After four election victories and more than a decade and a half of service, Rice County’s longest tenured commissioner is saying goodbye.
Jake Gillen, whose District 1 includes a portion of the city of Northfield, the cities of Nerstrand and Dundas and numerous rural townships in eastern Rice County, attended his final meeting as a member of the board Tuesday. First elected in 2004 and re-elected three more times, the retired dairy farmer was known for his strong work ethic, fiscally cautious approach and commitment to improving the county’s infrastructure.
While Gillen represented the rural eastern part of the county, the rural western part has been represented by District 5 Commissioner Jeff Docken since 2008. As the only other farmer on the board, Docken said he always enjoyed working with Gillen.
“He was very dedicated to the job and he was not a person to miss meetings,” Docken said. “Some of his (committee) meetings would be half day meetings, and he’d have to go to Rochester or St. Paul, but he took that obligation very seriously.”
As one of two heavily rural districts, Gillen’s seat included plenty of miles of well-traveled roads. The commissioner is particularly proud of his success in delivering needed road repairs and improvements.
“I got practically every blacktop road in my district resurfaced, including the state highways from Faribault to Northfield to Nerstrand,” he said.
County Engineer Dennis Luebbe said the Highway Department has managed to achieve an impressive amount over Gillen’s 16 years on the board — in large part, due to revenue increases Gillen backed during his tenure.
A fiscal conservative who was loath to increase property taxes, Gillen instead looked elsewhere for the revenue needed to improve roads in his district. Among the initiatives he backed were a wheelage tax, a gravel tax and a half-cent sales tax.
“He’s been a great commissioner to work with over the years,” Luebbe said. “He has been extremely dedicated to advancing key Rice County initiatives.”
In order to deliver funding for roads and other key county services, Gillen deviated slightly from his fiscally conservative approach — but only slightly. While careful with the taxpayer dollar, he wasn’t wedded to maintaining Rice County’s position as the lowest taxed county in the state.
Gillen said that approach made him somewhat different from a few of his colleagues, notably former Commissioner Milt Plaisance. The longtime commissioner, who represented a Faribault centered district from 1988-2012, always liked to keep taxes the lowest in the state.
“I used to say, how much more money is available to the county being 84th or 85th (in tax revenues) compared to 87th?” Gillen asked. “It doesn’t make any sense of being there, when it gives you a lot more money being down two or three notches on the totem pole.”
While his approach to taxes and spending may have differed slightly, Plaisance praised Gillen, saying he used a “common sense” approach and was focused on making sure that every taxpayer dollar was spent wisely.
“Jake used good common sense, tried to be honest and do the right thing,” Plaisance said. “He was always concerned about the taxpayers and making sure they got their bang for a buck.”
Gillen was also the longest serving member of the Southeast Minnesota Emergency Communications Board. The board, which includes 11 southeast Minnesota counties and the city of Rochester, is responsible for all local improvements to local public safety radio. For his service to the board, Gillen was presented with a Distinguished Service Award. On hand to deliver it were Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, County Administrator Sara Folsted and the Administrator of Steele County’s 911 call center, Jill Bondhus.
Thanks in part to Gillen’s leadership, Dunn noted that the region became a leader in making the switch to an 800 MHz system for public safety radio, improving communication between law enforcement and other public safety officials.
Longtime Commissioner Galen Malecha said that Gillen was effective because he was always willing to keep an open mind and listen. Even though they didn’t always come to the same conclusion, Malecha came to have great respect for his fellow commissioner.
“Jake always said if he didn’t know about something he asked a question and would go and get the information needed to find out,” he said.