Mount Vernon City Council: Bill Niemi
October 28, 2013
• Age: 62
• Education/military service: Graduated from International Falls High School in 1970. Associate's degree from Texas State Technical College, 1988. Bachelor's degree from Texas A&M, 1995.
• Occupation: Presently owns Euphonic Studio in Mount Vernon, a recording and music lessons studio. Past occupations: 20 years as electrical engineer, 12 years as entertainer and studio musician in Minneapolis. Has also worked as a newspaper photographer, factory laborer, industrial laundry presser, fry cook, piano salesman, and sod layer.
• Family: Spouse Lori.
• Community involvement/elected service: Organized African drought relief benefit, "Volunteer Jam North," in 1984. This event included 18 of the top bands and acts in the Minneapolis music scene and raised over $5,000. Raised money for two $1,000 needs/merit scholarships for 1991 high school graduates in Crystal City, Texas. Has performed music for elderly at nursing homes over decades. Lifelong activist for social and economic justice, civil rights, open government, corporate responsibility, and environment. Has volunteered for three national political campaigns.
Why are you running for a position on the Mount Vernon City Council?
I am running for city council because Mount Vernon residents want to reset our city's spending priorities using common sense. If elected, I will push very hard to achieve that goal.
The current council and mayor have demonstrated that they have a spending agenda that is not shared by most of the residents of this town. The roundabouts project is a perfect example. It's a $1.6 million solution to a $127,000 problem. Their process on the roundabouts included going against public opinion, hiring a consultant who never built a roundabout before, choosing the most expensive solution to a simple problem, bungling the land acquisition, incurring a $360,000 lawsuit, suffering more than 25 percent cost overruns, and ignoring two petitions against the roundabouts that totaled 1,500 signatures of Mount Vernon residents.
The incumbents should not be given a free pass for this, as they are planning two more multi-million dollar projects without clear direction from the public. This has to stop.
We have miles of streets in disrepair. Our police station is obsolete and inadequate. Some of our water mains pre-date the Spanish American War of 1898. Our waste treatment plant needs improvements. We have an unknown number of lead pipe connections to our city water system. It is wrong to spend public money on projects like a health club, roundabouts, and more uptown renewal when we have so many essential infrastructure projects going begging for money.
What is the role of the City Council?
I see the council's primary role as problem solving. The council should take input from the citizens of the town, the city administration, and outside sources about problems that affect our people and businesses. We should then use common sense to prioritize and plan how to solve those problems.
An important secondary role of city government is to create an environment attractive to new business. Our current government has failed to do this, resulting in the loss of new business to Lisbon. With the U.S. 30 bypass ahead, there is the potential that existing businesses may close or relocate. We need to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to attracting new business.
What experiences/background would make you a good city council member?
I am retired from my second career as an electrical engineer. My 20 years in engineering taught me how to solve complex problems in a wide variety of settings. I've worked as project engineer on transportation and infrastructure projects up to $7 million. During my engineering career I worked well with a variety of people from factory floor workers to skilled trades people to CEOs.
My first career was as a professional musician owning my own business. I worked in recording studios and clubs in Minneapolis for 12 years. My band toured in Europe for three months in 1982. In 2010 I was inducted into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame. My years as an entertainer and small business owner taught me people and business management skills.
What are the top three strengths of the City of Mount Vernon, and how should the city capitalize on those strengths?
Mount Vernon has an excellent potential for attracting new light industry and service businesses if we recognize the opportunity and seize it. The city should be doing much more for economic development including working closely with the Community Development Group to make it easier for new business to locate here. This is a particular interest of mine and I will be actively working with the CDG to make Mount Vernon an attractive place for new business.
We have two excellent educational facilities in our public school system and Cornell College.
We are in a beautiful location. Our town has a rich historical heritage and at the same time we are a forward-looking community. We have wonderful architecture, a semi-rural setting, and room to expand our role as a bedroom community as well as attracting more jobs.
What are the top three biggest challenges facing the City of Mount Vernon and how should they be addressed?
The overall problem is that our current city government has lost its way. Spending priorities have been set by an agenda that few people share. I know this through feedback I'm getting from people as I knock on their doors. The solution to this problem is simple. Elect Jim Moore, Eric Roudabush, and Bill Niemi and along with Francesca Thompson we will get our spending priorities back on track.
