son in Otter Tail County. I have served Otter Tail County as a Correctional Officer, Water Patrol Officer, Temporary Hold Attendant, Community Service Specialist, and DWI Court Surveillance/Training Officer, aided in community growth through real estate, and had the dedication and privilege to volunteer as a coach for youth baseball and the Heart O Lakes High School Fishing League, youth firearms instructor, and teach fly fishing to veterans and families.

Can you list a couple of the key issues you are focusing on for the campaign?

1. Supporting our small businesses, income-producing properties, and entrepreneur growth.

2. Property tax and future mill rate that will affect the taxpayer.   

3. Citizen involvement in County Commissioner meetings and opening up that discussion! Wide open full disclosure on what we are doing. 

4. Withdraw from MICA (Minnesota Inter-County Association) – MICA is a “voluntary, joint powers organization of fifteen counties.” The association “is a vehicle for planning and implementing projects and programs of interest to member counties”. Otter Tail County is attached to MICA. MICA is comprised of Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Chisago, Crow Wing, Dakota, Olmsted, Rice, Saint Louis, Scott, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington, and Winona Counties. Our voice and discussion will help us with implementation of projects and programs, not MICA. 

5. Greatly improve county road maintenance. Citizens pay a sales tax, and wheelage tax, in addition to the county budget. We need to address this ongoing issue. There should have been more progress over the last twelve years relating to the conditions of the roads in Otter Tail County.

Housing has been consistently identified as one of the top priorities in Otter Tail County. Do you agree with that priority?  

Who is consistently identifying this as a top priority? What is affordable housing? May we please hear a number of the costs that are attached to affordable housing? Is it $100,000, $150,000, $200,000, $255,000, or $325,000? Let’s agree on a number and identify what is affordable housing. We will always be working on housing needs, especially if we experience a boom in business growth. However, as I talk with our invested citizens, it is evident their concerned focus is the increasing property taxes, local government spending decisions, lack of jobs that pay the bills, long-term career opportunities, and deteriorating infrastructure as top priorities. These are real concerns of people living here. Residents’ questions: “Shouldn’t we have jobs that pay for housing and living your life here before building a house?” “If we build, who pays for the house?” “Who makes up the lost revenue with the tax rebate on the County’s share?” It is just good business to open up discussion, review, and proceed. This is a fair request.  

Do you support the Otter Tail County “Big Build” initiative? 

The Big Build is presented as a beautiful gift, an avenue that will help small towns grow. When did Otter Tail County lose the ability to grow without government assistance? Why are we really at this point in history? Why are we not growing like surrounding communities? I have questions for the Big Build Authors.

On June 16, 2022, a questionable decision was made to dissolve Otter Tail County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and transfer operations to the Otter Tail County Community Development Agency (CDA). Beginning January of 2023, the CDA is unelected by the people; rather, they are appointed by the Commissioners. The CDA has a board member who ran as a commissioner candidate to fill existing commissioner Doug Huebsch’s position. Serving on the CDA board is the wife of our District 2 commissioner? Is no one else in District 2 qualified? As evident with the Big Build, we see decisions move fast without taxpayer’s voice and involvement. A smart business plan would be to pause, review, and openly discuss if the “Current Authored Big Build” route is in the best interest of our communities. Why would a board not want to hear you?  

In speaking with District 2 citizens, the vast majority were unaware of the Big Build until this campaign season. There must be improved communication between the County Board and citizens. A commitment of this magnitude deserves an open forum with questions and answers. There is public uncertainty regarding the funding source and what are the stipulations (or “strings”) attached to this source. Most certainly, the Big Build will profit a few, leaving the rest of us to pay the price. Elected, I will not avoid questions from citizens; rather, I will embrace the opportunity for open dialog so that, as a community, we are making sound business decisions.

We must answer the question of what is preventing investors from committing their resources to build in Otter Tail County without taxpayer assistance. Again, I certainly understand the need for housing and business growth. Why would anyone be opposed to open discussion and review?

Can you comment on how housing needs should be addressed as a county board member? 

Here is a concern, we are entrusting the county board to be involved in housing when one of their basic duties, caring for roadways, is not fulfilled. Have you checked out the progress on the 2022 remodel of the Courthouse and Government Service Center? How involved do we want the county board to be in housing?

