Mayoral candidates face off

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By Robin Bass

Candidates for Taylorsville mayor fielded questions ranging from taxes to economic development during a recent political forum held at the Spencer County-Taylorsville Chamber of Commerce.

About 75 residents participated in the chance to learn more about the four people seeking to become mayor. Voters will be heading to the polls in less than five weeks to determine the outcome of this and other local, state and federal races.

Taking part in the mayoral debate were incumbent Don Pay and three challengers: Walter Hahn, Lynda Huckleberry and Ruth Ann Sweazy. Pay is seeking his second four-year term as mayor, while Hahn is hoping to unseat the man that beat him in the 2006 mayor’s race. Hahn served as Taylorsville mayor for 20 years and prior to that was a city commissioner. Huckleberry, a business owner, is currently serving as a city commissioner. Sweazy is an elementary school teacher and is making her first run at a political office.

Only a few barbs were thrown during the hour-long program – but they were mild. There was reference made twice by Sweazy that a mayor should act as a role model when it comes to keeping his property clean.

Hahn said in his closing statement that many of the accomplishment touted by the current administrator began while he was mayor.

Mostly, the discourse was civil and informative. Below is an abridged transcript of the Taylorsville mayoral debate which was held Sept. 16. Candidates took turns answering 10 questions which they received prior to the event.

1. Do you favor a decrease in the city occupational tax to equalize it with the county occupational tax?

Walter Hahn: I can’t say if I was in office I could do so, but I am in favor of it. Any time we can cut taxes, or anything else, to help the people of the county and city, I think we should do so.

Lynda Huckleberry: I hate for anybody to be taxed because so many jobs around here are minimum wage. But we have to have police coverage and fire – it’s just a necessity. We’ve taken on Pin Oak, Early Wyne, Old South and Highview Estates lights, as well as, snow removal. At this time it is just a necessity, as bad as I hate to say that.

Don Pay: To equalize the county rate, we would have to increase, not decrease. The county is at .80. The city is at .75. I’m not in favor of raising occupational license tax at any point. You must understand the city has three sources of revenue. We have property tax, insurance premium tax –and that has dropped by one third by the way – and the OLT. When I first took office we had a city financial picture on the downhill side. We initiated the occupation license tax because it was apparent that the city needed to generate additional income.

Ruth Ann Sweazy: When the city of Taylorsville levied their occupational tax it was a .75 percent and that has always been lower than the county rate, who just lowered their tax to a .80 percent. According to the city records, when they were discussing doing the tax they projected this would generate about $160,000 in revenue. However, since they levied the tax, the income has come in about $240,000 for a year. So that is significantly higher than the projected rate. I do suggest lowering the rate for the city. For example, if the commission chose to lower the rate to .50 percent, this would generate $160,000. This would be lower and would collect the projected amount.

2. Do you favor a decrease in the city insurance premium tax to equalize it with the county insurance premium tax?

Huckleberry: It is just not possible at this time. The county insurance premium tax is .4 and the city is .7. We do not have the tax base the county has, but we have the same services.

Pay: Yes, I would love to see lower insurance premium taxes. No doubt about it. But if we did that, we wouldn’t have enough money to operate the city. When we’re in the position financially to do that, I’ll be the first one to make that motion. But you have to understand that that is one of only three sources of income the city has. We have already seen a drop in that income by one third.

Sweazy: I’m always in favor of reviewing potential tax reductions, however, at this time, this is something that needs to be monitored. As the mayor said, the insurance tax is the largest source of revenue for the city. And the city has noticed a decrease in that tax since it was implemented. In the year 08-09, the revenue was $337,000. Last year, that dropped to $300,000. For 2011, the projected revenue is about $200,000. This is a decrease based on the county doing their tax. Also, the insurance companies were sending a blanket check to the city. It’s not the city’s fault they were getting the money. It was just sent to that zip code. The insurance companies worked on their addresses.

Hahn: If I win the mayor’s race, sure. If I could cut any tax I would do so. But again, I would have to get into the office. Go through the revenue and find out what we can do. We’ll cut anything we can.

