Mitchell City Council candidates square off in heated forum, unveiling different goals to improve Mitchell
Among the key topics discussed during the forum were the future of Lake Mitchell, growth, the city’s aging infrastructure and issues facing downtown Mitchell.
MITCHELL — Tuesday’s forum revealed the field of candidates vying for seats on the Mitchell City Council have vastly different outlooks on the health of the community and approaches to bring progress to the city.
The trio of candidates seeking to represent Ward 3 on the council are Jason Bates, Kimberly Lofgren and Mike Bathke. The Ward 4 race is between incumbent Susan Tjarks and Don Everson. Both races will be decided on June 6.
Among the key topics discussed during the forum were future plans to restore Lake Mitchell, growth, the city’s aging infrastructure and project spending. The forum was hosted by the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and offered the candidates an opportunity to answer questions from the audience and moderators.
With a vote to consider approving a $25 million Lake Mitchell dredging project looming, the candidates were put on the spot about their take on the proposed project and steps the city should take to address the algae woes hampering the body of water.
Bathke and Everson both shared concerns about the proposed timing of dredging the lake. They pointed to the phosphorus and nutrients funneling into the lake via Firesteel Creek as an issue that city leaders should be more focused on before moving forward with a multimillion-dollar dredging project.
The city’s plan to fund the project through a 30-year SRF loan raised concerns for Bathke, who said the interest alone would raise the price tag to around $40 million. As of now, the fixed interest rate for the 30-year loan is hovering around 3% and could climb with talks of the Federal Reserve implementing more rate hikes.
“The professional engineer we hired said you can't do one without the other. We can’t dredge the lake and spend $25 million and bury ourselves in an SRF loan at 3%. That’s $13 million in interest. That’s crazy,” Bathke said. “If not now, when? Later.”
Although Everson indicated he isn't against dredging in the future, he said he cannot support it at this time, citing concerns of the project handicapping city operations.
“From looking at the Barr Engineering report and talking with members of Friends of Firesteel, everything points to we have to address the watershed first upstream. The watershed is impaired and is bringing sediment into the lake,” Everson said. “Timing is everything. If we do this at the wrong time, we would handicap city operations for years.”
Bates, Lofgren and Tjarks all issued their support for the city’s progress on the lake and work in the Firesteel watershed.
“I think starting with the lake project is a really good way to fix things with the lake without taking money from our taxpayers," said Bates, who is in favor of the initiated measure to allow the city to sell eight lots along the lake as a funding mechanism for dredging.
Tjarks echoed her support for dredging the lake and continuing to advance progress on Firesteel watershed improvements, which she believes will drastically enhance the quality of life and attract more people to Mitchell.
“We just got our first water quality report for the year, and it was enlightening. It showed the water in the lake right now has five times more phosphorus in the lake than what is coming into the lake from our watershed,” Tjarks said. “Does that mean we don’t need to focus on the watershed, absolutely not. We need to do both.”
Improving the lake is a move that Lofgren believes will bring more sales tax revenue to the city. She summed up her support for dredging by asking the audience, “How long are we going to keep kicking the can down the road?”
“I want to commend the city council and city administration. This has been a lifelong issue for me. The fact that we have a plan in place by buying the Kelley property and having pools going upstream into the lake that will help us monitor the phosphorus levels,” Lofgren said. “I love a good plan. Anytime there is a good plan, I’m all for it.”
Priorities, plans to improve Mitchell
Lofgren, the Chief Financial Officer for the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, said the reason she entered the race for Ward 3 was timing due to her children graduating high school. She said her experience as a CFO for the Chamber of Commerce has provided her with a good understanding of city government operations.
“I do have the experience in going through the proper channels and proper policies and procedures to get what you want done in Mitchell,” she said. “I feel like we have such positive progress going on. Is there more work to be done? Of course."
Among Lofgren's goals are adding recreation opportunities to spur growth and look for ways to capture more sales tax revenue. Lofgren indicated she's pleased with the city's progress on big projects and said she would "battle with those who are against some of the stuff the city does."
"I would analyze where we are in spending. I know we have excellent staff now, but seeing it through a fresh set of eyes may help us. Of course, we don’t want to raise any utility bills or taxes. But what are some other incomes we could look at,” she said. "I think we have great momentum. I don't want any stop signs thrown up and road construction thrown up. I think we need to start doing more."
As a lifelong Mitchell native, Bates said he’s been taking an interest in getting involved with city government in recent years to bring more growth and prosperity to the community. Bates challenged Bob Everson in the mayoral election in 2021 and said it provided him with valuable knowledge in his defeat.
“Looking back, I’m glad I did that because I am ready to have my ears open and listen. But also, when my ward needs me to fight for them, I will fight for them,” Bates said. "I’ve seen so many businesses come and go, and I think the city could do a better job at supporting small businesses."
