Wyoming candidates lay out plans at forum

Four of six council candidates take part, as do both candidates from the mayoral race


Alice Pickering
Wyoming Reporter

Candidates for office in Wyoming laid out their plans for what they want the city to be during a forum held Oct. 8 at Wyoming Elementary School.

Eric Peterson and Raymond VinZant, the two mayoral candidates, attended the event. Of the six council member candidates, four attended: Kriss Hakala, Claire Luger, Dennis Williams, and Linda Nanko-Yeager. Stuart Stevermer and Joe Zerwas did not participate.

Each candidate had a few minutes to make an opening statement. Most questions were submitted from the audience. About 30 people attended the session, which was put on by the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Alan Bakke was moderator, while Marge Strand served as timer.

Candidates responded to all the questions, the first about a long-term plan for streets. Luger believes the city needs to improve infrastructure and that it is important to maintain what the city now has.  Good streets are an indication of care and are inviting to families.

Peterson noted that most of the streets have gone about 40 years without replacement and wants to begin replacing them without assessments and move to a dedicated Street Replacement Fund. Williams and Hakala both agree with Peterson. Williams commented that a good plan is in place, “Just go with it.” Peterson and Williams both want to encourage businesses to locate to the city which would increase the tax base.

VinZant wants to see streets fixed too, but believes the funding should come from tax revenue gained when Polaris and Xccent begin paying more property taxes. Yeager agrees with fixing the streets, but she would also like to see the north side of Viking Boulevard developed, creating a little “downtown.” She believes the city can wait to build a new city hall complex at a later date. Yeager would also like to see the Bingham property in the northern part of the city developed.

Asked to comment on the proposed 2013 budget, VinZant said he did not support it and believes the city should use the resources it has. He favors consolidating and combining services, but offered no details about how to do so. In initial planning for the budget, Yeager voted against an increase of 3.7 percent to the General Fund.  She would first like to see the completed plan before deciding to increase taxes.

Peterson supports the proposed budget and with it the dedicated street fund.  It would be a tax deduction, which would lower individual impact on residents.  The budget looks good to Williams, including the street replacement fund.  He thought it a wise move to combine the Fire Department and Police Department in Public Safety.

Hakala said the proposed budget looks good and the small increase in taxes would help repair streets.  She commented, “I use [all] the roads.” Luger would like to see more community feedback and input on the street project and cost analysis.

Candidates were asked how they would choose to finance needed street repair. Peterson supports the Street Reconstruction Fund. The Pavement Study plan, initiated in 2009, is in place. It is updated annually and streets needed repair are prioritized.  He believes it is the best deal for the city, adding only about $10 a month to the tax bill and is deductible. Williams sided with Peterson.

VinZant believes new tax money coming into the city should be dedicated to roads and not spent on other projects.  Then, residents would not be paying so much for street repairs.  Yeager takes a position on financing streets between the two extremes of 100-percent assessment and higher taxes.  She thinks it should be some of both.

Hakala is in general agreement with slightly increasing taxes to begin the work on streets. Luger would like to see the old roads fixed, but she thinks the policy should be equitable to residents and businesses.

Asked to identify services which could be cut as cost savings, Hakala said she would rather add services. Yeager would prefer department heads make their choices about how to reduce service to save money, but would be willing to trim if they could not or would not.

Luger would not make cuts to services and believes the city is doing well. She would look for efficiencies.

Peterson does not favor cutting services.  He returned again to supporting street improvements at a time when the city has infrastructure needs and interest rates are historically low.

Williams believes services are where they need to be. Creation of the Public Safety Department is a good idea. VinZant would just hold the line on spending, but would prefer not to cut.

As for positions on a new city hall, Lugar, VinZant, Williams, and Yeager believe one is not needed right now. VinZant wants to increase business in city first.

Hakala said the city missed an opportunity with the RiverBank building, but may need a new city hall in the near future. Peterson concurred that the RiverBank proposal had been to avert costs with a very low price at 2.79 percent interest. He was hopeful for the future with new tax revenues coming to the city from Polaris and Xccent soon.

Asked how many council meetings they had attended in the past year, Peterson and Yeager have attended all of them.

Hakala has attended one and Luger estimated she has attended seven. VinZant said he had attended five or six meetings and Williams attended six.  All the candidates believe two council meetings a month are plenty.

Asked to comment on the city fee schedule and what they would change or drop, Luger does not believe the city has frivolous fees but it should remain efficient. Hakala and Williams believe the fees are appropriate and for the most part necessary.  Hakala thought that fees for adjustment might be considered based on fixed incomes and/or the elderly.

Peterson said the city is constantly reviewing fees. Yeager commented they are reviewed periodically. VinZant believes they should all be assessed.  He thinks water and sewer connect charges (WAC & SAC) may be too high.

Candidates were asked to identify the two biggest issues for the city during the next year and how they would tackle them.

Williams identified street maintenance and keeping a lid on taxes as two challenges.  He believes taxes may increase, and that the city needed to attract businesses.

Yeager focused on repairs to infrastructure and keeping the levy as flat as possible.  She believes the city should “continue responsible spending.”

Hakala believes street repair is a top priority and the easiest way (maybe most painless way) is as a small tax increase to fund the Street Reconstruction Fund. She also believes keeping and attracting business is very important. Luger seconded Hakala’s opinions.

Peterson identified street repairs and businesses. He believes the city needs to focus on both things.  The EDA needs to continue its work to attract businesses and there is “no more time to waste [getting to] streets.”

VinZant believes the businesses are really affected negatively by (high) taxes. He noted that Rosenbauer is leasing half the building they use.

Candidates were asked to comment on business development and the recent tax abatement program passed by the City Council.

Yeager said “give tax abatement a shot.” There is no solution for high taxes and business.

Hakala feels the abatement program should help attracting businesses, believing taxes are currently high for businesses.

Luger also believes businesses pay high enough taxes and that abatement should help. Businesses also have responsibility to help with job growth.

Peterson supported the tax abatement resolution and believes it will encourage building on properties in the city.  The premise is that the tax break businesses get by paying no taxes on the increase in the value of property for a limited period (five years) should help.

VinZant said of the abatement resolution, the city had no choice but to try to match what other cities are offering.

Candidates were asked to take a position on raises for non-union employees. In Wyoming this is primarily supervisory and administrative personnel.

Luger believes raises should reflect current economic times and while not opposed to them, they should be a reflection of the economy.

Peterson referred to the pay-equity audit.  He believes raises were commensurate with responsibilities.  He struggled more with the raise for Police Chief Hoppe, but balanced responsibilities with long distance drive.

Yeager voted against raises for Hoppe and Administrator Craig Mattson.

VinZant believes the city should hold the line on spending.  He questioned why raises should be given to some and not others.  His reference point was compensation in the private sector, where in his business there have been no raises in five years.

Hakala supports prevailing compensation, but employees should be valued.