Mayor hopefuls face off
Candidates Lang, Stiehm grapple over tax issues
During a KSMQ/Austin Daily Herald taped debate Tuesday afternoon, Mayoral challenger Dick Lang produced a note from his pocket when asked about taxes. The note, he said, showed how the city’s taxes have increased for the last eight years straight, and had risen a total of 47 percent.
“Our tax issue will always be a big issue, and should always be a concern in the budget,” Lang said during the first five minutes of the roundtable, which will be available at austindailyherald.com and aired on KSMQ later this month.
Incumbent Mayor Tom Stiehm countered, saying the numbers weren’t Austin residents’ top concern when it comes to taxes. He highlighted the “cut the fat” mentality many residents have as an incomplete view of managing the budget. If Austinites call for a 50 percent reduction in taxes, the mayor and City Council will oblige, he said, but residents would likely feel that cut in other ways, like reduced city services.
“Do you want your streets plowed less?” Stiehm said. “What’s the cost of saving money?”
He said a large portion of the city’s budget rests in human resources. In order to make significant cuts to the budget and lower taxes, the city would need to let go of staff. When a staff member retires, the city tries to merge the position with a county role or another city position, he said.
“If people said, ‘Categorically, we don’t want tax increases, we want to cut taxes,’ we can do that,” Stiehm said. “That’s not what we’re hearing from people … You have to serve the whole city.”
Lang, who spent six years on the council ending in 2002, said the council went through with a number of projects during that time which put little burden on the taxpayer, including the construction of Mill Pond and the present Austin Public Library.
“There’s a lot of issues where the citizens of Austin don’t realize money can be saved,” Lang said. “It’s just being involved in the process.”
Beyond affecting those who already live in Austin, Lang said, high tax rates could serve as a deterrent for businesses looking to come to the area.
“The biggest reason they stay away from Austin is one thing: taxes,” he said.
But Stiehm pointed out that Austin was one of the cities with lowest tax levels per capita in Minnesota. He said it was important to keep some moderation between the level of taxes and the degree of services the city could provide.
He emphasized the value of already established local businesses, which make up the majority of a city’s growth, he said. While it can be difficult for cities to bring in a large business that will provide 600 jobs, growing that same number of jobs in existing businesses was a better bet.
On other topics, both candidates argued the previously postponed Coffee with the Council meetings would need to be formatted differently to cut back on some problems with one person dominating the conversation. Each focused on the need to get input from Austin residents on what they would like to see done in the city.
“The biggest challenge to the City Council is to go out and find out what people want,” Stiehm said, noting any version of a public forum or community conversation is a boon for the city.
In terms of the community betterment project Vision 2020, Stiehm said he wanted the city to partner with project organizers, and to give the project a financial push when needed, but otherwise let residents drive the effort. Austin could mimic the council in Dubuque, Iowa, where the concept for Austin’s Vision 2020 began. It would serve as an “incubator,” helping get the project off the ground but letting it largely work on its own. And the city shouldn’t be afraid to refuse funding for certain areas, he said.
“If something comes up that we don’t believe is going to benefit the city … we need to let them know that, too,” Stiehm said.
While Lang supported the city’s earlier contribution of $10,000 to get the project started, he maintained the real workings of the project had to stay out of elected officials’ hands.
“Elected people don’t see all the vision in Austin,” he said. “Vision 2020 will always be a growing parameter of what the people want, instead of what the county wants or the city wants.”