The Hwy. 30 bypass is a looming problem. This is going to affect all the businesses in our town. It's a mistake to try to solve this problem by putting in roundabouts, wellness centers, and city-scaping. However, we can and will attract some light manufacturing and service businesses if we work for it. We can build our population and tax base to offset the impact of the bypass.
We also have pressing infrastructure problems as noted above. These should be top priority projects for the city government.
What should the top three budget priorities be fore the City of Mount Vernon?
The top priorities are public safety and infrastructure projects.
I want to say a word about infrastructure projects and elections. Around election time all the candidates say that they are for fixing the streets, water plants, and other infrastructure. If you look back over the statements of previous candidates for Mount Vernon City Council, you'd probably wonder how you could even find a single pothole in this town.
Candidates promise to take care of business but when they get into office it doesn't happen. Instead, roundabouts, wellness centers, and city-scaping projects get their attention and your tax dollars.
If you elect Jim Moore, Eric Roudabush, and me, this will change. We are running on the platform of common sense prioritization of spending and we will take care of the people's business and our city assets first.
Often times council members have a niche - or an expertise - they bring to city government. What's yours?
My past career as an electrical engineer, some of it working on large public infrastructure projects, will definitely be an asset to our government. Sometimes our council has relied too heavily on outside experts with an agenda. We should have people in office who are trained to dig for information rather than just accept what they're told. An engineer's perspective will help cut through the hype and get to the facts.
My current career as a music teacher and recording engineer gives me daily practice in listening skills. I'm a good listener, empathetic, and responsive. Also, running a small business for about half of my work life has taught me how to weigh the facts carefully and make tough decisions.
What's your position on the proposed community/wellness center?
The city should not spend taxpayer money to build competition for existing local businesses.
The proposals that I've seen to date are unclear, but the pool is a big ticket item. I have done some investigation into what it would take to sustain the center after it is built. A consultant familiar with this project told me that it would take between 3,000 and 3,500 members at a membership cost ranging between $230 and $300 per person per year. This does not seem doable to me. Perhaps the number of members required could be reduced if plans are scaled back.
Having a community center would be a plus to our town if it were affordable to join, didn't compete with local businesses, and didn't raise taxes. Our tax dollars have much higher priorities. If private enterprise wants to build and operate it, without taxpayer dollars, then let them do it.
What should be done, if anything, to resolve sharing issues between the Mount Vernon and Lisbon police departments?
This issue has been ongoing for a number of years. It is in the best interests of both communities that it be resolved in a neighborly fashion driven by common sense. With Jim Moore as mayor, I am confident that this will be resolved quickly and fairly to the benefit of the citizens of both cities and the police officers who serve us.
If elected, what actions, if any, should the city council take immediately?
There is a comprehensive plan available to recycle the old fire station into a new police station. This plan has been reviewed by people familiar with fixing structural problems with buildings. The price tag for saving the building and turning it into a police station is about 25 percent that of building new. This needs to be investigated and pursued if feasible.
The new mayor should take immediate action to resolve the police department resource sharing issue with Lisbon, which has been allowed to grow out of proportion.
We need to re-start the street inventory program to determine how far our streets have fallen into disrepair and then get busy fixing the worst. We need to make maintaining what we already have a priority over building more items to maintain such as the proposed wellness center.
Are you supporting either of the candidates for mayor, or any other candidates for city council. Who?
I am urging our citizens to vote for Jim Moore for mayor and Eric Roudabush for city council. These two candidates share my goal of restoring common sense spending priorities to our city government. They both bring a skill set of small business ownership and fiscal responsibility to the table and I can promise with confidence that if all three of us are elected you will see city services improve and our taxes will be spent on the natural priorities of a small city government.
Why should citizens vote for you?
My membership on the city council will put an engineer's experience and perspective into the decision-making process. I will work closely with our city engineer and administrator to fully understand our city's systems and help the council make informed decisions. I am naturally curious about how things work and am capable of digging deep for answers and new ideas.
Additionally, I strongly believe that every person who approaches the city council should be treated with dignity and respect. It is my goal to create a more responsive council that listens, evaluates, and acts on input from the public rather than just pursuing its own agenda.