MORRIS - State funding and taxes were consistent themes in a forum for candidates for Morris City Council late Thursday, Oct. 11 at the American Legion.
The debate featured five of the six candidates running for a seat on the city council:
Brian Solvie, general manager of Independent Farmers Ag Service;
Jim Henricks, a 47-year resident of Morris;
Bill Storck, a current city council member and retired Public Works Director for the City of Morris;
Kevin Wohlers, owner of Taco John's in Morris;
Kara Splitstoser-Robertson, a Morris Area High School graduate and local resident.
Candidate Joshua Gladis did not attend the debate.
Storck, Wohlers and Splitstoser-Robertson are competing for two four-year terms on the council. Solvie, Henricks and Gladis are running for a single two-year term on the council.
The following is a summary of some questions and responses from the forum. A full video from the forum will also be playing on public access television Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. and Fridays at noon and 7:00 p.m.
Old elementary school property
Question: What is your position on the future of the property of the old elementary school?
All five candidates said they believed the old building needed to be demolished, but offered differing opinions on what might be done with the property next.
Both Henricks and Storck said they hoped a developer would be interested in the property, which would help bring in tax revenue to the city.
Wohlers offered some more specifics about he'd like to see on the property after it's sold to a developer, including affordable housing, landscaping and gardens and other amenities for people of all ages.
"I think it's key that we try to do something with that property that's beneficial for all of us," said Wohlers.
In her response, Splitstoser-Robertson said she hoped development would show the city is growing and help attract young families to the area.
Solvie mentioned a previous effort to build a public pool, and said he was in favor of that project even though it would have raised taxes slightly. He also noted it was important for the city to watch the cost on any project.
City streets and infrastructure
Question: A recent survey of Morris residents indicates that citizens want improvement of the city streets? What is your position on future street improvement projects?
Again, all candidates agreed that streets were a concern, but disagreed about whether increasing taxes was necessary or the best solution for infrastructure improvement.
Storck said upcoming projects will be more than roads, including sewer, water and sanitary sewer work, which will not be inexpensive.
Storck also praised the franchise fee, which brings in about $250,000 each year for street overlays.
"It's just one of those things that we have to catch up," said Storck. "It takes a lot of catching up to get these streets done, and that's going to be my goal."
Wohlers said he thinks it is critical to fix city sidewalks. Although it is typically a homeowner expense, Wohlers said he thought the city could develop some sort of cost sharing program to help local homeowners improve sidewalks.
Splitstoser-Robertson asked whether raising property taxes was the right solution for improving infrastructure and advocated looking into other options.
"In my opinion, there are more than just the residents of this community that use those streets and those roads," said Splitstoser-Robertson. "Is it just the homeowner's responsibility to be raising their property taxes?"
Solvie agreed that improvements need to be made, but said he comes back to the cost and what the city can afford to do with less state funding - "I would like to see them fixed, but at what cost to the people on those streets?"
Henricks said it seemed likely that street improvements would cost taxpayers, but said they needed to be done regardless of the cost because otherwise "people will be talking about Morris in a bad way."
Question: What do you believe is the most pressing challenge facing the city of Morris right now?
Wohlers, Splitstoser-Robertson and Solvie said that state funding is currently the city's biggest challenge.
Wohlers suggested looking into creative alternatives for funding, citing a neighborhood matching fund program that has been implemented in Seattle, Wash. In this program, said Wohlers, community members and groups initiate projects that are funded and completed in partnership with the city.
Another challenge, said Solvie, is to bring new businesses to town to build the city's tax base and help pay for projects without increasing taxes or over-taxing for things the city doesn't need.
Henricks believed that infrastructure was a challenge, but said now is a good time to work on these projects because contractors are hungry for work.
Storck highlighted three main concerns - demolishing the old elementary school, expanding the industrial park, and building a larger hangar at the airport.
During the forum, candidates also fielded questions about attracting youth and businesses to the community and advice they have for changes to state policy.
A full video from the forum will also be playing on public access television (Federated Telephone channel 6 and MediaCom channel 8) on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. and Fridays at noon and 7:00 p.m.