Some of the candidates for New Hope City Council talked about their concerns involving the business climate, taxes, public safety and waste removal in the city during the July 1 League of Women Voters forum.
Incumbents John Elder and Jonathan London joined challenger Michael J. Daly II for the discussion.
Candidate Don Siler did not attend but provided a statement about his candidacy. The fifth candidate, Joseph W. Theuri, did not participate.
The Aug. 9 primary will eliminate one of the five candidates, with four candidates moving on to the general election in November. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the general election will serve on the New Hope City Council for the next term starting in January.
All New Hope City Council seats are elected as at-large positions, meaning all voters in the city can vote for candidates rather than solely those in a particular ward.
Councilmember John Elder indicated he believes the city has improved during his time on the council.
“When I got onto the City Council in 2008, things were not great,” Elder said. “Other council members and I worked hard to address the challenges that were before us. Staff was leaving in droves. Financial audits were showing inadequacies, and morale was exceptionally low. Through hard work of that council and many councils thereafter, we have things well at hand.”
Employee retention is now high and the annual audits are “flawless,” Elder said.
However, he added, “Our city looks better than ever, but don’t be fooled. We still have work to do. We will work to make this a better place.”
He named a curb appeal grant program as one way city leaders are seeking to spruce up New Hope.
London indicated he believes the city has improved during his time on the council as well.
“Since my initial run for the City Council in 2014, we have made significant progress improving the vitality of New Hope through increased property values, stronger long-term infrastructure management, new single-family housing and business redevelopment,” London said.
He said he is most proud of the city’s scattered site housing program, in which the city buys and replaces single-family houses; a city performance management report with objectives for directors and other staff; a police annual report; a street maintenance program; the redevelopment of the city center; Xylon Avenue streetscape improvements, ordinance enforcement he described as more effective; a storm water project at Northwood Park; a reduction in city debt levels and more accounting analysis.
“While we have made improvements in many areas, the city is still challenged with repetitive ordinance violators, significant 911 calls, aged city infrastructure, commercial buildings and residential housing,” London said. “Many of these challenges can be improved on. Our future goals are for greater fiscal responsibility, effective and accountable public safety, proactive ordinance enforcement, continued housing and business redevelopment and ensuring a strong transition of the next city manager.”
Daly said in a brief opening statement that he believes the city is doing quite well at the moment, but he said, “There’s always room for progress.”
He added, “I think there’s a great partnership between the cities in this area, and I think that’s something that can also be built upon and expanded as well.
Siler said in his written statement, “I believe New Hope is a good place to live, and I would like to help keep it that way. Having lived here for four years, I will provide a fresh look at the city and its operations. People need to be able to feel safe and secure in the city, including housing, jobs, education and public safety.”
Siler said he believes the city needs to keep housing affordable and that the city needs to remain fiscally responsible. With housing, he said he wants to scrutinize the number of corporations and investment funds buying up residential properties.
Siler said he has concerns that Acting City Manager Tim Hoyt’s role as police chief.
“It seems like a conflict of interest at best and will require keeping a close eye on upcoming budgets,” Siler’s statement said.
He concluded his statement by calling for the city to codify abortion rights.
An audience member question asked candidates whether the city should be subsidizing the replacement of single-family houses instead of leaving the issue to the open market.
Elder responded, “What we’re seeing is these homes are being purchased and flipped.”
A home may be resold for a higher price with minimal work completed on it, he said. The city’s effort to replace lower-value homes with newer homes “is greatly increasing the availability of higher-end homes,” Elder argued.
London responded by saying, “I have already told city staff that I’ll take them out to dinner if and when the open market starts to acquire housing in the city of New Hope, tear them down and speculatively build new, higher-end homes. The challenge is that many of the scattered site arms are in challenging areas. They’re challenging lots.”
He added, “What we’re trying to do is update many dilapidated homes throughout the city. We’ve done a fantastic job. It’s elevated the pricing of all homes in the city. It has a contagious impact. And if and when we get the open market to start doing these things, you can bet I’ll be saying to stop putting taxpayers’ money to work.”
Daly criticized the program, though, by stating that he believes the city is losing money initially on the sites.
In general, Daly said, “Houses are selling for quite a bit more than they were before. And if people are buying them and revamping them, I think that might be a better situation in the long run.”
On their top issues, London said the council has struggled to reduce spending but that he believes “that’s the overarching priority” for him. His second priority is public safety, potentially including hiring a new police chief, depending on whether Hoyt is hired as the permanent city manager.
Daly said he also sees an issue with property taxes.
“I think the current system is flawed at best,” said Daly, who added that he believes more thought needs to be put into property tax increases and assessed home values. “I know my taxes went up well more than the rate of inflation. I don’t think that should be how it works.”
Elder said public safety is a top priority for him since it touches the lives of all residents. The police department needs to keep up with technology and legal changes that affect operations, he said.
His second priority relates to what he called a “serious issue that we’re having with inflow and infiltration.”
The city is making headway with lining sanitary sewers and ensuring roads are properly paved to reduce infiltration, Elder said.
“The Met Council is holding a big hammer over our head with a big fine amount if we don’t, so this is something we really need to keep an eye on,” he said.
To a question on the city’s business climate, Elder said new businesses are coming to town, but he said that he is greatly disheartened by vacancies and stores that are “a dime a dozen” and “not real destination stores” in the city’s strip malls.
London said the business climate is “definitely improving,” highlighting restaurants in the city, but he pointed to the city’s size and aging commercial buildings that are limited in their uses as challenges. He said he would like city staff to seek to attract an “S&P 500-type business” to the city “that would really bring some attention to New Hope.”
Daly agreed with the other candidates in attendance that the city’s strip malls “are starting to deteriorate.” He said he would support beautification projects.
“There’s a lot of diverse businesses as of now, and there’s room for improvement there as well,” Daly said.
The final audience question focused on a lack of service for yard waste removal, an issue that has plagued many cities in the area this summer.
“I think that there needs to be consideration for other companies that can do a better job, if that’s what needs to happen to get the job done,” said Daly, who questioned the validity of contracts of businesses do not perform their duties. “I don’t think that we can keep accepting excuses, like they can’t find the people to work.”
Elder called the situation frustrating and said he has received more calls on the issue than any other topic lately.
“People are getting charged fuel surcharges for trucks that aren’t even coming around,” Elder said. “That borders on theft. We’re getting charged for something that we’re not getting.”
He argued the council should consider pulling the licenses of such businesses if they do not fulfill their promises.
London said the city needs to have that option but called it “a little severe in these instances.” He pointed out that he has supported an organized waste hauling system in the city rather than leaving it up to residents to contract with waste removal businesses.
“It didn’t go anywhere and it likely won’t go anywhere until we see different people on the council,” London said.
A video of the full debate is available at ccxmedia.org/city_programs/in-the-community.