Three fiscally conservative 20-somethings are challenging three incumbents, saying taxes are too high.
They're three young, working-class guys united under one principle: If most American families have cut back in these crushing economic times, government should too.
Disgusted with six years of tax levy increases, the three have joined forces to take aim at three incumbents on the South St. Paul City Council. Using the campaign slogan "We Run as One," Nick Schaefer, Shawn Meck and Mike Marschinke promise to usher in an era of fiscal restraint.
They're asking voters to elect them together. It's a novel campaign strategy that's added a shot of adrenaline to a typically sleepy municipal race.
They are challenging incumbents Lori Hansen, Christopher Lehmann and Dan Niederkorn. The incumbents are each running individual campaigns, but they all stress their experience. They say economic growth and cost-cutting have been the council's top priorities. They argue that disappearing state aid has made the levy increases unavoidable.
"We are doing everything in our power to cut back, reduce spending and find other ways to get revenue," Hansen said. "Some of the things [the challengers] are talking about, we already do."
The three challengers acknowledge they've never served in government, but they say they wear that as a badge of honor.
South St. Paul's tax levy has risen from $6.1 million in 2007 to $8.3 million in 2012. The City Council approved a preliminary 2013 budget that increases the levy to $8.6 million.
Local government aid from the state has declined from $2 million in 2007 to an estimated $1.6 million in 2013, according to the city's finance director.
"If I were them, I wouldn't be running on my experience," Marschinke said.
Marschinke and Meck grew up in South St. Paul. Their friendship dates back to high school. Schaefer, 29, grew up in West St. Paul and met Marschinke through family friends.
Schaefer is a service technician for Binder Heating & Air Conditioning. Marschinke, 29, is a firearms assembler at JP Enterprises Inc., and Meck, 28, is a shipping and receiving supervisor at Changer Services.
A few years back, Marschinke and Schaefer held a grass-roots Tea Party-style rally demanding more fiscal restraint in local government. About 50 people attended the rally at a South St. Paul business. It whet their appetites for politics.
Since launching their campaign, the three say they've gone through the city's budget line by line as well as talked to voters and local business people. If elected, they said, they're not afraid to make the tough calls.
They promise to scrutinize the salaries of administrators, who have received raises in the past five years.
"If you want to talk about shared sacrifice, let's make it shared for everybody," Schaefer said.
They also believe the city, which contributes $2 million a year to a joint professional fire department with West St. Paul, should research less costly options, including using paid on-call or volunteer firefighters like most of the neighboring suburbs.
Schaefer said Eagan -- with three times the population -- spends about half as much as South St. Paul on its fire department.
"There is no reason a city of 20,000 people needs to have a full-time fire department," Schaefer said.
They also vow to pay down the city's $12 million debt, Meck said, which in 2012 cost taxpayers nearly $800,000 in debt service.
It isn't all just about the bottom line. The three say they want to see more economic development, including attracting more businesses along Concord Street. More businesses will help the tax base grow and make it possible for residents to shop and dine in their own city, the three say.
They also vow to improve code enforcement and monitoring of rental properties, which have increased with the number of foreclosures.
Don't be misled, the incumbents counter. The current council has worked doggedly to cut expenses and attract new businesses.
"There seems to be a tone that nothing is going on here. I simply disagree with that," said Lehmann, a lawyer. "I offer experienced, educated and dedicated leadership. ... I am proud of the accomplishments our council has made."
Under the current council's direction, the city redeveloped part of the old stockyards into the BridgePoint Business Park, offering tax incentives for businesses. Several businesses including a law firm have built there. Lehmann said more than 4,000 people go to work at BridgePoint today.
"Many people would say that's a great success," Lehmann said.
Lehmann said he'll continue courting new business, including more retailers and restaurants, which many constituents ask about.
"I think we have some great opportunities for economic development because of our proximity to the airport and major highways," Lehmann said.
Niederkorn has owned a construction and remodeling firm in South St. Paul for the past 29 years. He said the council has reorganized departments, collaborated with other agencies and cut back to keep budgets as lean as possible.
"We have done a lot of things to make ourselves more efficient," Niederkorn said. "Economic development has been really tough over the last few years. We have been working hard at getting rid of blighted properties and to bring in new businesses."
Niederkorn, 57, said that he appreciates his challengers' interest but that they need to do their homework first because many of their ideas are already in the works. "It's nice that you have young people getting involved, but we have done a lot of what they say they'd like to do. We look under every rock to make sure we are spending dollars wisely."
Hansen, an auto insurance underwriter, stressed that good leadership includes the ability to work with others and build consensus.
"I have the experience to get us through tough times, the leadership to run a city and a voice of reason when dealing with problems," said Hansen, 57. "I am one who keeps people together. I always look at the big picture."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.