MANKATO — Three incumbents and one challenger vying for Mankato City Council seats this November shared how they’d handle COVID-related budget challenges during a candidate forum Wednesday.

Mankato has at-large, Ward 2 and Ward 4 seats up for election this year, although only the Ward 2 race will have more than one candidate on the ballot. At-large incumbent Mike Laven and central Mankato’s Ward 4 incumbent Jenn Melby-Kelley are running unopposed.

In Ward 2, which covers roughly the northern half of Mankato, incumbent Dennis Dieken is running for a second term against Daniel Gatluak Puot Well.

Dieken and Well both said they’d be against raising taxes to address potential budget shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dieken, an engineer at MICO Inc., said Mankato’s tax rate has been stable for the last 10 years. His budget priorities would be maintaining core services like public works and safety while finding places to trim from other areas like parks and arts.

“There’s room that we could trim in some of those areas,” he said.

Well, a professional interpreter and president of the South Sudanese Community of Minnesota, said he’d like to find a work-around to avoid raising taxes while also not cutting many services.

“We do have a difficult pandemic, but there’s a good way to work around it without raising more taxes,” he said.

The two took turns answering the same set of questions from moderator Steve Jameson, The Free Press’ publisher. Organized by Greater Mankato Growth, the forum earlier featured Laven and Melby-Kelley answering the questions individually.

Laven, the council president, said he would consider raising taxes to make up for a shortfall, although his priority would be for the city to adjust its service models to see where less staffing is needed. He noted the council is looking at eliminating 22-23 positions from the city’s budget.

It wouldn’t be 22 snowplow drivers, he said, but adapting routes might be needed to make it more efficient. Scaling back certain services like the city did with its hanging flower baskets downtown — only two-thirds as many this year compared to last year — was another example he gave for how to trim costs.

“We’re going to try to make sure we still provide services,” he said. “It may just look different.”

Looking for things the city can do different would be among his priorities if he won a second term, he responded to another question.

Melby-Kelley also brought up the flower scaleback in her answer. She said one goal for the budget will be to spread out jobs and find opportunities where one person can do a couple different things.

While supportive of whatever needs to be done to keep the city budget healthy, she said raising taxes is difficult.

“We’re trying to be strategic and smart,” she said. “We don’t want to cut positions but we really need to understand what our priorities are.”

She named addressing the budget and promoting equality as her top priorities if she wins another term.

“It’s time for us to start having some hard discussions about what’s been going on in our world as of late in terms of the health and well-being of all,” she said.

Some of Dieken’s top priorities would be helping businesses more and maintaining Mankato’s livability. Well, meanwhile, said he’ll prioritize building connections between the city and the rest of the community, as well as more support for businesses.

All the candidates agreed affordable housing is a concern, with the current Council members talking about housing projects the city has supported in recent years. Well said the city should work to make more shelter space available as well as more housing for low-income residents.

“We need to make sure no one is living on the street in Mankato,” he said.

Asked why people should vote for him, he said having more diversity on the Council could help unite the community.

Dieken brought up how his four years on the council would help him in a second term.

“I’ve seen how the city runs and the information we get,” he said. “I’d like to apply that knowledge to a second term.”

The forum at KTV studio on Bethany Lutheran College’s campus was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was livestreamed via Zoom and Greater Mankato Growth will be posting it on its Youtube page.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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