City budget priorities, business retention and development in the Little Blue Valley netted plenty of questions and answers during Tuesday's Independence City Council District 3 candidate forum.
Ken Love, Celeste Matthys, Dan O'Neill and Michael Steinmeyer are vying for the seat held by Scott Roberson, who elected not to run for re-election after six years representing the southeast portion of the city. The primary election is Feb. 4, and the top two vote recipients will advance to the April 7 general election.
Walnut Gardens Community of Christ church hosted the forum.
Love, a recently retired truck driver, said he moved to Independence for safety, to be in a place where you could raise a child in a safe neighborhood. He cited crime reduction as the key to business retention in the city and noted his speaking out at city hall against the Van Trust project and retiree health-care cuts.
Matthys, a stay-at-home mother, said Independence isn't unique in the country in having a city government that needs fixing, and she felt she couldn't complain without getting involved
O'Neill, an Air Force veteran and longtime Realtor who two years ago ran for the Missouri House and serves on a couple city committees, said he wants to return respect, honesty, transparency and trust to the council.
Steinmeyer, a Navy veteran and also a Realtor who serves on the parks commission, says he's ready to serve “but more importantly” to listen and not leave citizens feeling shut out.
The hottest topic in District 3 of late has been the proposed Van Trust industrial development in the Little Blue Valley, which for now is pending after it was reworked.
Matthys said she doesn't support the project and wondered if the city could build in what she said is a certified wetland. To build in the area, she said, the city should remember what had been promised to residents years earlier – a church and shops and convenience store in a neighborhood.
O'Neill said the city should consider another location in the valley, as it should balance the needs of the local citizens and the whole community. Independence needs development for jobs, he said, and being in a flood plain development would likely be more industrial than residential.
Steinmeyer said citizens should have some input and city leaders should listen to their ideas, but also consider, “Is it feasible and will it work for the city.”
Love said he would listen to what citizens want and put them first.
To better attract and retain businesses in Independence, Steinmeyer said city hall needs to be more cooperative with prospective businesses and especially embrace small business, as some can grow into larger ones. Matthys and O'Neill both said the city should prioritize what type of businesses it wants to attract. Retail doesn't bring as many well-paying jobs as industrial could, O'Neill said, and Matthys added that a possible city broadband network could be a boon for certain companies and start-ups.
Love, a landlord with several rental properties, noted that it has been difficult sometimes to retain tenants due to crime issues.
All candidates agreed retiree health care and city employees needed to be a higher budget priority going forward. Matthys said the city can't be buying presents before paying the mortgage.
Regarding historic preservation and tourism funding in the city, Matthys and O'Neill said it's important the city can't arbitrarily spend on it. O'Neill added that keeping historic tax credits at the state level would be crucial, but historical tourism “has the aspect of bringing new people into the city.”
Love said he would approve it “if that's where it goes,” but the budget is tight. Steinmeyer said the city needs to find ways to cover nearly $2 million in deferred maintenance for historic sites, and preserving them is helpful for tourism, including to capitalize on large events nearby like the National Football League draft in a few years.
Matthys said she hopes to make the city budget more transparent in real time, to better track spending.
“I don't like it when little bits get up and walk away,” she said.
Love and Steinmeyer both said they would push for an outside budget audit, and Steinmeyer said the city should limit approving projects funded with tax assistance.
“TIFs can help, but we're not good at it,” he said.
O'Neill said the general fund budget is complicated and suggested using citizen feedback to help set budget priorities. Proposition P, which citizens approved to collect internet sales tax revenue and help fund animal services and police, should help, he said, but it must be monitored.