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Six in the running for Rushford's City Council seats

Fri, Oct 16th, 2009
Posted in Government

While we often hear from candidates regarding their views and goals, it is unusual for the public to be granted a forum to question the candidates. Taking this position, the six Rushford City Council candidates were recently asked a series of questions that were created by polling the residents of Rushford. The questions were ranked by frequency and presented to each candidate in one-on-one interviews.

Nancy Benson and Ted Roberton are both running for one two-year term on the council. Vern Bunke, Roger Colbenson, Mark Honsey, and Jim Wolter are vying for two, four-year terms.

Question #1:

There has been talk about the tax base expanding, therefore easing the taxation to the community. Still some property owners are struggling in this economic downturn, with job loss, second mortgages, and more. Senator Erickson-Ropes even commented recently that the full effect of the recession won't be seen in Minnesota for another two years. What's your response to resident and property owners' feeling that this is not the time to spend money?

• Benson - "It depends on what you spent money on. If it's to improve the city, that's important. Frivolous ideas are certainly not. I believe things will get better and a part of doing that is to increase the tax base."

• Roberton - "I absolutely agree. There's some things underway and spending over half a million dollars for the Himlie property is foolish."

• Bunke - "That's a multiple point question. As far as timing, I'm sympathetic to the homeowners within the city because I understand the economic loss that they've suffered and how that's translated into second mortgages. In some ways, the economic downturn has been harder on Rushford than the flood. But, we have an opportunity to go out and attract new businesses and we have to get off our hands and start actively attracting industry. When we have those businesses, it will ease the burden. Until we get that back, the tax burden is going to fall on homeowners."

• Colbenson - "That's absolutely right. The city is out of control on spending and we need to bring it under control. Taxes are out of hand. While every other city is cutting back, we're laying the burden on our tax payers."

• Honsey - "We need to keep our options open for growth and proceed only if it's a sound investment. We need to ensure a proven track record."

• Wolter - "Downturned economies are when you look at costs, which can be cheaper. This infrastructure has been postponed and we're in a situation where we're replacing water and sewer lines from 100 years ago. As for the community center, we're looking at costs and weighing the options. We've been inventive in our effort to reduce costs. The Himlie property fits our needs for job growth. We need to provide for that infrastructure so it's prepared when jobs come. We're diligent at how we can reduce tax dollars, looking at the costs and trying to mitigate any burden, while still being progressive."

Question #2:

With the recertification of the levee looming large over the city and costs to achieve recertification unknown, some feel that this is not the time to be tackling projects such as the Himlie Business Park. Do you think that the funds allotted to the project are wise spending with the recertification being so critical to the city and costs unknown?

• Benson - "Recertification is critical and costs are unknown, but if we don't improve businesses we can't expand the tax base. We need to help present businesses also in order to do that."

• Roberton - "I don't think it's wise. We need to fix the infrastructure, there's no doubt, but this is not the time to be expanding and spending money. We don't know where this is going. There are people who've had to take out second mortgages as a result of the flood and those who live on a fixed income and can't pay more. Utility fees in the city are increasing... I'm afraid we're going to be forcing people out of their home."

• Bunke - "The Himlie business property is an investment in the future. The current business park is getting quite full. If you don't have enough business opportunity for people to choose from, they tend to overlook you. As far as the levee recertification, I believe it will work out to Rushford's advantage by working with the Corps of Engineers. There may be a cost, but we can work together."

• Colbenson - "I believe it's one of the most unwise situations that the city has gotten into. It's a tax burden. We've got some homeowners now carrying a third mortgage."

• Honsey - "We need to take care of what's here right now instead of what's speculative. We need to take care of the base first."

• Wolter - "We can't stop doing what we're doing based on unknowns. We need to keep moving forward and weighing our options. The recertification is a top priority."

Question #3:

There have been several large projects considered and passed in the council over the last two years, including a new and larger shared city hall and library facility. With the former Winona Health building standing empty in the heart of downtown, do you feel the council needs to be proceeding with a new city hall?

• Benson - "We cannot use the (former) Winona Health building. It's not adequate. One of the reasons that the library and city hall need to be connected is that they work so closely together. The two entities must work together and the city helps the library keep costs down, which is important. If people have not been in the library, I encourage them to step in and see how crowded it is. The library is a valuable asset to the community."

• Roberton - "The library needs to do something, but not the new city hall and library combination. It's a pipe dream. I'd like to see something done with the library, but it's not the time to be doing it. It's just not practical."

• Bunke - "I would be more cautious with that type of investment. That doesn't mean I don't think a new facility is needed, but right now, that type of development should wait."

• Colbenson - "I believe that is where city hall should be (former Winona Health building). Then, the library should be expanded into the current city hall space."

• Honsey - "We need to look at all the options and that is one that had not been looked at enough. There are a lot of empty lots around town. If we're going to spend money, we need to look at downtown."

