Independence can and must do better at addressing such issues as electric rates in order to keep and attract businesses, the two candidates for mayor said Wednesday.
The candidates – City Council members Eileen Weir and Jim Schultz – are on the April 8 ballot. They spoke at a forum at the monthly Independence Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
They complimented each other, spoke of their leadership philosophies and took questions.
“The kind of leadership I believe in is citizen engagement,” said Weir, who was elected in the city’s 4th District two years ago.
Schultz, an at-large council member for 12 years, said he sees running as “not to promote myself to the top but rather to take my turn at the helm.”
The candidates, who saw the questions in advance, were asked different questions based on numbers they drew, but there was some overlap. Both candidates addressed growth, attracting business and utility rates.
Asked about Independence Power and Light’s high commercial rates compared with other utilities in the area, Weir pointed out that IPL had made needed upgrades in safety and other areas, and she said she expects rates to stay steady in the years ahead, possibly at lower levels than other utilities.
“I believe Kansas City Power & Light and BPU (in Kansas City, Kan.) will soon match us if not exceed us,” she said, adding that since the city owns its electric utility it could, under the right circumstances, use rates to encourage a company to come to town.
IPL has phased in several rate increases in recent years, but Schultz said city staff can be directed to sit down and see if rates can now be reduced.
“And I think that would step one towards retaining existing businesses as well as attracting new ones,” he said.
Schultz, who said he considers Weir a friend and campaigned for her two years ago, also underlined his experience in city government as well as ties to regional efforts. He also pointed out that he’s been mayor pro tempore for the last four years, filling in as needed for Mayor Don Reimal, who’s retiring after 20 years on the council.
“I’ve actually done the job as mayor the last four years,” Schultz said.
“My experience is not very long on the City Council,” said Weir, “by my experience in the community is very, very deep.”
She said many things are going well in the city, “but I believe we can do better,” adding that the city deserves a bigger voice in Jackson County. She said her top priority is growth and increasing city revenues.
“We have a tremendous amount to offer businesses and our residents,” she said.
Among the questions posed to the candidates:
• To Schultz, what about the perception that new businesses find the city hard to work with?
Schultz said larger companies, with regional or national reach, tend to know what kinds of permits are needed, “but if you’re a small business just getting started, it’s tough.” He suggested the city have an ombudsman to walk new businesses through that process.
• To Weir, what specific goals do you have for the city’s business climate in 2030? She said electric rates need attention, as do public safety, reducing blight and improving the city’s various gateways.
Independence “has a charm that cannot be matched anywhere in the area, if not the country,” but some entrances to the city don’t reflect that, she said. She’s been working with a group to beautify the Truman Road entrance on the city’s west side.
“And again, that didn’t happen overnight,” she said.
• To Schultz, what are your top three budget priorities? He said those are following the City Charter and balancing the budget; public safety issues such as good pay for police, fire and ambulance workers; and taking care of streets, park and stormwater issues.
“And it shows people that we care about our community,” he said regarding parks and potholes.
• To Weir, what are your thoughts on tax-increment financing? TIF is a means by which new tax money from development is earmarked for costs associated with that project, often making the difference between whether or not a project goes forward.
Weir said some projects have not gone well but most – she cited Hy-Vee on Noland Road and the new Burlington Coat Factory on U.S. 40 – have succeeded.
“Most of our TIF projects have performed very, very well,” she said, adding that it’s effective tool in the right circumstances.
• To Schultz, how should the city take better advantage of its many historic sites?
The answer is not cutting the city’s tourism budget, he said,
“In other cities, it’s been tried, and it’s been a disaster,” he said.
He suggested getting more volunteers, who the Tourism Department relies on for staffing several facilities.
• To Weir, how should the city try to attract young professionals? She said market-rate housing is needed around the Square, and she said the community needs to be walkable and have a little nightlife.
“We have plenty of young professionals who are in Independence every day. We just need to keep them,” she said.
The chamber is posting the candidates written responses to its questions at ichamber.biz.