Holly Dahl says she moved to Lakeville partly because the last suburb she lived in was fond of spendy projects: millions for an inflatable dome, hundreds of thousands to restore a historic home for a coffee shop.

Lakeville's mindset, says its mayor, is different. "We don't order caviar when peanut butter will do."

Case in point: "Don't think for one minute that a zillion people haven't lobbied us for a community center over the years. ... And they have been upset with us for not acting on that desire."

So it is annoying her more than a little to be the target of an insurgency, urged on by a council colleague, aimed at getting rid of the city's established leadership and supplanting them with tax-cutting conservatives.

Ten-year City Council veteran Mark Bellows acknowledges he has played a role in the outpouring of candidates for council this year -- roughly half of whom are talking tough on taxes and spending.

"I very deliberately attempted to get people to run," he said. "Right now it's 4 to 1" on the council, and to win votes "you gotta be able to count to three. I'm supporting the two most fiscally conservative candidates for council."

The mood of the electorate this year, he added, should favor his side. "The most frequent question I get as I go door to door is, 'Are you conservative?' It's indicative of certainly the times and the frustration that is out there."

Dahl says she's well aware of the mood. "We are offering up a zero percent levy [increase]. I don't know how we could be better."

Bellows scoffs at that. "The zero percent levy is a shell game. They've pushed debt to next year that if paid this year would cause a 2.7 percent increase. It's a shell game, pure and simple."

Not so, the mayor says. "It's cheaper for us ... to have a payment program than to go take all our reserves and spend it. It's not a shell game. It's no different from the last 30 years. We are making sure we are not hurting residents and businesses during this period."

Each side points to an array of numbers, including spending comparisons with other cities and a recent public survey, that it says proves its point.

The city's finance director, Dennis Feller, has data that he says shows that Lakeville's per capita government spending is rock bottom among the metro area's 20 largest suburbs.

Bellows isn't buying it. "Let's do spending per household. You tax per household, not per person. A city like ours with large families will make you look lower than you are."

(Of the 20 largest suburbs, U.S. Census surveys suggest, Lakeville's ratio of persons to housing unit -- 2.89 -- is in fact the largest. Second-place Maple Grove comes in at 2.68. The smallest is St. Louis Park at 2.0.)

Among the eight candidates for two council seats, including the one he's vacating, Bellows is supporting Marc Bourdeaux and Colleen Ratzlaff Labeau.

Bourdeaux in his campaign materials strikes a tone similar to Bellows's, attacking "frivolous spending of taxpayer money." Labeau's website urges "delet[ing] services not needed or worth the cost," and questions whether it's worth it to have municipal liquor if that means a store like CostCo with all its tax contributions lands in neighboring Burnsville instead. Candidate Matt Little speaks of "runaway property taxes."

Other candidates place more stress on quality public services. Dan Athmann, a police sergeant in Burnsville, pledges to keep "the tax burden minimal" but outlines a number of spending priorities. Karl Drotning, a member of the city's planning commission, praises the status quo: "The quality of our staff and low-cost delivery of services are the envy of many." Incumbent Kevin Miller, appointed to the job last year, promises to make "financial decisions necessary to provide the level of service expected in our community."

Mayor Dahl walloped her last city council challenger and said she expects to do equally well in November.

"There were some very negative, ugly letters to the editor last time," he said, "and this community is not about that. I despise and pity people if that's what they have in their tool kit. It's a sheer lack of moral character and any kind of values."

Bellows, an evangelical pastor, pledges to remain positive but said the key is for voters to remember, from a sea of faces few know very well, who stands for what.

"It's an exciting time to be in politics," he said. "This is going to be fun."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023