NORTH LIBERTY– The four people hoping to secure one of three open seats on the North Liberty City Council came together last Wednesday, Oct. 26, to share their positions on city business.
The League of Women Voters of Johnson County hosted the Council Candidate Forum for North Liberty candidates. The event, moderated by Iowa City Attorney and current North Liberty Board of Adjustment member Allison Werner Smith, was sparsely attended, with just six people in the audience, including current council members, the mayor and two candidates’ wives.
Candidates for the Nov. 8 election include incumbents Coleen Chipman, Chris Hoffman and Terry Donahue, as well as North Liberty resident Matt Zacek. Questions were submitted by the audience members and the League of Women Voters. In addition to questions on public transportation, the size of North Liberty’s police department, sustaining small businesses and intergovernmental cooperation– all of which the candidates each supported in generic fashion– and payday lending services– which all four candidates said they do not support– they were asked to weigh in on the following timely and heavier topics:
Candidates were asked to reiterate their stance on the proposed ward system of council representation, the only other question on the upcoming ballot aside from voting for council members. Three of the four candidates were clearly against it.
Chipman said she felt the proposed ward system gives citizens less representation, since people would only be able to vote for the council candidates running in their own wards. She felt North Liberty is too small for a five-ward system, but that having two wards and three at-large council members made more sense. Finally, Chipman said, she felt the petition for the ward system was a “thinly-veiled attempt to get rid of existing council members. If these people are so concerned, perhaps they should have campaigned to have someone run for council.”
Hoffman was very pointed in his response.
“The only reason it was brought up was because people want to displace the current five council members. Period. You don’t represent your own street when you are on city council. You represent the entire city. It’s about serving all 13,000 people,” said Hoffman.
Zacek was also not in favor of ward representation, concerned that if adopted, certain wards might not produce candidates.
“If the ward system was a viable thing, we’d have more people sitting up here at the table tonight,” said Zacek. “I am not running for council to represent Fox Run, I’m running to represent all of North Liberty.”
Donahue was the only candidate to offer a more moderate perspective, declining to pick a side on the issue.
“By taking a position, one way or the other, you could be looked at as self-serving, and also as a protectionist,” said Donahue. “There is no call for that whatsoever. The issue is out of our hands as a council. I think the people of North Liberty have the wisdom to sift through the entire issue, and when all is done and said, we will abide by the decision when it’s made.”
The candidates were asked whether or not North Liberty has enough, or too much, multi-family housing, with the current council continuing to approve multi-family development. All four cited the local economy and the national housing market as having impacts on housing trends here. Though North Liberty has a current six- to nine-month inventory of multi-family homes for sale, the general consensus among the candidates was that having a surplus of multi-family housing was not necessarily negative, as North Liberty is seeing a trend toward multi-family homes becoming rental properties.
“That question fails to look at the economy,” said Zacek. “We see more and more people going from owning to renting, myself included. I think these multi-family properties need to be looked at as rental, instead of for sale.”
Donahue said the answer is “a moving target in economic times like these,” and he, Chipman and Hoffman all talked about recent joint meetings with the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission and City Planner Dean Wheatley, in which the city’s Land Use Plan was reviewed and modified to better reflect the city’s current zoning and development, growth projections and expectations for future development.
“We need to be flexible with trends that are occurring in the economy,” said Hoffman. “It’s wrong for us to say flatly that we can’t approve any more multi-family housing in North Liberty, because we have to look at what we do from a planning standpoint.”
The candidates all returned similar positions when asked what they would do to support affordable housing in North Liberty and promote investment in the community.
“We need to make sure we are developing North Liberty for everyone, not just for a particular group or demographic,” said Zacek. “I think (we could be) attracting groups or making it a good experience for groups that will come in and build affordable housing.”
Chipman said North Liberty’s percentage of affordable housing is in line with current recommendations.
“Our mobile home parks allow for affordable housing,” said Chipman. “We have been told by developers they cannot afford to build a home under $100,000, which has to do with cost of lots. The best investment would be if an older home is for sale, that would be one way to allow affordable housing within the city.”
Donahue agreed that in other communities, people are looking toward renovating older housing stock into affordable housing options. However, in North Liberty, there is not much older housing available.
“Most of the housing in this community is newer,” said Donahue. “The other problem is, when you ask what is truly ‘affordable,’ there is going to be as many opinions of that as you have people in this room. The question is, are there alternative ways we can build homes for people at a reasonable price that fits within the family budget so people have an opportunity to live in nice, new or remodeled home?”
Hoffman said there is a way, if we can “change our mentality” about home ownership.
“If you came to North Liberty to find a $95,0000 home on an acre of land, someone misrepresented when you came here,” said Hoffman. “Developers will tell you it’s not possible to build a (single family) home in that price range. It isn’t that we don’t have a supply of affordable housing, but a terrific duplex in a townhome or zero lot is an affordable option. Whether we get into position of building homes more affordably and providing subsidies is not a conversation we are having a lot in North Liberty and we haven’t had a lot of inquires about that.”
