A case for council; Council candidates address issues, take questions during public forum

Published 8:48 am Thursday, October 25, 2018

Candidates for the Austin City Council took questions from the public during a forum held Wednesday afternoon at the Eagles Club.

Attending the forum were seven candidates; two each for open spots in the first ward, third ward and at-large seats and one for the second ward seat. They were Jeff Arneson and Rebecca Waller for first ward, Jason Baskin for second ward, Joyce Poshusta and Brian Heimer, who had to leave early for a prior obligation, for third ward, and Jeff Austin, the current first ward incumbent, and Susan Johnson for the at-large seat.

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The first issue to be addressed to the at-large candidates was taxes, particularly the increase of the tax levy by roughly 60 percent over the past four years.

“Part of the reason our taxes have gone up over the past four years is because our budget runs from 62 to 70 percent people,” Austin said.

Austin said that the community has certain attractions, such as the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center and Riverside Arena, and that Austin consistently ranks lowest in the state for taxes.

“For a moderately priced house in Austin, you’re looking at a six-dollar per month increase with the tax levy increase,” he said.

Johnson, however, said she believed the taxes were too high.

“I’ve been talking with local business owners in Downtown Austin and several of them are quite concerned about the increase in taxes and how that affects the bottom line for them,” she said.

She added that she would want to look at the numbers from the tax assessors and review why taxes are high.

Baskin was also given the opportunity to answer the tax issue.

“I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get a handle on property taxes,” he said. “Property taxes from the city don’t exist in a vacuum; the county taxes go up double digits, the state has gone up, the deductibility of federal income taxes is gone now.”

Baskin said he would like the city to strategically prioritize what it wants to do.

“Saying that we’re pretty happy with the services we provide right now, so we’re going to keep spending the same dollars that we’re spending and then debate about how much we’re going to increase, doesn’t work.”

The first ward candidates were asked what would be a better use of taxpayer money: hiring employees at the lowest possible wage and benefit package or attracting quality employees and retaining employees with competitive wages and benefits.

“The best way to use our tax dollars is to hire quality people and have those people stay in their positions,” Waller said. “Otherwise, we’re spending valuable resources on training people and continuously training versus if we go get the best people for a position and train them one time and let them grow in their position.”

Arneson, however, said neither option was the answer.

“The problem (is) income inequality,” he said. “I’m a believer that we need in this city a minimum wage of $15 per hour. A working wage, that’s the key to keeping people in Austin.”

He added that having two working parents to make ends meet makes a difference, particularly when it comes to kids getting in trouble.

“I don’t have the answer to keep the taxes lower,” he said. “I do know we need to bring in more income and I do have a solution.”

The third ward candidates were asked about the role the city could play in addressing the shortage of housing and daycare in Austin.

“I would disagree that there’s a shortage of housing,” Heimer said. “I’ve become invested in housing recently and the problem is that people are trying to find that niche of middle-class house, that $90-$120 cost range of a home.”

Heimer said he did not believe the government should tell builders how to build or what type is needed for particular incomes.

“I think the economy itself should grow and that’s what the bigger issue is,” he said. “We have a big company here that has a corporate headquarters and it’s not trickling down the way it should. I think we need to grow the economy and those trickle down effects will help those housing effects.”

Heimer also said he expected to hear more concerns about daycare shortages; however, the issue was not as prevalent as he thought.

Poshusta disagreed about the housing shortage, citing her work as the manager of the Twin Towers.

“I have people coming in everyday looking for market rate rentals and housing,” she said. “What we need to do as a city is to approach developers; we don’t need to wait for them to come to us.”

Poshusta praised the current tax abatement program and favored more initiatives for developers.

“Bringing more people here may help with the daycare shortage,” she said. “You’ll have more daycare (providers) come in and live in the community.”

The question was then posed as to what can be done to make the community more attractive and encourage people to live here.

“We’re looking at initiatives to get more houses built in town and to get our housing updated,” Austin said. “Part of the reason we receive so much (local government aid) is because the housing stock in our town is so old. It needs to be updated or it needs to be replaced. We have too many houses on one side or the other of the spectrum and not enough in the middle.”

He cited the $200,000 housing initiative fund in the 2019 budget as a step the council has taken to alleviate that problem.

Johnson stated the city should look for grant opportunities and other outside sources of funding to update housing.

“Not everybody can afford to spend a lot of money on updates and repairs,” she said.

She also suggested classes to help educate people on how to keep up their homes, an idea with which Waller agreed.

“A lot of people in the community maybe don’t know the simple steps in maintaining a house,” Waller said. “By teaching somebody how to care for certain aspects of housing that any basic person can do is something that we can do as a community without having to spend a lot of money.”

While Arneson agreed with educating people, he said the point was moot for those who are unable to afford a house.

“How can you buy a house or pay rent when you’re not making any money?” he asked. “We need a new solution for where’s the money going to come in. Stop looking at what the costs are; they’re always going to be there, they’re always going to go up. What we have to do is raise incomes… How do we get more money in town for people to qualify for a nice house?”

The question was then posed to the candidates about whether or not city employees are adequately paid and if the city is adequately staffed, citing the city conducting a compensation and classification study.

“I think we need to take a hard look at what the recommendations are from the comp study before we decide what, if anything, we’re going to implement from it,” Baskin said.

“I know that (the police force has) a real high volume and a lower pay compared to other cities of our size,” Poshusta said. “I’m glad the study is going to be done. I think that half a million dollars for the study seems really high. I am anxious to see the results and move from there.”

Austin clarified that the $500,000 estimate for the compensation and classification study was for the implementation of the results, not the actual cost of conducting the study.

The candidates then closed the forum urging residents for their votes, except Heimer, who had left due to a prior commitment.