March 17, 2009
Nine mayoral candidates at Taxpayers' forum
So many candidates, so little time.
The Racine Taxpayers Association threw a mayoral forum at the YMCA Tuesday, and nine of the eleven candidates showed up -- only six had RSVP'd -- forcing strict time limits on answers to a series of serious questions about the city's future.
Still, by the time the hour and a quarter was over, the 40 or so citizens in the room had a good opportunity to spot some policy differences and perhaps whittle down the field a bit. If my notes are correct, there were nine questions in all, and each candidate got a first crack at -- and a leisurely 90 seconds to answer -- just one. Each then responded in turn, with the first four getting 45 seconds, and the rest only 30. Then on to another question. (In each instance below, I'll start off with the candidate who led off the answering, and then add responses that caught my interest.)
Q: How can we create jobs when a lot of companies are laying off?
John Dickert: "We have to focus on what's out there...green technology jobs. Tap into federal and state funds. Be aggressive. Can't sit back and wait."
Q.A.Shakoor II: "Good police department and public service are the key, along with RCEDC."
Kim Plache: "Work hard to control spending, to attract businesses."
Pete Karas: "Mayor has to be the lead marketer of the city. A public electric utility will give us an advantage over surrounding communities."
Greg Helding: "Focus on quality of life issues."
Jody Harding: "Racine has a very bad reputation (taxes and schools) and not a good workforce (lacking 'soft skills' like coming to work on time)."
Raymond Fay: "Should enforce our 'Racine First' policy."
Q. Do you support having a City Administrator?
Shakoor: "I do support it. The mayor should be working with federal and state, not tied to the day-to-day. Having one would free the mayor up."
Jaimie Charon: "I'm on the fence with it."
Karas opposed it in 2003 and says the position is "unaccountable." He favors a deputy mayor, paid less than the mayor and with a term of office tied to the mayor's.
Jim Spangenberg supports a city administrator, and says Karas' deputy mayor proposal would lead to "cronyism."
Plache, Helding, Fay and Dickert support.
Harding is against: "Mayor should be the city's administrator, not just a figurehead."
Q. Should the city join the countywide dispatch center?
Charon: "Yes, if it improves communication and services."
Plache: "This is one example of ways there can be collaboration."
Helding: "We need to get serious about intergovernmental cooperation. We need to give up ego."
Karas: "I'd (first) like to see a proposal from the county. I'm a little skeptical."
Spangenberg: "We've never gotten a firm proposal."
Harding: "It's a great idea: improves efficiency, reduces cost. No downside."
Fay: "Territorial issues are undone with new technology. Go for it."
Dickert: "Partisan bickering has to be put aside. Put it all on the table."
Shakoor: "I support joint dispatch, but it's got to be done right. Tear down that east/west wall."
Q. What have you done to bring new jobs?
Just about everyone has served on one or another development boards and talked about projects they've worked on: Plache mentioned CATI; Karas the facade grant program and brownfield grants; Spangenberg working with grocers for West Racine.
Shakoor talked about the Walgreens and Sav-a-Lot on State Street, and said they tell kids, "take that crack cocaine and replace it with a calculator."
Harding: "I have a great deal of experience from the business side; they do not need to be over-regulated."
Dickert: "We need to work on infrastructure and a long-term plan for Racine."
Q. The city is $180 million in debt. What will you do to reduce that?
Karas: "Much of that is for health benefits for retirees. Many communities have it. I'd go back to the public electric utility. It would produce $4, $5, $6 million a year; some could go to debt, some to reduce taxes, some to services."
Spangenberg: "It's really $104 million. We retire $X million of that every year, to stay with our A bond rating. We need to be conservative in spending."
Helding agreed with the $104 million figure, pointing out that it is well within the sate guidelines. "We borrow to build streets like the one you all drove on to get here."
Harding: "20% of our tax levy goes to debt service; that's much too much. I drive an old car. The city needs to postpone capital expenditures and bring debt down by half."