Tax Increment Financing
Werner-Smith asked the candidates whether or not they support the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for community projects, and what they thought of the recent decision by the City of Coralville to use TIF to attract a new Von Maur store away from the Sycamore Mall in Iowa City to Coralville’s River Landing area.
Again, Hoffman did not beat around the bush.
“I wish TIF never existed,” said Hoffman. “It was a great idea when it was first used, but it evolved into something so out of control it is abused in a lot of circumstances.” However, Hoffman went on to say that there is an irony in that communities that don’t use TIF could miss opportunities for growth.
“If you don’t use it you are sometimes going to get left behind. If used responsibly and in the spirit of what it’s meant to do– to become a place where business can come and grow, consolidate services and spur jobs, that’s the job it’s meant to do and you’ve’ utilized the tool correctly. If you are using it to take away a business from another community, you are missing the point of it,” Hoffman said.
“It does seem to be a ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ approach, but it is the tool we have available now to attract businesses. But it needs to be used responsibly; we can’t use it to steal businesses from other towns.”
Chipman feels TIF revenues should be spent in the area(s) where the urban renewal district was created, and that each TIF agreement should have a sunset, rather than be carried out for many years. However, she indicated she favors the judicial use of TIF.
“It does impact the county and schools,” she said, “but people forget that if development would not have occurred, we would never have collected those taxes in the first place. If the business didn’t build it here, they’d build it somewhere else.”
Donahue said he takes a very conservative approach to using TIF.
“When (development using TIF) is strictly job transferral, I can’t do it, but if it means job creation, that’s what we are after. TIF can be a very useful tool. It’s supposed to be used for job growth or creation of a business or industry; as long as it makes a valuable contribution to a community.”
The audience wanted to know the candidates’ viewpoints on North Liberty’s quality of life for its senior population. Donahue said he does fear they get passed over sometimes where services are concerned, activities for seniors are rather limited, and he does not see an organization actively advocating for senior citizens like in Iowa City.
“I think, if it’s a lack of participation, then that’s their problem. If we aren’t advertising it enough, then shame on us,” Donahue said. In addition, he would like to see housing options for residents 55 and older that offer a self-contained, village-style of senior living.
Chipman said she feels North Liberty does offer a number of events and activities geared toward seniors, such as Friday meals, with the opportunity to socialize with card games and bingo.
“I do see seniors using our trail system, and on the east side of town there is a new housing development with parking underneath (the homes), which is ideal for seniors,” said Chipman.
Zacek said he thinks transportation options for seniors is one area in which North Liberty is lacking.
“One of the misses is a small, eight to 12 passenger van that can make laps in the morning and afternoon,” said Zacek, because the current bus that goes between North Liberty and Coralville would require people to wait eight hours between trips to appointments. “We need some type of system, senior based or for everyone, that can handle some of that small, daily chores type of busing.”
Hoffman said the question “misses the mark of what’s happening in North Liberty. The demographic in North Liberty– and I’m not trying to slight the older population– but the main demographic is young families with children. And our recreation services, our library, are made available to anyone in the community.”
Hoffman mentioned that the Jefferson Point senior housing facility on the northeast edge of town had a hard time filling its units for a number of years.
“The true test of our ability to attract seniors is the larger facility behind Eggys,” Hoffman said, referring to the North Liberty Living Center designed for residents 55 and up. “If that is successful that is going to tell us we have a demographic that is changing. I think seniors come here because they can continue to pursue an active lifestyle.”
Finally, all candidates offered their ideas of North Liberty’s biggest challenge over the next four years. As expected for a community with a population increase of 149.2 percent in the last 10 years, all answers related to rapid growth.
Chipman said a major concern is to see what the state legislature does regarding commercial property taxes, and that North Liberty must remain proactive in its commercial and industrial development.
“The money aspect of that is keeping taxes low and still providing services. We lowered taxes by 17 cents last year. I don’t want to raise taxes a lot, but we still need to provide services,” said Chipman.
Hoffman said the challenge will be to manage expectations as to what development North Liberty can take on and still pay the bills.
“I feel confident in our staff’s abilities to be conservative in those estimates, but we can’t sit on our hands. We can’t put ourselves behind in services because we are afraid to pay an extra penny in property tax, for example.”
Hoffman encouraged citizens who disagree with council decisions on growth to communicate their concerns.
Donahue pointed out the major infrastructure projects accomplished by the current council in the last four years, but cautioned that as growth continues, “we don’t want to find ourselves behind the 8-ball like we were a number of years ago.” He added that the city should be careful about how it pursues annexation, since annexation requires expansion of city services at a great cost to the city.
“We need to look to develop inside before looking to develop outside city limits,” Donahue concluded.
Over the course of the evening, Zacek addressed the issue of growth in several of his responses, reiterating that North Liberty’s services must stay in line with its population.
“We have to make sure that we right-size all the things that go with growth, like the police department, the fire department, transportation services and businesses,” said Zacek. “I am a huge proponent of shopping locally, and I would love for North Liberty to attract businesses that could let everyone shop here for the things they need on a daily basis.”