City commission candidates discuss issues at forum

3/26/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Budget, transportation, housing and development were some of the topics the five candidates seeking election to the Garden City Commission touched on Monday night during a candidate forum sponsored by The Telegram.

On April 2, city voters will choose three council members from among incumbents Melvin Dale and Chris Law and office seekers Troy Unruh, Janet Doll and Harold Starr.

One question referred to last month's city commission goal-setting session in which building a convention center/indoor entertainment facility was identified as a top priority for the city in the next 18 months.

Unruh said as much as he would like to have such a facility, he is conflicted about whether the city should take the lead role in it.

"I like the idea. I know several years ago, people got together and were gung-ho to do this, but really, I think, what can we afford as a city? I think it's a great idea and it would be well used, but is it the best use of dollars and is it our role as city commissioners to make that happen?" he said.

Dale felt the city should have a role in it somewhere, but indicated a convention center isn't going to be built immediately. In the short term, Dale said the city's role may be just conducting a feasibility study while actual construction may be five to 10 years out.

Doll said the city shouldn't be the sole entity involved in a convention center project. Instead, Doll thinks if such a project is wanted it should also involve private dollars as well as many other businesses or other entities involved in building it, and it should be a project that generates enough sales taxes and other revenue to operate profitably.

Law said he likes the idea, and doesn't doubt it would be a benefit for the city and the area, but thinks such a project should be largely financed with private dollars. There is a role for the city, he said, similar to what the city does to assist development by putting in infrastructure.

Starr said the city should plan on bringing in the type of entertainment that would use the facility. He said it could attract a lot of different people to use it and then there would be a reason for it. But if you build it first, you would have a lot of fixed costs you couldn't afford.

When asked what steps they would take if faced with a hypothetical budget shortfall in the future, most of the candidates favored a combination of cuts, scaling back planned projects in the capital improvement plan, or leaving staff positions open through attrition. Most would prefer not to raise property taxes.

"If we have to make do with less, we're going to have to make some cuts," Dale said.

If the city sales tax reauthorization is defeated on April 2, the commission will have to make some changes, Dale said, possibly including raising the mill levy or making cuts in personnel and programs.

"It's something we'll have to look into if the time comes," he said.

Both Doll and Law said passage of the sales tax is key. Without it, the commission will need to make tough decisions. In the end, Law said a lot will depend on the amount of budget shortfall the city is faced with as to how much cutting must be done.

Starr expressed concern about the potential hardship on people living on fixed incomes if the city had to raise its mill levy, and added the city should do more to create jobs and bring in businesses or things that would generate more money.

"Let's see if we can't develop things and get things going," Starr said.

Unruh said the city would need to be fiscally responsible and look to balance the budget with a combination of cuts and increases in revenue. However, property tax increases should be the last option and probably would not be supported by Unruh.

All agreed that housing is an important issue, one they as commissioners would continue to try to address.

"We do have a critical shortage of housing, whether it's rental properties or home ownership," Doll said, noting that one avenue the city has started using is the Rural Housing Incentive Districts, which help developers recoup up-front costs like water and sewer infrastructure and streets.

"I think that's an effective way to encourage developers for housing ... or TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) for businesses," she said.

Law favors a limited government role, as the city does currently in helping with infrastructure, and feels it is a good use of taxpayer dollars because the infrastructure would remain in place for future use.

Dale and Unruh agreed, with Unruh saying creating the infrastructure and an environment that allows builders to construct homes is the role the city should take. Unruh added that affordable housing is a hard sell, not just in Garden City but for the area, so having infrastructure in place could move the community ahead.

Starr said the more enhancement you can do, the more enhancement you'll have.

All the candidates said they believe it's important for city commissioners to be advocates for transportation issues such as maintaining Amtrak rail service, keeping air service at the airport and lobbying for state transportation dollars for better highways.

Likewise, most of the candidates support the Menards project and the projected additional retail development expected to spring up around that store. They also see the commission's role as assisting whenever possible to attract new businesses while not forgetting about the importance of existing businesses.

Starr advocated support for more programs like the Chamber Bucks program, in which people can buy gift certificates and use them at a variety of local businesses.

"This enhances the fact of helping our people gain business and keeps it within our community through these programs like the Chamber has. This is the secret to the story. If I buy a gift certificate and give it to someone, they have many options to use it," he said.

Law said the city and residents have a significant investment at Schulman Crossing already and he supports what has been done to spark that development.

"The payoff will come when those stores open. I think our role is to help them with what they need to help convince them to come to Garden City. If it's a reasonable financial and governmental thing for us to do, then I'll support it," Law said.

The municipal election is April 2. Voters will choose three of the candidates to serve on the commission. Three commission seats are up for election in odd-numbered years. The candidates with the two highest vote totals are elected to four-year terms, while the third-highest vote-getter is elected to a two-year term.

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