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Cynthia Pic, candidate for GF County Commission

Interview with Cynthia Pic, one of eight candidates for two seats on the Grand Forks County Commission. Q. Tell us a little about yourself. A. My name is Cynthia Pic (pronounced "Peach"), and I'm running for Grand Forks County Commissioner. I hav...

Interview with Cynthia Pic, one of eight candidates for two seats on the Grand Forks County Commission.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

A. My name is Cynthia Pic (pronounced "Peach"), and I'm running for Grand Forks County Commissioner.

I have a background in social services. I work in Minnesota, and I have a degree in business and education from UND. And, I've taught in higher education; in parochial high school. And about 19 or 20 years ago, I started with the Community Action Program, thinking that I had a business degree. I was going to work for a for-profit business, so this was going to be a very short-term job. That short-term job is now reaching 20 years, so I don't think it's short-term any more.

I realized that I like the social-services aspect. I like working with people. And, I hope that what I do makes a difference in the services we provide.

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So, I'm the community services director at Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, which is based out of Crookston. I oversee the community services programs. We do services from a 21-county region to the Tri-Valley Service Area, which includes three counties.

Q. And the kind of services include ...?

A. Head Start, migrant Head Start, transportation programs, weatherization programs, energy assistance, we deal with the homeless population. We also do childhood resource and referral, early-childhood programs and senior programs. So we're kind of broad-spectrum.

Q. Was the social-services aspect of county government what drew you to the County Commission?

A. I'm a lifelong resident of Grand Forks County. I live in rural Grand Forks County, at the very western edge of the county. I drive either to East Grand Forks or to Crookston every day, so I'm familiar with different parts of the county. And I think that I have some leadership skills and that my experience dealing with businesses, nonprofits and the government would be of benefit to Grand Forks County Commission.

Social services is a big part of my background, but I've also worked in business; a little bit of tourism -- I'm a business partner with my mom, and we own a small travel agency -- and economic development, too. Economic development was my big focus in college -- wanting to make sure that we remained a viable community in North Dakota.

When I was in college, Grand Forks was No. 2 in size in the state. Now, we're No. 3 and the others seem to be growing more than we are. We only have 68,000 people in Grand Forks County, so I think it's important for the city and the county to work together and make the most of our most important resource, which is our people.

Q. What drew you to the County Commission as opposed to another government entity?

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A. Well, it's a little closer to home. My husband is a farmer, and I live in the rural part of the county. I have no interest at this point in doing anything with state government. I'm more interested in local government.

Also, I've worked more with county government just because of my position in Minnesota. So, I believe I have some leadership skills, and I'm just trying to make more of a difference at the local level.

Q. What are your thoughts on the county jail -- past, present and future?

A. Clearly, we needed something new; and, what's done is done. It's built. It's there. Now, we have to figure out how it's going to get paid for.

Obviously, bringing in more prisoners to fill the beds that are there is important. In April, the jail collected a record amount of money by doing this, and I think that that will continue to happen. I think the new administrator will do a good job.

In any event, sometimes we get put into a situation that we can't control. It's built; it's done. We need to quit playing the "blame game." Let's move forward and figure out how we're going to pay for it, how we're going to fill the beds and how relationships are going to be built with different federal agencies.

Because of my job, I've very much into partnerships and collaboration with other agencies. Let's not say "you" and "they". Let's say "we" and figure out how we can do it together and positively.

Right now, we're seeing other communities saying, "We've got a bad jail and we need to build." We should ask, "Well, do you need to build? Let's collaborate." Traill County, perfect example: They've got a situation where they need a new jail in Hillsboro. Do they need a huge jail, or could they collaborate with a neighbor such as Grand Forks County or Cass County, for that matter?

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When you build a building, it's an albatross. The minute you open it, it needs something. It needs to be fixed, it needs to be maintained. Collaborating on some of these issues can make a difference.

Q. What's your view of a sales tax in order to pay off the jail?

A. Taxes happen, and I know that there are a lot of people who are threatening, "If you increase the sales tax, we're not going to shop there any more." We ran into that situation with water improvements a few years back; and I can understand why people would be mistrustful because when they put that sales tax in place, the plan was that it was going to be for so many years and for this amount of money, then it was going to go away. But it never went away.

So, you have to be honest with the public. Am I for the sales tax or against it? I haven't looked at the budget closely enough to make that determination. Maybe, now that the income at the jail is going up, the situation has changed; and through more collaboration with other agencies and so on, we can develop a better way of paying for the jail.

The jail eventually will take care of itself. We'll get over that and move on to other projects. Eight or 10 years ago, weren't we dealing with the flood? And weren't we dealing with the dike and how were we going to be protected from the river?

I remember when the Alerus Center was being built, and people said, "If they only put that money into flood protection instead of that concrete out there ..." I don't know, I don't think that's a bad venue; and if we want to bring in more industry, bring in more conferences, we need to have those facilities available to do that.

