These are additional highlights from the March 13 Independence candidates forum at the North Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library, which featured mayoral candidates Jim Schultz and Eileen Weir, council member at-large candidate Karen DeLuccie and council member District 3 candidate Scott Roberson:
• Do you think the Power & Light Department should attempt to eliminate coal completely from the options for power supply, and would you be opposed to changing IPL weather rules to bring it more in line with surrounding communities?
Roberson said the coal issue is something that needs to be looked at, particularly noting the Missouri City power plant, and that consistency with weather rules should be something to strive for.
Weir said the city should “proceed very cautiously” with possibly eliminating coal, which remains the most economical and plentiful option, she noted. “The minute natural gas becomes cheaper,” she said, “we’ll flip the switch.”
Schultz said he would rely on advice from the PUAB (Public Utilities Advisory Board).
• What improvements to you support or propose for the older, western part of Independence?
Schultz said that just as the decline of the western portion of the city was gradual, bringing it back will take a lot of time. He mentioned the various residential improvement projects, as well as the repurposing of the old Independence Regional Health Center building when answering a similar question later.
Weir emphasized support for the schools in that area, and DeLuccie said the city needs to make the area more business-friendly. “Houses will follow,” she said.
Roberson applauded the neighborhood associations in that area and offered the possibility that more police patrols in the area could help.
• Would you consider a wage rate higher than the federal minimum wage – why and why not?
All said in some form that they would support the possibility, that the current minimum is not a livable wage. Weir said when she and her husband travel, the shops and restaurants they visit tend to be staffed by adults trying to make their way. DeLuccie said she pays above the minimum in her office, and Schultz said that the country perhaps has lost sight of why the minimum wage was instituted in the first place.
• Would you recommend auditing our Tourism Department? Is the Events Center taking resources away from our Heritage Tourism Program? The citizen posing the question said heritage tourism numbers have dropped from 400,000 to 200,000 during a time period the department’s budget nearly tripled from $500,000 to $1.4 million.
Schultz said he was open to any audit, and DeLuccie and Roberson also supported the idea. DeLuccie said “Tourism could be such a cash cow, and I wonder if we’re getting enough bang for our buck.”
Weir pointed out that the tourism budget is funded by the city’s “bed tax” and that coffer could grow with the new hotel being constructed at Crackerneck Creek. She wondered if an audit wasn’t necessary as much as shifting the focus of resources more toward visitor experience rather than marketing.
• Why was the “Bass Pro area” developed without the city being protected with surety bonds from the developer? (Directed for Schultz, but open to all for answers.)
Schultz, who was on the City Council when that item was passed, said jokingly that hindsight can make anyone look like a genius. “We had the best possible advice,” he said, referring to the city’s finance experts. “If you had the same information we had at the time, you might have made the same decision.”
DeLuccie said project was a “terrible mistake.” Weir said she remembered thinking when the project was first proposed that it could go poorly for the city, but economic conditions at that time indicated that wasn’t likely.
• What happened to the profits from the Power & Light plant over the last 50 years? The questioner said they believed profits couldn’t be spent or put in the general fund.
DeLuccie said that is one of the audits she is most eager to look at. Schultz emphasized that the IPL fund is separate from the city’s general fund, and Weir emphasized how expensive plant maintenance can be and said IPL funds sometimes are contributed toward general fund priorities. She also pointed out that the new LED streetlights around the city are courtesy of IPL.
• Why were we denied the opportunity to vote on the Events Center? (Directed for Schultz, but open to all for answers.)
Schultz said businesses in the general area of the IEC voted to tax themselves to provide funds for the building. DeLuccie said citizens should have been able to vote, given the project’s cost.
Weir said she admits the structure of the Events Center’s management can be hard to understand. “It’s an asset to the community, but it needs to be self-sufficient,” she said.
• Closing statements.
Roberson said he “only wants the best for Independence” and emphasized his ability to view issues rationally.
DeLuccie said, “I’m very deliberative, I read a lot, I don’t vote unless I know what I’m talking about and I ask a lot of questions.”
Weir said there’s a temptation to continue business as usual, and while Independence is doing good, “I think we can do better.” She wishes to improve citizen engagement and participation and said the city’s next mayor needs to be someone who can start the conversation and facilitate finding solutions.
Schultz said it’s been an honor for him to serve on City Council for 12 years. “I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I’m going to serve you honorably and humbly.”