3. What concrete steps would you take to recruit and foster new and existing business?

Pay: I don’t have to tell anyone here, these are tough times. We’re all going through it. It’s a problem here locally. It’s a problem nationally. We’re all feeling that belt tightening going on. It’s certainly no different in the city. We need the support. We need to retain our existing businesses and we also need to find ways to bring new businesses in the community. I’d like you all to take a look around. I think we’ve made some pretty big changes in the city in the past four years. I think we are moving in the right direction. If four years ago I would have told you we would have a McDonald’s or a Papa John’s or a new extension complex going up, or a new Auto Zone coming in, or a new sewer expansion coming in, or that the Main Street program would be as strong as it is today – you would have thought I was crazy. But here we are.

Sweazy: There are several points for this question. Number one is to explore reducing business license fees to attract new and maintain our current businesses. Under our current administration, this fee has increased over 100 percent for most of the businesses. The current rate generates about $17,000. If this is lowered, I think the city can make adjustments in their budget and the money from the licensing fee can be used to market businesses and attract them to the city. I think working with the chamber of commerce and other stakeholders in our community to facilitate cooperation and develop relationships with potential businesses are a must.

Hahn: We’ve got to cut some of the taxes. Taxes here will eat a business up. I would work with the chamber any way I could. I’d do anything I could to help new business come in. I’m going to get off the subject a little bit. Mr. Pay has been talking about all that has been done in the last four years. A lot of that was already in place before I left here.

Huckleberry: I would like to continue to upgrade a sewer and water department. I would like to make the existing, as well as forthcoming, businesses feel welcome in the community. I would like for the businesses to be united, work together and support one another.

4. How will you use technology to run city government more efficiently and increase transparency?

Sweazy: I have a list of several ideas. I would like to see us update and maintain a proper web page, listing our city minutes and ordinances. It’s a great marketing tool. When people want to look at us, they are going to go to the Internet first. When you go to the Internet and look up the city of Taylorsville, you are going to be shocked. It’s just a picture and the office hours. I’d like to see that updated. I would like to work closely with a cable television provider to establish a TV channel. It would be a great asset for the community. For instance, students at the high school broadcasting class could produce a program. I would also like for us to look at payment of water bills online and having wireless Internet at city meetings.

Hahn: I agree with Ms. Sweazy. I think we need to get with surrounding cities, work with them and see if we can’t all come together. Again, it’s kind of hard for me to answer some of these questions because I’ve been out of office for over four years and I don’t really realize what’s going on up there. I assure I will do my best like I did for the first 20 years.

Huckleberry: I agree with Ruth Ann and Walter. I would like to see the minutes on our web page and maybe our meetings filmed by the cable company. The whole community would become more computer friendly.

Pay: I agree. Web pages are the right answer. We do need a website in the city. This is something we have started to develop very recently and this is going to give internet access to all our city meetings. A lot of folks don’t have the time to attend city meetings. This gives them the opportunity. This would also allow them to look city laws. The second thing is a GIS system. It’s a geographical mapping system that is relatively simple, but requires the cooperation between city and county. It includes all the grid systems, power systems, water lines, fire hydrants – you can see the help this would be to fire and EMS. I would support that.

5. How would you use the power of the mayor to improve the ability of the Main Street Committee to bring about the revitalization of downtown Taylorsville?

Hahn: I’ll work with the committee, but the first thing I’ll want them to realize is that there’s more to the city than Main Street. We have more streets than Main Street that we need to work on.

Huckleberry: I would like to work with not only Main Street, but all the committees to make our city united and to bring all the businesses we can to our community.

Pay: When you say the power of the mayor, you have to understand that the mayor doesn’t have really all that much power. He’s only one on a city commission of five. As far as Main Street goes, this is something that is near and dear to my heart. I can’t give enough credit to the Main Street group, John Shircliffe, Annette King and also the volunteers. I think they have done a great job and I think we have seen evidence of that all throughout the city. Just take a look outside, that’s all you have to do. We need more volunteers, so if you ever have the chance to volunteer some of your time I certainly would love to have you do so. Main Street is making a big difference in our city.

