New commissioner seeks to improve quality of life without increasing costs
Throughout the spring, summer and fall campaign season, Rep. Joe Atkins did a lot of walking and a lot of listening as he tried to convince voters to give him a seat on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners.
"I tried not to do as much talking, believe it or not, because I found out the door-knocking is a lot more effective if you listen to what people have to say rather than talk at them," said Atkins.
And what was the most common question on the campaign trail? What, exactly, does the Dakota County Board of Commissioners do?
"As soon as you'd start describing it people would get it — it's libraries, it's parks, it's fixing the roads, the county sheriff, the county attorney's office," said Atkins. "Most people had a very favorable view of the county. They like living here, they like working here, they like raising their families here."
This positive feedback from voters led Atkins to his top goal as a first-time commissioner, modeled after the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors: first, do no harm.
In November, Atkins defeated political newcomer Holly Jenkins to fill the District 4 seat on the board, a position left open following the retirement of Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler. District 4 includes Rosemount, Eagan and Inver Grove Heights.
Prior to his election to the board of commissioners, Atkins served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 14 years and as mayor of Inver Grove Heights for 10 years.
Atkins has touted his work on bipartisan legislation and building consensus and partnerships to get laws passed and projects completed.
"It's amazing how far you can stretch tax dollars if you work together with other entities rather than just going it alone," said Atkins.
Atkins said another issue that came up on the campaign trail — especially in the spring when Rosemount voters were considering a recreational facilities referendum — was how to balance low property taxes with development of recreational opportunities and support for local economic development efforts.
"The county has not, thus far, engaged in things like building ice sheets — I wouldn't say it's unique, but it's not unheard of for counties to do that," Atkins said, citing work done by Hennepin and Ramsey counties on those issues.
Dakota County's Community Development Agency has been more active on housing opportunities, but Atkins said he would like to explore ways to work with cities to aid in retail, commercial and industrial development that would bring "great jobs" to the area.
The CDA's role in those projects would be to make sure sites, especially those that are being redeveloped, are ready for new construction without significant cleanup costs to private developers, Atkins said.
One reason voters may not be familiar with the work of Dakota County is that the county has worked hard to keep taxes low and operate without taking on debt. When asked if he wanted to keep the county in the black, Atkins cited his experience in Inver Grove Heights, where the city was able to lower taxes while still taking on projects like a new library by forging partnerships among interested groups.
"I do believe that we can hold the line, relatively speaking, on our additional need for property taxes," said Atkins. "And that if we do things like that, even if they're hard, we can still improve quality without necessarily increasing prices dramatically."