Commissioners are elected officials to represent their constituents. They work for you, not the state. When the local government is involved with any plan, the project is being funded through your earned retirement pay and paycheck. The Mission Statement, adopted in 1993, reads, “The Otter Tail Board of Commissioners Mission is to provide the people of Otter Tail County with affordable, efficient government services.” If we stretch this definition to include housing, any community-wide housing program should include citizen input (the true stakeholder). The program must be guided by a sound financial plan that focuses on need, costs to the taxpayer, and project cost.

I want to be clear, when speaking with residents in District 2, housing is not identified as a major concern by the majority. Instead, residents are concerned with their increased property taxes, being taxed out of their property (including farms and lake cabins), and not receiving the services in which money is collected. An additional concern is the lack of businesses. Why are we not being selected for new businesses? Does our local government think the problem is just housing?

Do you support a gravel extraction tax in Otter Tail County? Why or why not?

• I would vote no for an in-county aggregate tax. I have been asked to support an export sales tax for aggregate leaving the county or township. The communication on this makes sense.

• Let’s not create unnecessary financial burden.

• Involving our residents in communication, you quickly learn what their thoughts and expertise are on matters, and there is no need to spend taxpayer money for a study! The vast majority is no in-county aggregate tax. FYI, I do not own or have an attachment to a gravel pit.

If you received a $10 million grant for Otter Tail County to spend any way you wanted, what would you do with it and why?

Grant money seems to be a growing addiction, and we do not need to pay for an outside study on where to spend the money. I would open up communication with our residents to hear their interests. There is definitely a place in our communities for the use of grant money without attachments. I would desire to see the type of local growth where we are not consistently dependent on “do we qualify for a grant?” I think you would agree we have people hired for growth and the return is dismal. So, if no input was received, I would return a portion to the taxpayer, invest in our local veteran and elderly services, fire up community events of gather, spend money on decaying and neglected road work, invest in new stop lights with a turn signal for right or left turns, address project shortfalls in local schools, add additional student workforce education classes, address identified infrastructure needs, incentives for entrepreneurship along with new and current small business owners, invest in keeping our electric services flowing, continued investment in our waters and rivers, avenues that would promote additional summer reading for youth, ensure we keep local small town community police departments, and invest in county small town curb appeal.

Can you outline two ideas for fostering economic development and expanding the tax base in Otter Tail County?

This is truly a task for the free market. It has been said we need housing for the growth of economic development in Otter Tail County. To an Investor, the infrastructure is not in place to attract future investors to our county. Look at the roads in towns and the county. I have visited 21 small towns, and I have been told by some that the business climate is not conducive to successful expansion. The concerns surround the multiple vacant buildings, average household income, and road maintenance. These areas must be addressed to foster economic development. Think about that, would you agree with these investors looking for a place to move? Where would you be willing to invest your business dollars?  

How do you plan to involve residents in the decision-making process in Otter Tail County?

As an elected official, citizens shall have full disclosure on how their money is being spent. Big projects should be placed on the ballot for the taxpayers to decide. It is important to remember that when the local government is involved, the taxpayer is funding the project. Therefore, citizen input is critical to the success of the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners. Decisions are deferred from elected persons to appointed persons. These decision-makers are not elected by you. I will vote to open up communication and provide answers to your questions. 

The Otter Tail County Commissioner meetings need to be held at various locations throughout the county at various times of the day to accommodate the schedule of citizens.

General comments: 

When you step outside and look around our area this fall day, is this where you think we should be in the year 2022? We all are invested here and want to succeed. We know we need to fund schools, pay for roads, fund Law enforcement, land and resources management, and the nuts and bolts of county services. There is a tight government grip on your retirement check and paycheck. We are 12 years into Mr. Johnson’s County Board seat with a vote request for four more years, which would total 16 years! Have you accepted our current condition as who we are? Economic expansion should be our top primary focus – fostering economic development with increasing our tax base. We need our high school graduates to have a career with good pay when they return. Please be aware of who is making our decisions. Your vote will decide our route.  

As said by former Otter Tail County Commissioner Doug Huebsch, “Twelve years is a long time, and now is a good time for me to give someone else a chance to move the county forward.”

We can agree we need to pay taxes to keep us moving, but when outside the normal boundary of tax collection, there needs to be an open forum discussion! We need to be smart with your money, and you need to know where it goes. This is just good business. 

It is time for a change, time to have representation that will open the discussion forum, have taxpayer conversations, explain the project, hear your thoughts, and represent all citizens, not a few. I want you to know that I will not nominate my wife, family, friends, or business associates to any board, and I will not profit one penny from you in any business I own or may own in the future. My service is about District 2 and Otter Tail County!