By Michael Howell
Municipal election forums, sponsored by the Bitterroot Star and KLYQ Radio, were held recently in Hamilton and Stevensville. An old fashioned debate format was used and each candidate had the opportunity to ask his or her opponent some questions and the opportunity to answer questions from the media and the public.
This week we focus on the Hamilton mayoral debate. The forum was held at City Hall on September 19 and was sparsely attended. The race for mayor is between incumbent Jerry Steele and former county commissioner Kathleen Driscoll.
Current Mayor Jerry Steele was raised in Hamilton and graduated from Hamilton High School and attended the University of Montana. He and his wife Vicky have been married for 31 years and raised five children and have three grandchildren. Steele was elected to the City Council in 1996 and was appointed Mayor in 2007 and won by election in 2009. Steele has worked with the council on a number of projects, including reconstructing American Legion Park complete with a water feature, a $4.1 million upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant, building of a new Public Works building with no debt to the City taxpayers, completion of the bulb-outs on 5th and State Streets, and construction of the multi-use sidewalk on the south side of Fairgrounds Road. He is proud that the city budget has lowered taxes for the second consecutive year.
Opponent Kathleen Driscoll grew up in the Bitterroot Valley, the daughter of a Highway Patrolman and a registered nurse and is one of seven children. She is a single mother with three adult sons. She served as Ravalli County Commissioner and has experience with county government, salary arbitration, union negotiation, budgeting and economic development. She has been a small business person for over 30 years and says she knows the importance of a good environment where employees thrive and understand their duties. She spent 20 years traveling as a military wife before returning to the Bitterroot to raise her three sons and run a business. She has served on many state boards.
Driscoll’s first question to Steele was, “You and your Special Projects Manager Dennis Stranger personally indicated to me that you think the Skate Board Park is too expensive to build. What are your plans now that the City Council has voted for a second time, once in 2010 and once in 2013, to pursue building the Park?”
Steele answered, saying that “the City Council never voted to build a Skate Park.” He said the City was in the process of negotiating an MOU with Circle 13 (the Skate Park proponents). He said that he had put forward a possibility of placing the skate park at the Tolman Baseball Field with the contingency that the baseball fields could be built on the Kurtz Lane property that the county has.
“The Mayor and the Council and the city are in support of the skate park,” said Steele, “but we are not going to build it. The skate boarders themselves are going to have to raise the money to build it.” He said they were asking for about $250,000.
Driscoll responded, saying that in 2010 the Council did vote in favor of supporting the park. She said that the skateboard people came to her for support and she does support it avidly. She said the recent council vote showed that the City Council was looking for leadership in this area.
“As Mayor I would promote this strongly by going out and networking and finding all the pieces that need to be put together,” said Driscoll. She also said that she was against putting it the park on Tolman. She said the cost of relocating the baseball teams would be about $50,000. She said that this money could be spent on acquiring the right land instead. She said that a mayor’s job was networking and that she was good at it.
Steele responded by repeating that the City Council has not voted on the Skate Park. He said that Driscoll must be thinking about the City Parks Board and not the City Council.
“We are working very closely with Circle 13,” said Steele. He said they are working on getting their 501(c)(3) designation as a non-profit. He said RCEDA Director Julie Foster is working with them and once they have that established, the City can move forward.
Steele began his question by stating that “the City runs a very tight budget and has lowered taxes in the last two years. What experience do you have working with budgets and the goal of tax reductions?”
“I’m extremely good at it,” said Driscoll. “I have been on a number of boards that had budgets. The County Commission had budgets of $25 to $35 million at times while our revenue from taxes was only $9.6 million. The rest was grants and loans and everything else. We had to compile it, put it together. I am very familiar with budgeting. I am very comfortable with budgeting.”
Driscoll said the city had cut back on its budget and that was good.
“But one thing that you have to do as a leader and a mayor is to go and look for funding other than city taxes,” said Driscoll. “And I am not talking about grants and loans. I’m talking about businesses.” She said for every dollar a residential owner pays in taxes, it costs about $1.43 to provide services. She said that business taxes, on the other hand, contribute to the City’s revenue beyond the cost of services. She said that spending money on some things, like the county’s crisis services, can also save money in the long run.
“You need to work to bring in businesses and take on projects that bring in revenue and you don’t sit on your money,” said Driscoll.
Steele responded saying, “That’s all nice, but the City of Hamilton doesn’t sit on their money. We’ve gotten various grants and done some loans to support our projects.”
“Businesses are great,” he said, “but they’ve got to be in appropriate areas.” He said they “do generate about ten times the money that residential taxes do.”
Steele said the City Water and Sewer Funds were operated like a business. The money generated must be used on the water and sewer system services. He said the City does go out and hustle grants like the $3 million grant for a $4.1 million sewer project. “We pulled in $330,000 in Stimulus funds,” said Steele. “We don’t sit on our money. We are out hustling.”
Driscoll responded, “I wouldn’t say you are sitting on your money. You are just not using your money wisely.” She said that the City could do better at bringing in money and spending it in ways that are going to make even more money.
Driscoll to Steele: “Since the City of Hamilton has not pursued a Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD), how do you plan to develop a stronger position with the County to deal with what is happening in Area 3 since the County has already begun the process of developing a TEDD right next to the city limits?”
Steel answered, saying the reason the City hasn’t formed one is that only the County can form a TEDD. He said the City can form a Tax Increment Financing District (TIFD). He said the TEDD is only for manufacturing and businesses along that line. He said they were working with the county in this area and that the Council was looking at the TIFD, but still needs a financial analysis.
