Seven candidates tried to stand out in a race for two seats in the Columbia Heights City Council during a July 14 forum.
An Aug. 11 primary will narrow the field to four candidates ahead of the general election.
Hosted by the League of Women Voters, the forum gave each candidate a minute to respond to questions by the league and submitted by residents online. The video is available online at lwvabcmn.org.
Included in the three questions from the League of Women Voters were the candidates’ goals. Most of the candidates listed improving the Central Avenue corridor among their goals.
Andy Newton said he wants to establish regular focus groups for public input in conversations. He also wants to restart the Columbia Heights Arts Commission and create a soccer field and a dog park in town.
Continuing the facade grant program was one of incumbent Connie Buesgens’ goals. She also wants to strengthen sustainability by focusing on infrastructure and, in the long-term, she wants to increase community policing.
Scott Skaja focused on arts and culture because it attracts people and helps residents feel proud of their community. Skaja plans to limit his time to two terms in office. His long-term goal is increasing diversity in leadership and cross-cultural communication.
Making quality affordable housing available now and in the future was Laura Dorle’s main goal.
Incumbent Robert Williams said supporting the police and fire departments is his short-term goal and finishing the new city hall is his long-term goal.
Julienne Wyckoff said she wants to support young people and minorities moving into town and wants to see people of color in leadership.
Kay Jacobs wants to encourage owner-occupied housing and supports facade grants, and she hopes to update ordinances and remove unnecessary rules.
The budget, and taxes
When asked about future city budgets, most the candidates emphasized Columbia Heights will have to carefully prioritize spending in the coming years.
Williams wants to cap the annual tax increase at no more than 5%. Jacobs wants to reduce spending that relies on bonding.
“We have to be very cautious, we can’t continue bonding,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to have to learn to live within our budget.”
On the revenue side of the budget, candidates had some ideas for increasing the commercial tax base.
Dorle said she saw lots of opportunity in the open space on Central Avenue to bring in businesses that increase the tax base. Wyckoff wants to take a survey of what open spaces and empty buildings exist and figure out what can fit them and then go find those businesses and invite them in.
Newton recommended using arts to attract more residents and visitors. He argued businesses will follow people spending. He also recommended using grants to fund the projects.
“If you create a space where there are people, the businesses will follow,” Newton said.
Buesgens pointed out the city doesn’t have a sales tax so redevelopment is key for collecting revenue. The city could redevelop a few other areas, she said.
Skaja said he would like to explore a sales tax in Columbia Heights.
When it comes to keeping the tax burden affordable for fixed-income residents, most of the candidates’ suggestions related to cutting city spending.
“People cannot afford another referendum slapped onto their tax bills,” Jacobs said. She argued it was driving people from the community.
Buesgens said the housing crisis is a big part of what is driving up property taxes, because higher values mean higher taxes, however the city doesn’t have control over that. She recommended they look into cutting from public safety and public works departments because those are the largest portions of the city budget.
Promoting diversity and combating institutional racism
Most of the candidates emphasized going into the community and talking to people of color to promote diversity and inclusion by learning what roadblocks may be preventing them from participating in city government.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people of color in town, and one of the things they say they come to the meetings and they don’t feel present, they don’t feel recognized,” Newton said.
Wyckoff suggested working with news and local broadcast channels to highlight people of color who own businesses.
When the question came to specifically addressing institutional racism, most of the candidates did not provide a strong solution. Most acknowledged there was an issue, but they did not know the answer. Williams said he didn’t see any issue with race.
Fighting climate change
One question asked by residents was what each candidate thought Columbia Heights could do to fight climate change. Most of the candidates praised the city’s existing tree program.
Wyckoff wants to see more accessible chargers for electric vehicles and a greater emphasis on solar power, among other things.
Newton argued the best option was to give residents more tools to make better environmental choices.
Buesgens praised the extant solar panels on city buildings and pointed out that a climate change action plan is now required to maintain the city’s bond rating.
Williams was skeptical of what caused climate change and what those changes are, though he agreed there are changes happening.
Skaja said he wanted more natural landscape, less empty fields. He also wants to work with businesses to increase solar power. He’s an avid cyclist and wants greater access for cyclists and other non-car transportation.