The Northeaster met with candidates Connie Buesgens and Donna Schmitt for mayor, and also attended the Sept. 20 forum where they appeared. Here are some of the insights we gained.
City Council member Connie Buesgens is tired of the insults. “I don’t want to hear ‘Crumbling Heights’ anymore,” she said. A Minnesota native (she grew up in Carver County), Buesgens is proud of her adopted city. If elected mayor, she wants Columbia Heights to “shine.”
An avid gardener, she became known to folks at city hall when she began watering the potted plants in front of the building. “I’d visit the economic development department and say, ‘Well, what about this?’ or ‘What about that?’ They suggested I apply for the planning commission.” After a couple of years on the planning commission, it was suggested that she run for city council. “Last summer, people starting asking me to run for mayor. I decided to go for it.”
She supports the proposed charter amendment to lengthen the mayor’s term of office to four years. “It’s expensive to campaign, and I don’t want the cost to limit who can afford to run. Most other cities have four-year terms. It would put Columbia Heights in the 21st century.”
She sees some logic in placing the police department under the city manager. “If the city manager makes a poor choice, they can be fired right away. The mayor can only be ‘fired’ if they’ve done something illegal. If they make a poor choice, they get to stay around until their term is finished.”
One of her priorities as mayor would be to build up Columbia Heights’ business base while keeping its small-town feel. “Three areas are prime for redevelopment. One is 37th and Stinson where that old, run-down strip mall is, and 40th and Central. On 40th and University, there’s a woods over there. The ground is contaminated, but once we find the money to clean that up, that’s another area to redevelop. We can have three- or four-story buildings like Fairview, for instance. Fairview pays $179,000 a year in city, county and school taxes. If we can get three or four more buildings like that, it brings in a lot more money for the city.”
Another priority is to devise a plan to help young families stay in the city. “We have to do more to keep them here as their families grow,” she said.
Donna Schmitt never expected to be elected Columbia Heights mayor in 2016. “I was surprised. I really expected Gary [Peterson] to win,” she said. Now, she’s the incumbent facing a serious challenge from Connie Buesgens.
She’s running again because she feels a need to finish projects that are in motion. “I’d like to see Hy-Vee come up. It’s going to be a huge boost to our economy and to our city, a blessing to everyone who wants to walk to a grocery store again. It’ll be a draw for people in the surrounding communities, too.”
City Manager Walt Fehst is retiring at the end of the year, and she’d like to take part in the selection of a new city manager. She would like to be involved in the re-do of 40th Avenue between Central and University. She’s also interested in a new City Hall, whether it’s a complete remodel of the existing building or a new building in another location. “I think it’s a good possibility in the next five years,” she said.
She’s been encouraged by discussions with council newcomers at meetings and she’d like to serve two more years, then pass her position on to someone else. Once a proponent of a four-year mayoral term, Schmitt now thinks a two-year term is OK. “As an incumbent, you have an advantage because you are the mayor. With a two-year term, if the mayor isn’t doing a good job, we can kick him or her out. It keeps you on your toes. I don’t think anyone coming in expects to be here for life. You probably won’t see 50 years in [office] for most people.”
She discussed, with other mayors, the placement of the police department under the city manager. “The mayor does not run the police department on a day-to-day basis. That’s not what it means. The mayor is not a sworn peace officer. It was an honor to work with HR and pick Lenny Austin as police chief.” She would leave the police department under the mayor’s supervision.
Schmitt said Columbia Heights’ biggest challenge is money. She said, “We have great ideas, like City Hall, but we have to be patient and wait. Every year we do a budget, and every year there’s an increase. Things get more expensive.”
The city has two big challenges: The fire department would like to hire two more people to help with fire inspections, they’re getting overwhelmed. It’s an old city with old infrastructure—sewer, pipes, alleys. “The Public Works department divided the city into quadrants and rotated the years when they would fix things in a quadrant. Alleys were not included, and some of them have deteriorated badly. We need to go in and fix the worst of the worst and get them on our radar.”
Additional questions at the forum included how to deal with nuisance properties, and whether to build a new city hall and where.
They were asked about the school bond issue. Schmitt said it’s the voters choice, and the voters turned it down last time. Buesgens is for it, and mentioned that the kids at North Park can’t spend much time in the school’s library because of chemical odors from the cinder blocks.
They were asked what they thought are the biggest strengths of Columbia Heights and how to build on them.
Links to the forum and the forums for City Council and Anoka County Commissioner are here:
Anoka County Commissioner Forum