Sweazy: Going to answer this in two parts. The first is just to explain the role of mayor according to statute. The duties of the mayor are all legislative – to chair meetings, sign documents approved by the commission. The mayor and the commissioners each have a vote and the staff are hired to conduct the day-to-day business. The Main Street committee is just a branch of the commission and it operates under the guidelines of the city. They are just to bring ideas to the commission for their approval. The mayor in that role has an awareness, but can’t act alone. I think it’s the role of the mayor to be an advocate and a role model by maintaining their own property.

6. Throughout downtown, there are businesses – successful, struggling and long ago closed – in buildings that need maintenance. What measures can be taken so property owners take care of what’s there to attract business?

Huckleberry: In the past four years, we have accomplished getting a lot of unsafe structures torn down in the city. I would like to see stronger code enforcement and one-on-one contact with business owners to help them influence our community.

Pay: Those people that make an effort to maintain their property, those are the ones that are really making a difference in our community. I think we need to reward them for all their hard work. For example, one of our property owners came to the city asking for a new sidewalk in front of their building. Scott and Linda Street, if you haven’t seen what they have done to the old Polk House, they have brought new life back to their property. The sidewalk out front is all buckled up, and they’re right, we need to do something about it. That’s what cities do. There’s some people in every town that just don’t get it. They don’t care, but we do have code enforcement initiated by the county. That should hopefully take care of it. We need to encourage these people and help them in any way we can.

Sweazy: We have a joint planning and zoning administration in which the city appoints a representative to the board. We also have an enforcement officer and a building inspector. I think the ordinances we already have need to be enforced. Keeping the city clean is one way to attract new businesses. It’s also important for the mayor to lead by example and maintain a neat and orderly property. Another thing I’d like to see us do is bring back the recognition program for businesses and homeowners who go above and beyond taking care of their property. This could be called the Hometown Pride award.

Hahn: The first I would like to see is for the people in the city limits to take care of their own property and clean it up. We have some property in the city that doesn’t look too good. I would work with planning and zoning. They have a job to do. They have the rules. I would work with them to make sure they are enforced.

7. As mayor, what, specifically, could you do in order to increase economic viability in the city?

Pay: In these tough economic times, I can tell what we have been doing over the past four years. Property taxes have not increased. Personal property taxes, in fact, have been lowered. An inter-local agreement with the fire department has saved the city $20,000. In law enforcement, we have acquired a Ford Explorer purchased with drug seizure money for $38,000 at no cost to the city. Two Ford Expeditions from the U.S. Marshalls Service at no cost to the city. We’ve eliminated $30,000 on 9-1-1 dispatch. We’ve obtained a street sweeper from the city of Louisville, once again, no cost to the city. We’ve installed two new warning systems using a grant, saving the city $15,000. A new pump for the flood wall, saving the city $55,000. $1 million obtained in state and federal funding to solve our flooding problems with the levee and Houston Ct. And we’ve acquired $2.6 million in funding for the new sewer treatment project, which is about to start. We’ve also lowered workman’s comp and insurance costs, saving the city $25,000 a year.

Sweazy: The powers of the mayor are limited by statute, but I would hope I could be a voice and build relationships to be an advocate for our community. I would like to see that the planning and zoning enforcement is carried out and insure that the city maintains proper police and fire protection. I feel there needs to be increased communication from city hall and I would like to work together with other members of the commission to increase economic growth rather than increasing taxes and finding ways to generate more income.

Hahn: What can I do? I can’t do anything. If I win the mayor’s race, I’ll have four other people there sitting with me. We’ll all make the decision of what to do. All I can do is tell the board what I think needs to be done, or not done, and they’ll make the decision.

Huckleberry: I would like for all entities to work together as a team and bring our community closer together, instead of fighting amongst each other. I will try to be someone who can be a liaison to help them all work together.

8. Which of the current challenges that Taylorsville faces are you personally best suited to resolve? Why?

Sweazy: I think there are several problems facing the next administration, including sewer, floodwall certification, staff accountability and efficiency. But I feel like open government is an area we really need to work on. I have experiences working with local, state and national officials. I would allow for open public dialogue and to try to be an advocate for the city. As mayor, I would have nothing to hide. I would want to preserve the quality of life that we have here in Taylorsville now. I feel like I have honesty, integrity and the ability to provide an open and transparent government for the people.