Q. Do Minnesota and North Dakota counties differ in how they administer social services?

A. They just have a different make-up. Some of the programs that counties operate in North Dakota are operated through community action programs in Minnesota. The energy-assistance program is an example. Because of the population base in North Dakota, they weren't going to create new agencies to provide energy-assistance programming. So that went to the counties. Weatherization is another one like this.

I don't think either state government is more involved than the other, because so much of that money is flow-through dollars that come from the federal government. Minnesota does tend to put a little more resources into social-services systems than North Dakota does. North Dakota is a little bit more conservative; and in the past, a lot of that has been based on the budget. North Dakota hasn't had a lot of extra money to spend on social services.

But North Dakota doesn't come out and say, "We don't care about children or seniors." The state has just not had some of the economic resources available that Minnesota does.

Also, Minnesota doesn't have regional level offices, like the Northeast Human Services Center in Grand Forks. In Minnesota again, those services are at the county level and then there are some community action programs that contract for services from the state government.

Q. How are rural and urban relations in Grand Forks County? For example, the four-mile extraterritorial zoning issue -- I'm guessing you're beyond that where you live?

A. Way beyond. I'm 43 miles west of Grand Forks. I live north of Niagara. So, within a mile of my home, I have Nelson County, Walsh County and Grand Forks County. I'm at the top of the Red River Valley ... where they dropped all the rocks from the glacier! (Laughs) So if you need any rocks, come on out. We can supply you.

As for city-county relations: With 68,000 people, it can't be a "we or they." Being a lifelong resident of Grand Forks County, I've never felt that it was a "we or they." Our services are in Grand Forks. We get all of our medical care in Grand Forks. There are some small businesses in some of our rural towns that struggle to stay alive; but even so, I don't think it can be a "we or they."

It's tough for the residents who are in that four-mile area. The fear is of loss of land or loss of control of land; and also, a fear of Grand Forks' property taxes. If I live in Grand Forks County, this is what my taxes are; but if my township gets taken over by the city, then that's going to make a big difference.

Plus, people have to get a permit or a certificate if they're going to do an improvement, and once that happens -- well, up go your taxes.

As for the landfill: We all are users of products that create garbage. Environmentally, we need to do a better job and maybe follow the example of Europe or other countries that have gotten much better in trying to protect the environment. Right now, recycling bins have been made available, but you don't see people using them as much as we should.

So, is there a way that we can do more recycling and do other things so that the landfill doesn't get as full? And of course, 10 years ago, we had the flood, and the landfill got much fuller much faster just because of the 53 feet of water that decided to show up.

Like I said, I don't think it can be a "we city -- you county" kind of thing. We have to move forward together. We have to partner on some things. Remember, we only have 68,000 people and only 600,000 people in the state. In a 10-block region in New York City, you'll find 600,000 people; and you see what they do with neighborhoods banding together to make differences. We should be able to do that as a county, as a city and as a state.

I graduated from Petersburg Unity High School back in the '80s. I had 11 classmates, and 50 percent of them do not now live in the state. Several of them did move out and move back in, because they were out in Denver or Seattle and wanted to come back here and raise families. But we've got a precious resource in our kids, and I don't want them to have to leave after they've graduated from our high schools and colleges with great academic achievements.

We see that with our military population, too. Many of them get to retirement age and decide to move back because they liked it here so much. I think that's a very good thing.

One way of encouraging recycling is to go to a system that has people pay by the bag for garbage pickup, so that they're encouraged to throw fewer things away. What are your views on that idea?

Well, I think that when we have to pay for things, we do think about it and take it more seriously. I think many of the cities in Minnesota handle garbage collection in that way, and it might come to that here.

Q. Anything else you'd like to mention?

A. With so many people being hurt by the economy the way it is now, the County Commission needs to look at very carefully at the budget rather than just say, "Well, our expenses are higher than our revenues, so taxes have got to go up." We have to ask, "How are we spending? How are things going?"

I work in a nonprofit business. We get grants and contracts, but sometimes, our grants are less or we don't get them at all. And we can't just say, "Gee, we're going to assess more taxes and we're going to keep going." It doesn't work like that. You have to look at your budget. You have to be fiducially responsible.

Have we really looked at every budget within the county so that we're able to say, "We are doing the best we can with this"? We need to look at how we're spending.

In our situation -- in my community action program -- when we have those kinds of issues, we don't get raises. We may get cost-of-living adjustments, and everybody deserves a raise, but I'm sorry: We want to continue to provide services to our population. We respect the staff that we have and want to give them the best wages and benefits that we can, but if we're in a deficit, then I question handing out raises.

Q. One job of a public official is to say "No" at times in union negotiations and the like. Will you be able to do that?

A. I have to do it right now in my job. Sometimes it's employees and sometimes it's the clients that we serve, if they don't fall within the criteria of a particular program. So I have to say, I understand. And we'll help you as much as we can. But sometimes, the answer is no.

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