Driscoll said that she had been at the TEDD meetings. She said the TEDD would require a Growth Policy for the area and some zoning. She said the County was going to have the power “right outside our line” to put anything they want out there because they are out there doing it first. She said that the City should get involved now to have a voice in how the area is developed. She said the City’s relationship with the County has not been good and she would work on fixing that by building connections.
Steele said, “I may have to remind Kathleen that when she sat on the county commission she had the Growth Policy repealed because they tried to cram zoning down the throat of county residents.” He said the City was watching the County closely.
“We have a good working relationship with the County at this point,” said Steele. “We are working on several projects together. So I don’t agree that we are going to be blindsided by the county and their TEDD.”
Steele then asked Driscoll, “The City has adopted a Growth Plan and a plan for infrastructure. What are your thoughts about the implementation of the Growth Policy and the plans for infrastructure?”
Driscoll answered, “I think that infrastructure is something you use as a tool, something to help you negotiate with other jurisdictions and people who want to add on to the city. I think that infrastructure is the highest priority you can have with a city in making it a quality lifestyle here.”
She said that she thought the Council was doing a good job in starting to take a look at those things in relation to infrastructure. She said you’ve got to look outside your city limits at things and people that may affect it and use your infrastructure as a bargaining tool with the state or county or other people.
Steele responded saying, “Infrastructure is not a negotiated item. The City of Hamilton has undertaken plans for sewer upgrade and a water facility update plan that we are implementing in pieces because it is very expensive to do. You are talking 26 miles of water and sewer line in the city of Hamilton.” To replace two blocks, he said is $150,000 to $200,000.
Driscoll reiterated, “These are changing times. I was raised here in Hamilton and I have traveled all over the world. I have seen what good cities do and what bad cities do. I have sat on the Commission and seen the interaction of the City and County and believe there is some bridging that needs to be done. Infrastructure is a tool. It is something you pay good money for, you use it as much as you can, to get the best out of it, because once you’ve invested in it, it is something everybody else wants. You guys have paid for it and you need to get the highest and best use of it.”
Moderator Steve Fullerton had a question about annexation. “State annexation laws as they are, what have been good moves by Hamilton and what have been bad moves by Hamilton? And what do you see for annexation in the future?”
Steele said, “Annexation is a tool that, if used properly it creates a good will between citizens. If used improperly, it can be a very bad vibe.” He said the City has taken a first ever step in annexing totally surrounded areas within the city limits.
“The problem with annexation is that you have to be able to provide services to the people you annex,” said Steele. Along with that come expensive water and sewer line installations. He said under state law you can have a plan of services that is good for five years. He said that 99% of the time annexations are made at the request of the property owner.
“We don’t go out looking for areas to grab,” he said.
Driscoll said that her property was annexed into the City and she was very much in favor of it. She got city streets and sidewalks and drainage issues addressed.
“I’m willing to pay in taxes because I am getting what I pay for,” said Driscoll. She said that growth policies and zoning provide predictability to property owners and businesses.
Steele said that the City tried to help the County deal with zoning the interface area with the city but was turned down. He said the City had a lot of experience and knowledge to offer but it was refused. He said annexation was a good tool and nobody was looking to do away with it in Hamilton.
Fullerton noted that there were a number of empty store fronts in Hamilton and asked, “Is there anything the city should do to help the businesses in Hamilton?”
Driscoll said the state, county and city should all be welcoming businesses because they build the tax base. She said that she would support customer services for businesses. But, she said, you have to be a little choosey because what you want is a quality business, not just any business. She said the downtown was an important area for business and community affairs and should be the focus of development efforts.
Steele said that the City has budgeted about $50,000 for a downtown plan. He said the results of that effort will provide some focus for the city’s efforts. He said the City was being pro-active and talking with the Hamilton Downtown Business Association.
“The City does need to get behind business and be proactive,” said Steele. He said empty storefronts are a bad thing, but sometimes it’s because the rents are too high. “These are things we need to look at,” said Steele. “Maybe we need to look at blocking off an area downtown to walking traffic only. These are things we need to look at.”
Driscoll agreed that downtown development was important.
In closing remarks, Steele said, “Having been mayor and being mayor, we have a lot of projects still in the works that need to be finished. I’ve got the expertise to help get those done. We have another sewer project coming up, water line replacement projects coming up, the Downtown Business Plan, I want to be involved in that. I grew up in this town. We had businesses here, my grandparents started a business here in 1936 until about 1984 or 1985. Hamilton is ingrained in me since I was little.”
Driscoll said, “The reason I’d like to be mayor is because I feel like I am the kind of personality that is like Hamilton now. I’m outgoing. I like people. Hamilton kind of has that energy. When we were kids it was a quiet community, almost a retirement community. Now there is GSK, it’s got the hospital booming, Rocky Mountain Lab is booming and I’m the kind of person that likes booming things. I’ve moved a lot, seen a lot, experienced a lot, throughout my family, my children, medical wise. I can relate to caregivers and seniors. I took care of my mother and father. There are lots of things that I have put together as my life experience that I think Hamilton is actually like. So if you look at my personality, I am Hamilton.”
Steele said, “When Kathleen and I were growing up, our mothers were best friends.”
“It’s true,” said Driscoll. “I know all his secrets.”
“Likewise,” said Steele.