In Eden Prairie, a race for two City Council seats has turned into an election on the city's direction.
Two candidates -- incumbent Brad Aho and City Hall newcomer Jeff Meyerhofer -- have concentrated on restraining city spending.
Two other candidates -- incumbent Sherry Butcher and former Council Member Ron Case -- have focused more on the city's quality of life.
The election of Aho or Meyerhofer or both will cement the priority on spending control begun two years ago when three tax-conscious Republican-endorsed candidates gained a majority on the council.
Butcher and Case would both have to be elected to change that. Together, they could form a new majority with like-minded Council Member Kathy Nelson.
Voters have a clear choice, said former Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens: "Do you value continued investment in the community or do you just want to get the tax burden down as low as we possibly can? I think people are recognizing that choice.''
In Eden Prairie an incumbent council member has always been re-elected to the council, Tyra-Lukens said.
In this election, Case -- a former council member who gave up his seat for an unsuccessful bid for mayor against Phil Young -- has incumbent name and record recognition, Tyra-Lukens said. "I think it's going to be a very close election and every vote is going to count.''
Aho, 49, is an electrical engineer who specializes in computers and networks for dentists. He has lived in Eden Prairie since 1991 and has served one council term.
In the past two years, Aho consistently has voted with Young and Council Member Jon Duckstad to hold the line on city spending. Last year they presided over budget deliberations during which residents packed City Hall with concerns that social services might be cut.
In the end, the threesome did not cut social service programs but did reduce the city's Somali liaison from a full- to a half-time position. They also made a point of giving taxpayers a break by reducing the city's standing levy for capital improvements from $1 million a year to $450,000 in 2008 and to $650,000 for 2009.
"We need to do everything in a cost-effective manner,'' Aho said.
Meyerhofer, 32, has lived in Eden Prairie for five years. He is a director for UnitedHealth Group, working on operational efficiencies.
Meyerhofer said Eden Prairie's growth has leveled off and city spending must follow. He said the City Council should have done more to stop cost creep at the new community center.
Butcher, 53, is the director of continuing education and training at Anoka Ramsey Community College. She has lived in Eden Prairie for 28 years, and wants to preserve the community's "reputation, our standing and our quality of life'' to keep it "the light on the hill.''
Last year, disagreements with the council majority led Butcher to vote against the city budget for the first time in her 12 years on the council. "We have always tried to put $1 million away into the capital improvements program because there is great need there'' for streets and other projects, Butcher said. "Not to do that is going in the wrong direction.''
Butcher also objected to cutting back on the immigrant liaison position because of the "good that it does our community.''
She also differed with the majority's decision to put off city spending on interior remodeling of a building donated as a new city art center until it's clear that private donations will support it. Butcher would have preferred to commit city money in September, arguing that opening the center would help bring in donations. The art center will be on the council's agenda again Nov. 18, after the election.
The other budget matter at issue in the race is whether the city should renew the lease for a Dunn Brothers coffee franchise in the historic city-owned Smith Douglas Moore House.
A year ago, the council gave the franchise owner one more year at a rent of $18,000 to give her time to increase profits. But when the city netted $11,000 from the lease, Aho, Young and Duckstad decided to seek other bidders to see if the city might earn more. The goal is to offset some of the $700,000 spent to renovate the building, Aho said. The council also will discuss the lease Nov. 18.
On Tuesday, a petition with nearly 400 names was submitted to the City Council asking that the Dunn Brothers lease be renewed.
Case, 53, a teacher at Eden Prairie's Oak Point Intermediate School, said the coffee shop issue illustrates his disagreement with the council majority. Kids, book clubs and seniors' groups gather at the coffee shop, and it has become a place of value to the people of Eden Prairie, but the council is primarily focused on the dollars and cents involved, Case said. "The question of how much revenue should it bring in is being asked independently of its value in the community.''
Case, a Republican turned Democrat, said he, too, wants to save money. But, he said, the current council begins all decisions with " 'How much does it cost?' And I think it ought to start with 'What do the people want?' To try to save a couple bucks, we have actually hurt our community and quality of life.''
"Which path do we want to go down -- just where we cut and cut and cut and we don't care if we lose our edge? Or do we preserve the Eden Prairie experience?''
Said Aho: "We are not cutting -- we are just making sure that we are spending responsibly."
Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711