Grand Forks' new mayor inherits a pandemic and budget downturn. Now what?

Brandon Bochenski will be sworn in as mayor of Grand Forks on June 23. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A new era arrives in Grand Forks on Tuesday, June 23, when mayor-elect Brandon Bochenski is officially sworn in. It caps the end of a long career for current Mayor Mike Brown, and marks the beginning of what could be a difficult road for the rest of Grand Forks government.

Bochenski arrives at City Hall during a financial downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Although there is no firm consensus for how much revenue the city will miss this year — owing to agricultural worries, sagging oil prices and a global pandemic — the budget is expected to suffer.

Right now, local figures on the economy look better than expected, but are still far from rosy. In a Friday memo to city leaders, City Finance Director Maureen Storstad reported that June sales tax revenue — which reflects April purchases, a key time frame during the pandemic — are down more than 33% from a year ago. That’s far better than what Storstad had anticipated, at a 50% decrease, but still a significant loss.

“We do expect lower collections as compared to the previous year in the coming months,” she said.

Mark Schill, of Praxis Strategy Group, has been working with the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce on an analysis of consumer trends during the pandemic. Although there has been a partial bounceback in some sectors — home improvement and “supercenter” stores have even seen a boost — it’s not a question of whether there’s a slowdown. It’s a question of how bad it will be, given that Grand Forks is seeing a 21% drop in foot traffic activity against 2019.


"We can't fully predict what may happen,” Schill said, pointing out that there are positive signs — and even fresh streams of revenue, like new income on internet sales taxes. But he added that the pandemic has no clear end yet, with spikes in the infection possible for the next year. “There are some positive signs. (But) I think it's too optimistic to think there will be no impact."

This is the world Bochenski is stepping into, one that’s been transformed since his campaign began in January. That means his agenda — one based on a leaner city government, loans for homeowners and lower property taxes — must now contend with economic turmoil. It’s not clear how easily they’ll fit together, but Bochenski is optimistic he’ll keep the spirit of his mission.

"It's certainly a big difference. It went from being able to find a way to cut property taxes a fair bit to ‘what can we do to keep property taxes level or slightly down?’” Bochenski said. "The good thing about my plan is that it's really ideal for this situation. Nothing has to be changed in that, it's just how much can be accomplished. … The cutting stuff hasn't changed at all. It's just the revenue is going to be different.”

Many city leaders have already had the chance to meet with Bochenski, as the mayor-elect begins building the relationships he’ll need to pass an agenda. Council member Danny Weigel said he had lunch with Bochenski at Paradiso in the days after the election. And while Weigel is realistic about the future, he still thinks the lean-government, lower-taxes spirit of Bochenski’s plans will make a difference for residents’ pocketbooks.

"I realistically, in my small household, could go with a trash pickup every other week,” Weigel offered, arguing that the savings for a household across the course of a year — especially in a pandemic — could be well worth the shift in city services.

“In my opinion, we'd better plan for a worst-case scenario, just in case,” City Council President Dana Sande said this week. “How much (missed revenue) is it? One could hope that you don't see more than a required 10 percent reduction in the general fund. But I don't know how you get there. We still need our police department and we still need our fire department. It's going to take some really creative work to manage this.”

Sande’s perspective is shared throughout City Hall. There is little appetite for cutting city services, but there also is a widespread understanding that the money may not be there to sustain current spending levels. Sande’s plan — to plan for the worst — assumes the city won’t be getting any unexpected federal or state aid. That, he argues, is a possibility the city must consider.

"The people (a tax hike) affects the most are the people that can least afford it,” Sande pointed out. “So we need to figure out how to be lean until things come back to whatever normal is."


Council member Jeannie Mock approaches potential cuts with a note of caution, wondering what ripple effects a slashed budget might cause as the council navigates uncharted waters.

“I always think of Flint, Michigan, and you don't want any shortsighted decisions leading to contaminated drinking water,” Mock said. “Not that we would ever do that. But you don't want to cut costs on something in one area and see extenuating (issues) because of that."

There are lingering questions about the kind of relationship Bochenski will have with the council, where none of the members will recall ever working under a mayor other than Brown — and where Sande, the council president, was one of Brown’s most visible backers.

Sande is quick to say he doesn’t expect any problems.

“I'm a very pragmatic person, and I deal very transactionally and do my best to keep emotion out of all my decision-making processes,” he said. “… I don't know Brandon very well, but I understand his philosophies and his commitment to the community of Grand Forks. I don't have any problem working with him. I think we'll probably have a very good relationship."

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