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Long-time Ward 2 commissioner in Baraga County faces challenge from newcomer

Koskinen

Mike Koskinen, the 40-year veteran of Baraga County’s Board of Commissioners, is facing a challenge for the Ward 2 seat this year from Will Wiggins, a community-oriented firefighter.

Mike Koskinen – D

Koskinen, 74, has been a county commissioner for more than 40 years now.

“I know I’m the longest serving in the U.P. and they tell me that I’m the longest serving Commissioner in the state of Michigan,” Koskinen said.

He said he enjoys the public service, and considers himself really good at it. He said that at some boards he is on, they call him “The Parliamentarian” because he’s so familiar with rules of order and procedure. Over the years, he’s worked with all the departments of the county government and become familiar with them. He was part of building the jail, hospital and getting the prison, and moving the administration building.

Wiggins

That collected knowledge, he says, is an asset to the board of commissioners.

In Baraga County, nearly 85% of the property is untaxed, largely because of government-owned and commercial forest land. This means that Baraga County government works with a tight budget.

“And you talk to all the other commissioners in the UP and they say ‘It’s impossible. How do you do it?'” Koskinen said.

He said they’ve done it by keeping budgets trim, county services at a minimum, costs low, and efficiencies high. He credits a lot of the work and efficiency to the county employees.

“We have a really, really great bunch of employees,” he said.

This year, in part because of COVID-19’s impact, Koskinen anticipates not being able to give raises or increase benefits for those employees. He said that it is hard for him to do.

“Because they deserve it. But we don’t have to give it to them,” Koskinen said.

He thinks the solution would be to get more money from outside the county.

“We need more money for payment in lieu of taxes from the state and the federal government,” he said.

The state expecting more and more of the county doesn’t help, either.

“The state has always got unfunded mandates,” Koskinen said. “They mandate that we do something but they don’t give us the money to do it. And that really hurts.”

He said the commissioners are always looking to increase the tax base by growing the local economy, and would particularly like to see Baraga County become more of a stop-off point for ATVs, bicyclists, and other tourism. The Point Abbaye park project, which Koskinen has been involved in from the beginning, is one way the county has been working toward that goal. He looks forward to that project completing within the next couple years.

He’s also part of an effort to use the CARES Act money to renovate the Baraga County Memorial Hospital kitchen to accommodate the senior meals program.

Koskinen said he’s always looking for ways to stimulate the local economy, promote job growth and stabilize the county budget, and if anyone has any ideas, feel free to contact him.

“Anybody got any ideas? 395-6442,” he said.

He said he prefers the personal touch and opportunity for immediate feedback of phone calls over emails.

Koskinen has been married to his wife Blanche for 54 years. They have two sons and a daughter together, six grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Will Wiggins – R

Wiggins, 43, has been working for the federal government since 2002. Currently, he works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a fire management officer, working with 12 tribes to fight and prevent forest fires. He also has experience with the Bureau of Land Management and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Locally, he is the president of the Joint Wastewater Authority Board between Baraga Village and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the president of the Baraga County Lions Club, the Baraga Village Downtown Development Authority, and a volunteer EMT and board member with Bay Ambulance.

“I’m community-oriented,” Wiggins said.

He decided to run for commissioner for a couple reasons. First is to try to help find a way to keep young people from having to leave the area to find work. Being younger than many local politicians, he thinks he can relate to the younger generation better. The second reason is to be a role model for younger people, encouraging them to get involved in local office.

Wiggins thinks developing the local trails, particularly ATV trails, will help bring more businesses to the area and create more jobs. He wants to get the local search and rescue group better equipped and trained to handle lost hunters, snowmobilers and hikers. He’d also like to see more county documents and information, like meeting minutes and informational maps, posted online. He said he wants to bring new ideas to the county government, in order to modernize it for residents.

Wiggins acknowledges he’ll have to spend some time learning the rules and responsibilities of a new office, but is confident he can do it. Working with the government, he says he deals with politics every day.

“I’ll do my best,” Wiggins said. “I’ll do what I can.”

Originally from Minnesota, he’s lived in Baraga since 2003. Working with the federal government has led him to live in Illinois and Oregon, and travel in other parts of the country, too. He’s also in frequent contact with representatives from Native American tribes. He says all of this has taught him to relate well with other people, and have perspective on how different governments operate, an asset for public office.

Wiggins is married to a local nurse, bought a house in Baraga in 2009, and has an adult stepson who has graduated from Northern Michigan University’s Police Academy. In his spare time he likes hunting, fishing and other “typical U.P. stuff.”

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