• Wolter - "I don't know that the goal is to proceed with a new city hall. It was more of a cost-sharing. It was never intended as a way to move ourselves out of city hall. We're looking at needs for the library and that site (Mill & Park Streets) is large enough for what's needed."

Question #4:

In recent months, two things have come to light regarding the Municipal Liquor store. First, while the building is fully paid for, it still has operational costs and has recorded two years of income loss. Secondly, a recent budget analysis has shown that historically the liquor store was able to contribute annually, in some way, to the city's general fund. Knowing that this is no longer the case and that the liquor store is costing the city money, should the city continue to operate the venue?

• Benson - "I believe the two year figure is understandable with what the city has gone through in the last two years. I can see why it's down. It was operating at minimal use. As time passes, I would hope that our residents see what is has to offer our city. The money generated comes back as tax relief. With the building, we replaced what we lost. It's time to put it to bed and know that the city did not spend money on it. Like many things, it's better than pre-flood in some instances."

• Roberton - "A qualified no. The city administrator has talked about how the building has been fully paid for by FEMA funds and that's true, but the liquor store is costing us something every day. I think there has to be a hard look at the situation."

• Bunke - "That's very emotionally charged right now. It needs some study. It has historically provided a good service to the community without having a free-wheeling enterprise in the city. The city has done a good job of operating it. As long as it's producing income it's fine. If not, it needs to be watched. Every enterprise fund that the city has should be profitable or they shouldn't be in it."

• Colbenson - "If the liquor store is not making money, it should be closed. In fact, it should never have been built. The public had no input and that's where the city is going wrong. With a big project, you've got to get the people's input before two or three people make the decision."

• Honsey - "I'm on the fence with that issue, but I don't believe at operating at a loss. If it continues to operate at a loss, the council will have to make some choices with the new building."

• Wolter - "There seems to be a lot of divisiveness on this. After the flood, one opportunity was to take a portion of funds and invest it in community. Another was to rebuild. At the time, we had a revenue source. I understand the past decision. It was a revenue source and jobs and we shouldn't overlook the human aspect of jobs. They went down the avenue to rebuild. If it shows another year of loss, it will be mandated by state law. Then, we'll see what we do. Things are coming to light and we'll have to look at it."

Question #5:

Several residents have stated that following the flood they felt that the city and its residents were one cohesive community. Now, they feel that there are divisions between the council and the public, as well as other groups, that no longer make Rushford one community. How do you respond to this and what would you do to break down walls and open the lines of communication?

• Benson - "The doors are always open at city hall. I'm available any time to anyone who wants to talk. We are a public entity and we will chat and listen with anyone who wants to talk. We break down the walls by communication."

• Roberton - "There are groups that have been left out. With the council, it's been the people. The taxpayers. The people that elected them. The council does not pay attention to them."

• Bunke - "That is the key. Communication. Most of the misunderstandings that exist are due to poor communication systems. It needs to be improved. The city needs to work harder at and residents need to be willing to participate in meetings and get involved. It is true that there is a wedge being driven and the cause is poor communication."

• Colbenson - "If I am elected to the council, I'll break those walls down and involve the public."

• Honsey - "The city government should be a reflection of its people and not an opposing force. There are projects moving forward that did not have enough community input and that's a reflection of the council. Also, if people want change, they need to step up to the plate and get involved."

• Wolter - "I've heard a lot in regard to that. There's an entrenchment and ideas in which way the city should move instead of being conciliatory and open to which way we should move. We need to reach out and understand and continue to do that. I don't see it as closed, people just need to come in and start the discussion. I'm always available to discuss community needs."

Question #6:

What is your motivation to continue to be a part of the city council and what do you feel you have to offer to the residents and property owners?

• Benson - "I can be a part of giving and I'd like to be able to give back. The community has been good to me and my family and I'd like to help in some small way. I'd love to be a part of the council for another two years."

• Roberton - "I have an extensive financial background and experience with city government. I have a love of this community and the people in it that's hard to describe. I want to do the best for the city and the people in it."

• Bunke - "I've got experience and I'm surprisingly objective when it's difficult to be objective. I believe I can work with anyone to come to a good, workable solution if given the opportunity, and I'd like to be given that opportunity to help find direction for the place I call home."

• Colbenson - "My motivation is to help the residents hold down the taxes and to stop out of control spending. I have the knowledge to do that."

• Honsey - "I bring a fresh set of views and a difference of opinion. I make my choices based on information and residents of the community. I don't make them to be someone's buddy. I know that parliamentary rules don't change based on the meeting."

• Wolter - "I was appointed to the council and have been at it for 10 months. I'd like to be elected and keep at it. I like to participate in the community in which I live. I've got years of business experience and can help with budgeting and community involvement. I'd like to continue what's been started."

The election is held Tuesday, November 3rd. Exercise your civic duty and vote!

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