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Pelican Rapids school supporters fighting two fronts that have no stake in their community

by Mike McFeely

What's happening in the Pelican Rapids, Minn., school district is unfortunate. The district is asking for money from its residents to improve its school buildings, which are old and falling into disrepair. The district is being opposed by lake-home owners on some of the swankiest lakes in the area and an out-of-state hired gun who believes it is his Christian duty to defeat local school referendums.

At stake is a $21.9 million bond that would go toward renovating the Pelican Rapids school, the oldest part of which was built in 1928. The newest part of the building was added on in 1987. The school has 11 different levels, is not handicap accessible in some parts of the building and is not up to code in others. Maintenance and repair costs continue to rise because of the building's age.

The district went to voters in March, asking for $18.5 million and was defeated by a significant margin, 61-39 percent. School superintendent Deb Wanek says the district went to voters and asked them what what they would like and the answer came back as, "We don't necessarily disapprove of renovating the building, we just need better information." So, using a Twin Cities public-relations firm hired for a nominal fee, the district will ask voters again to approve a bond Nov. 5. The increased cost is because of inflation and higher interest rates, the district says.

This has not gone over well with the usual suspects in the Pelican Rapids school district -- lake-home owners who own pricey real estate on lakes like Pelican, Franklin, Lida and Lizzie, and a local group of organized opponents called PR CARE.

The lake-home voice was nicely summed up by a Fargo resident named Todd Gross, who owns a seasonal home on the swankiest of swanky lakes in the area -- Pelican. He wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in The Forum.

"... I, as a nonresident lake-cabin owner in the district, cannot vote on a tax increase that I deem totally inappropriate. As usual, this school board wants to place the burden of a tax increase to bolster their unneeded new facility on the backs of cabin owners.
"This is not a 'user tax,' and, as such, is another example of 'taxation without representation.' Wasn't there some kind of revolution over that same concept? Maybe that's not taught in history classes any longer."
Of course, Gross conveniently fails to point out that absentee property owners never get a vote in states in which they don't reside and, in fact, a concept as simple as North Dakota's or Fargo's sales taxes are often paid by nonresidents who have no vote in those jurisdictions.  Be that as it may, Gross' voices the opinion of many (the majority of) seasonal residents of the Pelican Rapids area who have no stake in the community other than a spendy lake home: "I got mine. I ain't worried about you." 

And Gross has his. According to a follow-up letter to the editor in The Forum written by a former Pelican Rapids school board member, Gross' "cottage" on Pelican Lake has a 2013 assessed property value of $512,400. His home in Fargo, by the way, is valued at $351,000. This is important because even with an increase in his lake-property taxes if the school bond passes, Gross will still pay less than half of what he pays on his Fargo home ($1,101.16 per year on the lake home, $3,464.62 on his Fargo home).

Seems as if Mr. Gross should be worried more about what he pays where he lives full-time instead of where he recreates on summer weekends. But it is to be expected that Fargo residents with no stake in Pelican Rapids would be less worried about the future of the community than their checking accounts.

The creepier part of the Pelican Rapids story is that opponents of the bond have hired a referendum hitman from Iowa to defeat it. Paul Dorr is a father of 11 who home-schools his children in Ocheyedan, Iowa. He's made a career of defeating local school bond issues and he often, according to those who have been in his crosshairs, leaves divided communities in his wake.

While Dorr says the purpose of Copperhead Consulting Services is to "roll back local government spending," his web site quotes liberally from the Bible to the point that it's clear Dorr is on a religious crusade to defeat school referendums.

"It boils down to this -- while serving Christ, if I can serve my clients and help protect your community and your neighbors from the financial tidal wave coming -- don't we all benefit? ... It is time for faithful Christians to lead again!"

The web site also says:

"Our guiding priniciple is that we do this all for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. With the restoration of the true Christian church and families, the need for such massive local government will collapse."

The leaders of the local committee that hired Dorr -- Les Rotz and Sue Seifert of Pelican Rapids -- have told the Pelican Rapids Press newspaper that they will not comment to the media.

Dorr's tactics work, as evidenced by the defeat of the Pelican Rapids bond in March and a string of "victories" he's had across the Midwest. It's sad, really. Hopefully Pelican Rapids residents, who have a long-term stake in their community, will realize that a "yes" vote on Nov. 5 is for the future of their community ... and a "no" vote simply keeps more money in the pocket of lake-home residents while empowering an out-of-state hitman from Iowa. The latter two groups, by the way, have no long-term stake in the Pelican Rapids community.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)