Baldwin City Council candidates state views, define themselves at forum
Although few sharp differences emerged, a forum for the seven people running for three Baldwin City Council seats did provide a venue for candidates to express their views on a number of important issues while allowing them to define themselves.
The forum Thursday at The Lodge attracted about 30 residents to hear the views of six of the seven candidates seeking one of the three council seats on the April 7 ballot. Candidates Steven Bauer, Tony Brown, Bonnie Plumberg, David Simmons and Shane Starkey attended in person and Casey Simoneau participated via Skype from a Kansas Highway Patrol training he was attending in Salina. Candidate April Coburn was unable to attend or participate in the event the Baldwin City Chamber of Commerce and Baldwin City Republican Club sponsored.
If there was general agreement on many issues, the candidates did attempt to differentiate themselves by frequently hitting on themes, first in the introductions and then in answers to questions. For Plumberg, who is seeking another term on the council after a two-year absence, the go-to phase was managed growth. Simmons returned often to the concept of community and shared values, and Simoneau pledged repeatedly to be “open minded” and seek regular discourse with the public.
Brown referred to his past experience on the council and as a state representative in stating a desire again to serve where he could make the biggest difference. Bauer, too, referred to his past experience as a council member in an Oklahoma town.
Incumbent Starkey said he was seeking re-election because he enjoyed his time on the council the past four years. During that time, the city had made progress and put the city on solid fiscal ground, he said.
The city’s capital improvement plan, which was the subject of the first question to the candidates, was an example of fiscal planning, Starkey said. The question asked the candidates if the CIP got the city’s priorities right. The council is now undertaking its annual review of CIP projects from a list developed a year ago and last week heard updates of two possible projects on that list, the Lumberyard Arts Center theater project and a Baldwin Parks and Recreation Center community center. A new Baldwin City police station was the top need on the list when it was approved last year.
Starkey said the council approved its first-ever CIP a year ago so that it could be proactive in its planning. The council was now aware of needed improvements and not scrambling to catch up with existing needs, he said. The dollar figures in the plan, such as the $2.5 million for a new public works headquarters and $1.8 million for a police station, were “placeholders” to help the council with funding decisions, he said.
Simmons invoked his community theme in response to the question. He noted that several of the CIP projects were quality-of-life improvements and cited the popularity and benefits of the North Sixth Street multi-use trail built in 2012, which has fostered community as residents came together while enjoying the outdoors, he said. A downtown theater and community center could do the same while making the city more attractive to potential new residents, he said.
Candidates Bauer and Simoneau expressed concern about the projects’ costs and how they would be paid for. He would undertake a “two-way conversation” with residents about ranking the CIP list, Simoneau said.
She hadn’t studied the CIP with the goal of ranking the list but would if elected, Plumberg said. She did, however, acknowledge the need for a new police station and noted a community center was the top citizen-identified needs in a study completed for the city when she was on the council.
Plumberg also expressed support for the Lumberyard theater in an answer to a later question on the appropriateness of the council partnering with a nonprofit to build the facility. The theater would help revitalize downtown and be an economic-development asset to the city, she said.
The question about the Lumberyard theater suggested it was unprecedented for the city to enter into a financial partnerships with nonprofits, Bauer said. That wasn’t the case, he said, pointing to the city’s longstanding partnership with the Maple Leaf Festival, which he said has paid dividends for the city.
Brown agreed with that observation and also stated the theater would bring value to the community. He added that as past president of the Lumberyard Arts Center, the theater would not be completed without some form of public involvement.
There was a greater range of opinion on the question of the city providing tax abatements as a tool of economic development.
Plumberg repeated her earlier comment that she was pro-growth as long as it was managed growth that allowed Baldwin City to maintain its distinct character and didn’t make it “another Gardner.” She would support abatements for the right company that would benefit the city, she said.
Simmons focused on the commercial side of economic development and what new businesses could offer Baldwin City customers. If a business provided something not offered to residents, he would consider incentives, he said.
Simoneau said his approach would reflect his family’s roots in western Kansas where people prospered through their own hard work. The city’s first priority for incentives should be to help existing local businesses that had already invested in the community. As for new business, he would consider abatements if that company was a good fit, he said
Bauer said he tended not to favor tax abatement because companies weren’t held accountable for providing the benefits promised when the incentives were improved.
Brown agreed there had to be accountability but added that abatements should be tied to the quality of jobs a company would bring to the community. He proposed rather than offer abatements to any company coming to the door, the city should define the kinds of companies it wanted to come to the community and structure its abatement policy accordingly. That would make the city’s economic development efforts more efficient, he said.