As the lone downtown business owner among the field of candidates, Bates suggested moving First Fridays on Main to Saturday — a move he said would attract more people to the events. He also revealed his stance against diagonal parking on Main Street, which has emerged at recent council meetings as leaders look for ways to improve downtown parking.
To bring more growth and economic opportunities, Bates suggested building an event arena for sports and entertainment.
“We’re one of the only towns without an arena. By having one of them, I believe our town will grow with gas stations and hotels. To get more revenue for the city, you have to do something to make it grow and it would be a huge one,” Bates said of his hope to see an event venue built.
The big issues on the horizon that the council is facing, along with Mitchell's lack of growth and city spending decisions are major factors that inspired Bathke to run for a seat on the council.
Bathke pointed to securing a secondary source of water — which the city has been pursuing due to the increased frequency in exceeding the maximum daily capacity with its sole water supplier — and addressing the worker shortage as pivotal moves that will position Mitchell to grow and become less stagnant.
"We're at a point we are talking about spending $80 million on big projects, and we haven't talked about the secondary water source. If we're going to grow, we need water because we're using more than what's allocated to us," said Bathke, who backs entering an agreement with Fort Randall Rural Water District, which sources water from the Missouri River. “I feel like I’ve really put the time into this. Any of the city council members know I’ve been to almost every meeting the last two years. I’m well informed. I can hit the ground running, and I think that’s important because we have a lot of big issues coming up as a city."
As an owner of a local concrete company, Bathke said it’s given him vital experience in understanding how to pinpoint areas that have returns on investment. The subsidy funding the city doles out to some local nonprofit organizations each year, specifically the Chamber of Commerce, are decisions that Bathke said haven’t shown a return on investment. He said using tax dollars to fund housing projects is also the wrong approach to building affordable homes and suggested private developers are more equipped.
“I’m a very analytical person as a business owner and watch my finances very closely. First thing I’d say is our subsidies – what are we getting for our return on our investment? It’s crazy to think we’re giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to our Chamber of Commerce, but what are we getting in return?” Bathke questioned. “I don’t see it.”
For Everson, it's his opponent who motivated him to run for office. He emphasized some decisions Tjarks, the incumbent, has made while representing Ward 4 are ones he does not agree with. During his closing remarks, Everson used the allotted time to criticize Tjarks' decision-making when it comes to project spending and annual subsidy requests.
“I’ve seen several decisions from my opponent in the last four years that I do not agree with. I think I can do better. In February at a council meeting, she made a motion to approve a bid for the Third and Main Street streetscape project that was approximately $120,000 higher than the lower bid. The higher bid was for the project to be completed this year, while the lower bid was for it to be completed next year,” Everson said, calling it a "total disregard of taxpayer money."
Everson pointed to his extensive career as a detective for the Mitchell Police Department as a role that provided with experience to make tough decisions. If elected, he said tough decision-making would serve him well, as there are plenty of big decisions ahead like a proposed $25 million Lake Mitchell dredging project and a looming multimillion-dollar secondary water source agreement.
The top priorities Everson laid out are improving public safety and tackling Mitchell’s aging infrastructure. Everson dubbed himself as a candidate who will protect tax dollars.
“I talked to Public Works Director Joe Schroeder, and asked how many old water mains need to be replaced? And the answer was 30 miles, and that equates to 433 blocks at a cost of over $132 million. This is waiting for the city to tackle, and we’re not doing it fast enough,” Everson said, noting roads are also in “bad shape.” “As a police detective, I’ve protected your home and family. Now let me protect your tax dollars.”
As the lone incumbent seeking her fourth term on the council, Tjarks said her love for the community still remains the biggest inspiration behind her decision to run for another term. Tjarks pushed back on Everson's assessment of her performance as a council member and emphasized the majority of the city's budget the past several years has been dedicated toward infrastructure projects.
"We currently have $219 million in projects going on to improve our infrastructure. To say we're lacking in infrastructure right now with the projects have going on is naive at best. Someone hasn't been paying attention," Tjarks said in response to Everson's focus on infrastructure work.
Tjarks is honed in on advancing lake restoration work and making progress on downtown Mitchell, which she said both have tremendous momentum.
She sought to poke holes in her opponent's take on the city needing more jobs and businesses by highlighting the worker shortage Mitchell is grappling with.
“57% of our city revenue comes from sales tax, and another 30% comes from property tax. We need to focus on figuring out how to make our community grow. My opponent says we need to bring in more businesses and high paying jobs, and I’m afraid he isn’t aware what we have is businesses and jobs hungry for people to come work for them,” Tjarks said. “We have jobs. What we need are people.”
The future growth of Mitchell hinges more on housing and not jobs, Tjarks said.