Fay: "It's fiscally sound but needs to come down. The key is spending."
Dickert: "The more development and building you do, the lower taxes will be."
Shakoor: "Control spending."
Charon: "There are definitely places we can cut, buy down debt."
Plache: "We need a complete reform of the budget process. Zero-based budgeting like Kenosha."
Q. Drugs, prostitution, gangs: what will you do about them?
Spangenberg: "Education is part of the problem. There are so many with no high school diploma. We need to get these kids trained, with GEDs. The long-range plan is education to get them jobs. Also: enough law enforcement on the streets."
Helding: "Take action to shut down public nuisances. Make it uncomfortable for drug dealers."
Harding: "Police do a good job; need to have the resources."
Fay: "I support the COP program, Neighborhood Watch, the DA's Victim Witness program."
Dickert: "We've been putting band-aids on this; Racine needs major surgery. The three legs: housing, jobs, crime."
Shakoor: "It takes collaboration." He said 40 organizations worked on State Street, "and in less than two years we reduced crime 94%."
Charon: "We need a task force. These folks are smart; we have to be ahead of them."
Plache: "The future is breaking the cycle of poverty."
Karas: "Community policing and engagement. Jacato Drive: nobody every goes there, nobody of authority. As mayor I intend to spend time in those neighborhoods."
Q. What about taxes downtown, fair assessments?
Helding: "We're shifting some of our assessments in the wrong direction." He cited a large brick building housing a bar where the assessment was just $40,000.
Harding: "A lot of assessments are out of whack; too high, or two low. We need to be at fair market value.
Dickert: "People are buying houses at much less than the assessed value. We're going to see lawsuits over assessments."
Everyone supported fair assessments. Karas declared that moving from every year to every-other-year assessments last fall was a mistake; the move was done to reduce expenses in the assessors' office.
Q. Can we get back the stadium tax and use it for KRM?
Harding: "We can't get it back; we'd be stuck with another .5% for KRM. KRM is not a good investment. Metro-rail is not the answer. It will cost a tremendous amount of money, and the number who'd use it is minimal."
Fay: "KRM is important, but we need an elected Regional Transit Authority. Twenty years down the road, KRM is important, as important as the North Shore Line used to be."
Dickert: "We're spending $1 billion to expand I-94. Infrastructure is the key to growth. Take Metra to Chicago: at every stop there are multi-millions in growth."
Shakoor: "Sunset the stadium tax; make it happen. KRM is a good, positive thing."
Charon: "I am not for KRM. There are other alternatives. This is a beast of a rail service and will be a big tax burden."
Plache: "It's 100% unlikely we can get the stadium tax for rail. KRM will connect Racine to the largest economy around us."
Karas: "It's 101% impossible. KRM is important; we have to do it. The sales tax should be on everyone in the county, not just east of the I."
Spangenberg: "We have to look to the future. Getting rail service to the city makes us part of one big region. I'm really for KRM."
Helding: "The Hiawatha is busting at the seams, which shows the demand. A small sales tax is a reasonable funding source."
Q. The final question concerned the "criminalization" of garage sales -- referring to the ordinance passed last July to limit the number of rummage sales a resident may hold each year (four, of three days maximum) and the number of signs that may be put out for each (two).
Fay: "I have no problem with it."
Dickert: "Don't we have bigger fish to fry?"
Shakoor: "I voted against that measure. People intermingle; sales are positive."
Charon: "Let the rummage sales season begin!"
Plache: "When it becomes an off-line business that runs full-time, that's what's being regulated. "
Karas: "It's not that big of a deal, unless you live next door. They should be regulated; they create havoc for neighbors."
Helding: "Sometimes there are small fish that need to be fried. They become problems for neighbors."
Harding: "We already have ordinances against littering, selling from home. We don't need the city telling us we can have three sales, with three signs."