Fairmont council candidates meet in forum
FAIRMONT — All eight hopefuls for a seat on the Fairmont City Council offered their insights on a variety of topics during a candidate forum on Thursday at Fairmont City Hall.
All candidates were asked the same questions dealing with financing street improvements, handling city debt not included in the budget, use of the half-cent local option sales tax money, council priorities for 2021 and the need for more local child care providers.
The panel featured at-large candidates Tom Hawkins and Michele Miller; Ward 4 candidates Wayne Hasek and Terry Anderson; and Ward 2 candidates Ruth Cyphers, Britney Kawecki, Joe Loughmiller and Ron Lindberg.
The candidates were united in looking for different ways to fund street improvements but offered varied opinions as to the method of funding.
Cyphers called the recently approved franchise fee on natural gas customer bills “a start” that “hopefully” will lead to the eventual end of current method of assessing property owners.
The fee adds about $4 per month on natural gas bills, raising about $265,000 annually for street improvements.
Kawecki lobbied for attracting more people to Fairmont to increase the tax base.
Lindberg brought up the possibility of using liquor store profits to fund street improvements.
Loughmiller said there was no easy answer but supported the franchise fee as opposed to bonding for the projects, something that costs the city more than $100,000 annually in interest alone.
The shortage of child care providers has been a problem for many years, Cyphers said. Although she didn’t speak to any specifics, she voiced her support for the work of Linsey Preuss, Fairmont economic development coordinator, who has been working with different agencies and groups to alleviate the issue. Loughmiller and Kawecki pointed to the onus of governmental regulations faced by providers. Loughmiller mentioned the possibility of collaborating with the school district to create a vocational program for certified child care providers.
Lindberg called it a “thorny issue” that needs to be resolved. He and Kawecki noted the YMCA programming at the proposed community center would include a child care program.
Hasek said he cast a dissenting vote against the franchise fee for street improvements, believing it is just another tax he could not support as long as property owners were still being assessed.
Anderson questioned the value of a community center at the present time and pushed to use the local option sales tax, currently earmarked for the center, for infrastructure instead.
In his closing statement, Hasek reminded residents that the tax must be used for recreational amenities as approved by voters in the 2016 election and also the state Legislature.
Anderson said he liked the idea of using liquor store profits as well as the “pillow tax” collected on hotel stays to cover unexpected expenses not included in the budget.
Hasek thought that the city incurred a “lot of waste” in legal fees in the last year because of changes in city staff, but he cautioned against relying on liquor store profits to cover unplanned expenses. These profits already are included in the annual budget for special projects, he said, and the Legislature at any time might approve private businesses, such as grocery stores, to sell hard liquor in the future, action which could take a bite out of the municipal store funds.
Hawkins said the city’s additional expenses from staffing changes and legal fees were not as severe as the “false number” of $680,000 reported in the Sentinel. Claiming that the number was inflated “on purpose,” he said the “true” amount was in upward of $300,000.
Miller said unexpected expenses will always occur, but they must be dealt with as they arise as well as in the next budget session.
Hawkins called his first four years on the council “a good start” and said the council’s disunity is in the past, pointing out the unanimous decisions on the 2021 budget and the hiring of a new city administrator and city attorney.
Miller said the council’s past actions had a negative impact on developers and businesses looking to invest in city. Council members don’t have to agree on everything, she said, but it matters how their actions and words affect Fairmont.
The forum will be rebroadcast on Fairmont Cable Channel 13 at 2, 7 and 10 a.m. and p.m. on Oct. 20 and 22 and also is available at www.fairmont.org/forum.