Mayor hopefuls discuss public safety, workforce concerns
The first of three city primary forums were held at 125 Live.
ROCHESTER — The local response to the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 death and other police-involved incidents drew the starkest lines between two of four Rochester mayoral candidates as they addressed public safety Tuesday.
“The police department will know they have the full backing of City Hall, that they won’t have to be afraid of doing their work as they were after the recent unpleasantries in our country,” said Britt Noser of his bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Kim Norton.
Speaking during a forum at 125 Live, Noser pointed to a potential need for “surge” staffing in the police department to address recent local criminal activity.
Norton said the police department already has support of city leaders, pointing to department budget requests that have been fully funded in recent years.
She said doubts about the department stem from people who see problems in Minneapolis and other communities and make the assumption that they also exist in Rochester.
She said efforts have been made to address the concerns and help inspire trust in the local department.
“We have worked with our police department and built up community policing, but post-George Floyd’s murder, we have had a job to do,” she said. “We have had to rebuild trust.”
Norton’s other challengers, Brad Trahan and Dean Koutsoukos, cited desires to seek middle ground on divisive issues, but agreed that public safety must be a key focus for the mayor.
“It is my priority to make sure that the police department, and public safety in general, have the resources and such as they need to carry out their duties,” Trahan said, pointing out that the city already spends the equivalent of approximately 60% of local property tax revenue on the police and fire departments.
He said local drug issues point to a need to maintain full staffing in the police department.
Koutsoukos said he’d like to see the department find ways to stem lower-level criminal activity before those involved work their way up to more severe crimes.
“Once it gets into major crimes, it’s more expensive,” he said of the required response, pointing to efforts to turn around criminal trends in other communities.
Norton said workforce shortages, rather than funding, is the key issue when it comes to policing needs.
Incumbent Kim Norton said police staffing challenges have nothing to do with a lack of support, pointing out that the department has seen its funding requests fully approved each year in recent history.
“The issue isn’t, ‘Do we have enough money in the budget?’” she said. “The issue is, ‘Are there officers available?’”
The other candidates also cited the lack of applicants for open police positions.
Trahan pointed to the potential to grow partnerships, such as the Olmsted County social workers who work with police officers to address a variety of needs.
“I think we continue to need to give them the tools to do what they can to help our community out,” he said.
The candidates also addressed the overall shortage of workers throughout the community, taking differing approaches to potential city action.
Koutsoukos, an engineer formerly employed by the city, said City Hall faces its own hiring challenges with the loss of several experienced department heads and longtime employees after retirements and other departures.
At the same time, he said, city leaders can play a key role in helping other employers find staff.
“Keeping the cost of business low, keeping taxes low, so we can attract new people into our community, that is one of the key roles in our government,” he said.
Trahan agreed that the city needs to find ways to help attract more workers.
A professional search recruiter, he said he’s seen a need for active participation in highlighting the city’s assets. He said he’d fill the role as a community cheerleader to help attract needed workers to Rochester.
Norton said she’s already working on plans to help train new employees in a vital area for a growing community.
She pointed to the $1 million Bloomberg Global Mayors Challenge recently awarded to the city, along with an additional $750,000 in approved federal funding, which is designated to train workers in construction and related fields.
“It is focused particularly on people who had the biggest struggle to get out of the pandemic, and that is (Black, indigenous, people of color) women,” she said of the efforts being launched with awarded funding.
Noser, who questioned the government's ability to create jobs, said he believes the recent grant disenfranchises Rochester citizens, since it involves outside support.
“I do take issue with something connected with the city that only chooses to help a certain group of people,” he said.
The candidates also addressed questions about housing, development and the city budget in the forum conducted in partnership between 125 Live, the Post Bulletin and ABC 6 News.
Video of the event is available online at www.postbulletin.com .
Forums featuring Rochester City Council candidates in two primary races are also planned. They are:
- Ward 1 at 7 p.m. July 12 at 125 Live
- Ward 3 at 7 p.m. July 19 at 125 Live
Space for in-person attendance is limited, so potential audience members are encouraged to seek free tickets through 125 Live. The events will be livestreamed and recorded for online viewing.