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Austin City Council candidates answer forum questions

Oballa Oballa

Austin City Council First Ward candidates Helen Jahr and Oballa Oballa answered questions during a Tuesday morning candidate forum broadcasted on KAUS AM 1480.

The forum was sponsored by the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce and featured questions submitted by local residents. While three council seats are up for grabs this election, the First Ward is the only contested race; City Council Second Ward candidate Mike Postma and City Council Third Ward Councilman Paul Fischer are running unopposed.

Oballa and Jahr were first asked which key issues they thought the council should primarily focus on. Oballa said those issues should be housing, quality of life and welcoming diversity.

“I think our current city council has really done amazing work in making sure we have an attractive city,” he said. “The main issue that I would like the city council to focus on is getting more housing in town because we have residents here who see a shortness of housing in Austin.”

Helen Jahr

Oballa also stated the city should work to attract more local businesses with good paying jobs.

Jahr said the council should focus on offering services with the least amount of cost and obtaining funding through partnerships.

“Ideally, we would like to increase funding and increase our tax base,” she said. “I think (the council) needs to prioritize projects and grow strategic partnerships in order to obtain funding to continue these initiatives.”

The candidates were then asked which aspect of economic development they would like to see improved. Jahr said she would like to see improved housing.

“It’s been proven that there is definitely a need (for housing),” she said. “We have a changing demographic with our elderly and people who need housing. I think seeing the extension of the housing tax abatement through 2022 is going to be a big help for multi and single family housing.”

“I know that housing is an indication of prosperity and I think that employment characteristics, good paying jobs and housing go hand-in-hand,” she added.

Oballa agreed that housing was critical, particularly as it pertained to attracting workers.

“We know that Hormel, QPP and Mayo Clinic are the largest employers here,” he said. “[…] Some people work at Hormel and then they drive to Rochester after buying houses there. I think more housing in Austin would be a great thing for the city because we want to keep the dollar here and have people live here. We want to keep them closer and invest their money here.”

The candidates were asked about how they would try to keep taxes down, particularly in light of uncertainty surrounding how much Local Government Aid (LGA) the city may receive in the coming years.

“Austin is currently getting around $8 million in LGA,” Oballa said. “If I’m elected, I would work hand-in-hand with other city councils to see where we need more in our services. Because of this pandemic, the city will not get the money we’re looking for. I will be open to any discussion around this and work with the city services where we need to fund and make sure our residents aren’t being taxed higher.” 

Jahr said that prioritizing is instrumental in being economical.

“As part of the Austin Parks and Recreation Board, I know that the city council has worked hard already to stretch the city budget,” she said. “I know they have already made some very difficult but thoughtful decisions and making cuts is hard.”

Jahr also mentioned an idea of an economic development fund that would provide financial assistance via partnerships with city entities.

“I think partnerships are the only way we’re going to get through this,” she said.

Jahr and Oballa were then asked what they would bring to the council if elected.

“The very nature of my career at Riverland as an athletic director and coach has been about creating successes with a very fluid environment, similar to what the economy is,” Jahr said. “It’s always changing, whether it be with budgets or the weather or injured athletes. I think you’re always having to make decisions on the fly. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe in myself and I do have the ability to look at the information before me and make a good decision. I do strongly believe in input from a diverse demographic to make a stronger resolve to meet these challenges.”

“I think the strength I could bring to the city council is a fresh voice,” Oballa said. “I’m young and I think that I can bring the perspective of young residents.”

Oballa cited his experience as student senate president at Riverland and president of LeadMN, particularly his role in the passage of the Hunger Free Campus Act.

“I’m a good listener and for the past few years, I’ve used my talent here in Austin, going from every corner of Austin talking to native residents and the young folks. I think I would bring a good energy to the city council and make sure our younger folks who are not traditionally involved in the community government can participate. The backbone of Austin is having young folks support the community”.

The candidates were then asked about their plans to promote racial equality. Oballa said that promoting racial equality is everyone’s responsibility and he believes Austin has done a great job in promoting racial equality. 

“From what I have heard, Austin is not like it was 20 years ago,” he said. “Austin has changed drastically.”

He added that he wants to be a listener who gets perspectives from every ethnicity in town on issues. 

Jahr said she has seen racial equity as a priority across Riverland Community College departments. She stated that community is the key to cultivating inclusiveness.

“I would try to open the dialogue of racial inequality and identify where the inequality exists,” she said. “I think awareness can be raised through awareness training, issues can be identified through neighborhood forums, communication can occur with study circles, public art, community events and speakers.”

“I think community is the key to cultivating awareness, but I do view Austin as a very welcoming community,” she added.

Lastly, the candidates were asked about how they would work to reduce crime and increase public safety. Jahr said that communication will help in solving the problem.

“When you’re opening dialogue, you’re welcoming community members and you’re speaking to each other face-to-face, I think it reduces incidences of crime,” she said. “I think where the surreptitious and clandestine behavior begins is when it’s dark and quiet and there’s not a lot of community involvement and awareness going on. I would like to start with community involvement.”

Oballa said the work of making Austin a safe community is the responsibility of every resident.

“I ran away from a warzone country and want to find a place that is peaceful for myself and for my kid,” he said. “In Austin, this is work for everyone, not just work for the police to be the only people responsible to target crime. I think it is the responsibility of every resident in Austin, especially starting at home. What can we do to make our neighbors safe? We have to educate ourselves and our neighbors that if we want to be safe, it has to start with me and it has to start with you as an individual.”