Burchill, O’Malley talk city issues in mayoral debateHudson’s public library, the city budget, street maintenance, police department staffing, the school district’s plan to buy St. Croix Meadows dog track and more were addressed Wednesday night in a debate between mayoral candidates Alan Burchill and Scot O’Malley.
Hudson’s public library, the city budget, street maintenance, police department staffing, the school district’s plan to buy St. Croix Meadows dog track and more were addressed Wednesday night in a debate between mayoral candidates Alan Burchill and Scot O’Malley.
Burchill, the incumbent, stressed the need to live within a tight city budget and attract businesses to Hudson in his comments.
O’Malley called for increased spending for the library and a more open city government.
The debate, sponsored by the news website Hudson Patch, was held in the main theater at The Phipps Center for the Arts. Patch editor Micheal Foley served as moderator. About 75 people attended the event, which will be shown on Comcast cable channel 15, The River Channel.
“One person can make a difference, and that is why I want to continue as mayor,” Burchill said in his opening statement.
He said the city experienced a $250,000 loss in revenue for this year’s budget and was prohibited by state law from increasing the tax levy more than $69,000.
The cuts in state aid were part of the 2011-13 state budget adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.
His objective, Burchill said, was to achieve a balanced budget that didn’t lay off any city employees and gave them a 1-percent pay increase.
The small increase was to compensate for employees beginning to contribute 5.9 percent of their pay to their retirement plans.
“We did that. And it was hard,” Burchill said. “Every department in the city feels they are underfunded.”
One position in the police department did go unfilled after former Lt. Paul Larson retired.
Burchill said he would like to have more money to spend on street repairs, the police and the library, but it just isn’t there.
“We should run lean and mean,” he said later in response to a question about what “leadership lessons” he had learned in his nearly one and a half years as mayor. The city should operate like a business, he said.
He said attracting companies to Hudson’s business parks was one of his top priorities and touted Uline Shipping Supply Specialists’ decision to build a $25.5 million distribution center here.
The new facility will add $85,000 annually to the city’s tax revenue, he said, adding that he expects some of the employees relocating to the facility to also decide to make Hudson their home.
O’Malley said that being able to balance a budget is important, and something he can do, too. But he has a vision for Hudson that goes beyond immediate budget concerns and looks toward the future of the city, he said.
“I want us talking about the future of the city,” he said.
Later, O’Malley advocated a return to operating the public library as a municipal library and increasing the tax support for it to the level required by the state.
“If you think the library is important, then I’m your guy,” he said.
O’Malley said if city funding for the library isn’t increased, residents will pay increased library taxes anyway, but the money will go to St. Croix County and be split among all the libraries in the county.
In late February, it came to light that the city hasn’t been funding the library to the level required by state law. If the city doesn’t increase its library appropriation, which was $278,910 for 2012, city taxpayers will no longer be exempt from the county’s library tax.
O’Malley referred to a Feb. 28 meeting in which the library board’s steering committee informed the top elected leaders of the municipalities that operate the library of the situation.
He quoted Burchill as saying that shutting down the library should be considered as an option.
Burchill said O’Malley was misrepresenting what he said, noting that he also said “it would be a crime” to close the library.
Because of the state limit on how much the city can increase property tax revenue, the city can’t increase the library’s budget without taking money from other departments, Burchill said.
The city’s taxpayers can be asked in a referendum for permission to exceed the state levy limit.
O’Malley indicated that spending on street repairs also would be a priority for him if he was elected mayor. He said he served as chair of the City Council’s Public Works Committee for six years and was proud that the annual budget for street repairs increased from $75,000 to $275,000 during that time.
He said Hudson residents can have a “castle” for a house but if you have to drive through potholes to get to it, the house's value is diminished.
In response to question from audience member Heidi Laatsch about the first thing he would do if elected mayor, O’Malley said he would stop the flow of $100,000 of city revenue to a “third-party vendor.” He would make the vendor conform with city policy, he said.
O’Malley didn’t name the vendor.
“He’s talking about the Chamber of Commerce,” Burchill said.
Over the past several years, the city has increased its lodging tax funding of the Tourism Bureau arm of the chamber from 40 percent of the tax revenue to 70 percent.
“I’m guilty. I support the chamber,” Burchill said. He said the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau has done a tremendous job of promoting the city to visitors.
He told of meeting a Twin Cities man who said he and his wife started coming to Hudson regularly to dine after seeing an ad promoting the city in the Mpls./St. Paul Magazine.
O’Malley also criticized Burchill for wanting a “quiet” city government. The incumbent’s philosophy, he said, is “don’t tell people anything.”
He said a $13,000 contract to design a new website for the city went to a Manhattan, Kan., company without a local web design company, Wiscota Systems, being given the opportunity to bid on the project.
The City Council quietly ended the free spring and fall yard waste collection program and informed resident that they would have purchase the service from the garbage hauler Veolia, O’Malley said.
“That is a tax that is being pushed down on you in the form of a service charge,” he said.
And he criticized Burchill for the number of items placed on the City Council’s consent agenda, which generally is approved without discussion at council meetings.
“The idea that we don’t have an open government, that’s almost offensive, Scot,” Burchill responded. He said every check the city writes can be viewed on its website.
He said the council’s Finance Committee made a decision to require that companies bidding for the city’s website project have previous government experience, which is why Wiscota Systems didn’t qualify for the work.
Burchill also noted that about a half-dozen footraces were approved as part of the consent agenda at the council’s last meeting. Each was discussed and recommended for approval by the council’s Public Safety Committee, he noted.
“I don’t think we need a full discussion of running events,” he said.