Sophia Voight | Appleton Post-Crescent USA TODAY NETWORK – WISCONSIN
GRAND CHUTE – Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and his challenger former county board member Kevin Sturn fielded questions Monday morning on topics of affordable housing, worker shortages and property taxes.
Sturn, who served on the county board from 2012 to 2020, is challenging the three- term incumbent to bring new leadership to the executive seat and remove politics he says are used in the county office. Nelson, who recently unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate, has held the office since 2011 and ran unopposed in his previous two elections.
About 20 people attended the forum at the Fox Cities Stadium’s Fox Club, which was hosted by the Fox Cities Chamber and The Post-Crescent.
The two candidates will face off on April 4 for the county’s highest office. For information about registering to vote and polling locations, visit the MyVote Wisconsin website at myvote.wi.gov.
Here are five takeaways from the forum:
Plans to tackle growing housing demand
The Fox Cities area needs between 1,000 and 2,000 new housing units per year to keep up with growing demand, according to an Outagamie County regional housing strategy study that identifies ways the county can help increase its housing stock.
If elected, Sturn said he wants to get the ball rolling on that plan and start allocating the $3,500,000 in COVID-19 relief funds the county set aside for affordable housing.
Nelson, on the other hand, said allocating those funds can’t be rushed and he plans to work with private developers and housing authorities to grow the area’s housing stock over the coming years.
A clear contrast on raising taxes
Sturn and Nelson sparred over sales tax, an issue Nelson originally vetoed the adoption of at the beginning of his third term, but that Sturn helped initiate during his time on the county board.
Sturn was on the county board in 2019 when the board overrode Nelson’s veto of a county-wide half-percent sales tax, and stated the county would be in debt and property taxes would be higher without that tax.
“There’s a lot of good that’s been done to reduce property taxes because of the sales tax and it’s a balanced approach,” Sturn said. Nelson said the county doesn’t need to raise taxes or fees because the county will get additional funding from the state’s surplus, while Sturn said he would approve increased taxes if it was the right thing to do for the county’s finances.
Candidates differ on how to tackle employee turnover issues
Underpinned by pandemic-induced stress and uncompetitive wages, Outagamie County is experiencing its highest level of employee turnover and as of March 1, has 198 open positions.
The two candidates disagreed over how the county should solve its turnover problem, with Nelson pointing to making the county a welcoming place to work and Sturn suggested increasing wages.
Nelson pointed to the county’s Total Rewards study, which will look at how competitive wages and benefits could help retain employees as well as what could make the county a better environment to live and work in.
Meanwhile, Sturn suggested rearranging the county budget by taking money out of other departments to increase county employees’ wages.
Because of county levy limits, Nelson said it’s not so easy to raise county employee wages.
“We have very strict levy limits,” Nelson said. “We can only raise the levy by about a million dollars — that translates, into a workforce of about 1,300, to about a one or one and a half percent wage increase.”
Sturn also proposed working with local middle and high schools to encourage students to enter county government jobs and partnering with technical colleges and training centers on apprenticeship programs.
Increasing access to affordable child care
In August, the county allocated $2,750,000 for child care and early childhood development in American Rescue Plan Act funding, stating the lack of child care access is one of Outagamie County’s primary issues.
During Monday’s forum, Nelson said the county is ahead of the game on addressing child care by allocating this money.
Sturn countered Nelson’s response saying “there’s a difference between allocating the funds and dispersing the funds.” Instead, Sturn said he would consider working with Fox Valley Technical College to give tuition assistance or reimbursement to students looking to enter the child care sector or potentially create a county-run child care facility.
Investing in infrastructure
With major projects such as the Appleton International Airport expansion and calls for an Amtrak expansion through Northeast Wisconsin, both candidates agreed on the need to support infrastructure and transportation projects to get more people into the county.
Nelson named the $100 million airport expansion as one of the most important projects coming to the county, stating he plans to make the project a success if reelected and turn it into a cornerstone of transportation in the county.
“This can take us to the next level,” Nelson said. “ We’re talking coming up to a billion dollars worth of economic activity and supporting about 4,000 jobs.”
Sturn said we need to fix deteriorating roads, especially in rural areas to make it so hauling trucks and farming equipment can drive on them without wrecking them.
“What we need to do is work as a county to provide some assistance to make sure that we have trucking routes and making middle miles to where you can drive trucks and equipment and not pound these roads up,” Sturn said.
Sophia Voight is a local government and political reporter with The Post-Crescent. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_voight.