Hahn: I really don’t know how to answer this one. Taylorsville is facing a whole lot of problems and challenges. We all do. We have one challenge I would like to mention, but I can’t. Not here. Not tonight. But I would work with all the commissioners and businesses if I was elected mayor.

Huckleberry: I would like for the entire community to become more united, more interested. When we have our city meetings, there is hardly ever anyone there. I’m a straight-forward person. I don’t sugar-coat anything. I just want to do my best to help our community thrive and grow together, not individually, but all together.

Pay: I think one of the greatest challenges that faces all of us is a big one. As you know, Taylorsville sits in a bowl and we’re surrounded by a floodwall that protects us. After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA issued an unfunded mandate saying that all cities that are protected by levee systems have two years to be certified flood-free. That means a lot to insurance companies. What does it mean to us? If our community is not certified, insurance rates are going to soar. Property values are going to drop and we can say good-bye to future economic development. For the past year and a half, we have been working with congressmen in Washington, the governor, our state representatives in Frankfort to get the funding we need to fix this problem. Now that funding has been committed, I think it’s time to get the job done. The county judge, floodwall commissioner Gary Kehne and I are committed to rolling up our sleeves and getting this project done. We’re determined to see this problem resolved.

9. How would you improve the city’s working relationships with surrounding townships, county government, tourism, and the Chamber of Commerce?

Hahn: Again, work with the chamber. When I was in office before, the city and county had a good relationship. We bought equipment together for snow removal. The county would come in and help take care of the city for us.

Huckleberry: We now have a close relationship and interlocal agreements with the county. I’ve addressed other county and cities, as far as how their sewer and water rates go. I think it’s time we had a sewer board and water board to help unite the city and the county on those issues.

Pay: Let’s talk about relationships – relationships with other townships and cities. I’ve maintained personal close relationships with mayors in other cities in an effort to network. I’ve traveled to their cities. I’ve walked their streets. We share information and try to help each other that way. In the relationship between the city and the county, I really think that relationship has never been stronger. I’ll tell you when that changed and that was last year during the ice storm. What you saw were relationships between city, county, fire department, public works, police department, schools – that was neighbors helping neighbors and that is what makes a community.

Sweazy: Relationship building is very important and I think it’s important for the city to work well with all the elected officials in our county. As I travel with my job in education, I am always bringing back ideas to the classroom, my schools and my collegues. This is my home. I plan to stay here and I want our community to be the best place to live, work and play. I feel like building those relationships makes sure Taylorsville is at the table with all those stakeholder groups.

10. How do you plan to attract businesses downtown and how do you feel about locally-owned businesses versus chains?

Huckleberry: I’m not crazy about chains, but they do increase jobs and tax revenue for our community. I invite all businesses and all of the community to support those businesses so we will have jobs. I would like to see jobs for something other than minimum wage.

Pay: To attract businesses downtown we have to give them something attractive. We’ve got to rebuild our city and this is what we are currently doing street-by-street. We are resurfacing, putting in new sidewalks, streetlights, landscaping. I think all of this is important as evidence with Main Cross, Washington St., Garrard St. and Main St. The infrastructure is important. We have to have the power for them, water and sewer. We have to make this a place that will attract new business and also people that will want to grow with us.

Sweazy: Four things we could do to attract businesses downtown would be to explore lowering the business license fee, enforcing planning and zoning regulations, maintain a clean and safe downtown area and market the city via the Internet and other forms of communication. As far as businesses versus chains, I don’t think we should discriminate against any business that might want to establish in our community, particularly when we use local tax money to fund EDA (Economic Development Authority). We do need to make sure those businesses follow the ordinances that we have.

Hahn: The property owners are going to have to do some upgrades on their buildings. If there is any way the city, we should possibly help them with that. I say bring in all the small businesses we can and what we have, try to keep them here. I say we try to lower some of these taxes, this overhead. As far as the chains, no, I really wouldn’t support that for Taylorsville. Even though I shop at Wal-Mart, I would not support that.

The race for Taylorsville mayor is non-partisan with the top voter-getter being awarded the position. The election will be held Nov. 2 and only voters in the city limits will be eligible to participate.