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Narrowing the choices: Hwy 965 and growth issues dominate NL candidates forum

NORTH LIBERTY — The five men who want to serve on the city council faced the voters Wednesday night for a public forum. The Oct. 21 event was held in the council chambers and was co-sponsored by North Liberty Development and the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Thomas Salm will run unopposed for another mayoral term, while Councilman Gerry Kuhl was joined by challengers Brian Wayson, David Grex, and Jonathan Waller for two open council seats. Kuhl took the opportunity to formally endorse Wayson as a replacement for Councilman James Wozniak, whose term is expiring.
Local businessman Dennis Tallman, president of North Liberty Development, and Rebecca Neades, vice president and director of public policy for the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, moderated the event.
Following opening remarks from each candidate, Tallman and Neades alternated asking prepared questions. Not surprisingly, Highway 965 and the rapid growth of North Liberty were mentioned frequently in questions and candidate answers.
When asked for their top three issues, all five included the growth of North Liberty.
For Grex, it’s a question of attracting more commercial enterprises to the area, and ensuring the infrastructure is there to support them. Mayor Salm, with 10 years involvement on the council, said with growth comes issues.
“All of our issues have been related to growth,” Salm said. “We need to be aware of them (the growth issues) constantly. The mayor pointed to recent improvements in the city’s waste water management and water systems as ways the city’s infrastructure is expanding in an effort to keep up.
“It’s a continual process,” he added.
Incumbent Kuhl said he wants to manage the growth the city has experienced over the past 10 years and sees “sensible spending” and partnerships with other agencies as the way to do so.
Waller, who expressed his frustration with the current state of the council in North Liberty, offered his assessment of the growth.
“I think we in some ways need to catch up,” Waller said. “That’s not to say we haven’t tried, or previous councils haven’t tried, but I still think a lot needs to be done.”
Wayson tied growth with the ongoing Highway 965 situation.
“The highway is a problem, but I think some of that has been led to by the rapid growth over the last couple of years,” Wayson said. Like the others, he wants to see the infrastructure catch up in order to encourage growth.
“The growth got a little bit ahead of us,” Salm conceded. We just got a little behind the eight ball.”
The candidates were asked what they would do if a $40 million grant for improvements to Highway 965 did not come through.
Salm compared the grant process to the lottery.
“If you win it, you’re really happy, but the odds are you aren’t going to get it. So, we’re not really planning to have that money.” Salm added tax dollars will need to be used to make the improvements while the city continues to look for grants and government help.
“The highway is going to be paid for by the citizens, essentially,” he said.
Kuhl echoed Salm in saying he would continue to look for outside sources of funding for the project, which he said would be “a long 10 to 15 years” done in seven phases. Kuhl also proposed getting the “the people who use the road,” and other “creative sources” to finance the project.
“I would look to other sources, other than the people of North Liberty,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl noted the approximately $3.5 million being spent this year on the project will add roughly 40 to 50 cents to the tax levy after it had been reduced by about 42 cents. He added the project could conceivably be done in two years, but at an additional $5 to $6 dollars per thousand on the tax levy.
“I don’t think the citizens of North Liberty would support that,” Kuhl said.
“I would also lobby very heavy in Washington,” Waller said, echoing Salm and Kuhl. In the meantime, “I think we need to start somewhere, if we need to do it in seven phases or if we need to do it in 50 phases, we need to start. We need to start doing something. It’s been a problem for many years. I’d hate to see it continue to be a problem.”
Wayson agreed with Waller’s assessment that improvements need to come quickly.
“We really need to get some turn signals and turn lanes out there, at least to improve traffic flow and improve safety,” Wayson said. “I don’t think we can expect the people who are business owners pay to for this road; it has to be a shared responsibility.\ Wayson called for a careful look at the plans