Despite the cold and snowy weather, 44 people trekked to the city building Sunday to listen to what candidates running for city council and mayor had to say about issues affecting the city.
The forum, sponsored by the Marion County Record, asked the three candidates for mayor, and four candidates for two open council positions, to answer questions about key issues Marion government is facing.
Council candidate Duane McCarty was on duty with the sheriff’s department and unable to attend.
Candidates for Mayor Todd Heitschmidt, Mary Olson, and Steve Unruh agreed that Marion as a city needed to grow, but had different ideas about how to promote that growth.
“We’re putting too much pressure on city government. They cannot do anything without help from citizens,” Unruh said.
He is running to help promote better resident involvement. The majority of his ideas for the mayor position revolve around getting people more involved with every aspect of the town from economic development to budget decisions.
“The mayor needs to be more of a coordinator and should find middle ground between council members,” he said. “Council members should have different opinions. We’ve gotten into politics here and there should be no politics. There should be one goal, to make Marion grow.
“We are responsible for our own city if we’re not doing anything than we can’t expect the council to do anything. We need to figure out how to bring revenue into the city.”
He believes residents need to do their part to raise money for some city projects through community events such as roasts or barbeques to avoid tax hikes.
Unruh opposed using utility rates to subsidize the city’s general fund.
“The bottom line is as long as we have to use money out of utilities, we’re going to be spending more than we have to on our utility bills,” he said. “Citizens need to speak up and figure out how to come up with the money.”
Unruh noted his mechanical background and recommended the city save money on regular vehicle maintenance by training city crews to perform that maintenance themselves.
“I’ve never operated a vehicle I didn’t know how to take care of,” he said. “If I didn’t know how to take care of it when they gave it to me to work with, I went to training to teach me how to work on it.”
He believes residents can cause the biggest change in city operations and should all work together to make Marion a stronger community.
“In the 35 years since I came here the town hasn’t changed much, and I understand people don’t like change but that’s why I’m here. If we’re not out here working then the city won’t grow,” he said. “In order to grow we have to change. Everyone has to work together. This is your town and you’re responsible for it.”
Incumbent mayor Mary Olson also works to encourage community involvement, she said. She believes that for this to happen, city government must work together.
“We need to work as a team, not just with council but with the whole city and try to involve people,” she said. “The city administrator should advise us as citizens, and we take your advice. I know I take citizens advice seriously. We have to get people involved and see what they have to say. We have to try to get people involved in the budget. Everyone has to work as a team and that involves you.”
Olson stressed the necessities of good infrastructure and safety polices, and using technology to make city processes more efficient.
“We have been trying to get technology into the city that we can use to better ourselves,” she said.
She also stressed the importance of planning to maintain city infrastructure, even when funds to do so weren’t there.
“I’m an advocate of planning. We should have done some streets well the first time but we didn’t,” she said. “We have done some things but we’ve had time when we couldn’t because the money and grants weren’t there.
“We have to decide between needs and necessities. The council needs to give citizens their needs. We have to have a way we can adjust to take care of needs. We’re going to have to have revenues that takes care of our needs and we need to build up them and reserves.”
Like Unruh, she has seen Marion stay nearly the same since she moved to town in 1996, but she hopes to change that if re-elected.
“There has always been a need to grow, but it seems to be sitting in one place,” she said. “I want to see how we can get this engine going and see how we can get our tax base up. We need to set rates so they are reasonable.”
Heitschmidt said the best way to make Marion grow is by putting land into private hands and encouraging residents to start small businesses.
“Something needs to be done to make that as easy a process as possible,” he said. “Home grown businesses will see the most success here. The city needs to do what it can. People raise kids here but we’ve sent them away for opportunities somewhere else.”
The way he hopes to promote new business growth if elected mayor is by adjusting rules and regulations.
“We need to get businesses but we also need to get families,” he said. “If we can’t provide the jobs then we can provide the housing duplexes and September 1 Apartments where we can provide the opportunity for low-income elderly to move and open up housing for families. I can’t promise a job but we can promise them housing if they have jobs in other communities.
“We want them here. This is a great place to raise a family.”
One way business should be promoted in Marion is by private financing, Heitschmidt said.
“There used to be folks investing in the community to start small business; we have lost that,” he said. “We need to try to do what we can to bring that back.”
When discussing the budget, Heitschmidt said the city needs to have long term plans, unlike they have in the past.
“We haven’t always thought long term,” he said. “It costs money to fix stuff and we’ve gotten ourselves into a tight spot. Our reserves are low but we have to focus on what we have to take care of in order to take care of sins of the past. And that’s why economic development is important because maybe we can grow ourselves out of some problems.
“We have issues with rusty water and we need to replace some of those lines. It’s the responsible thing to do and we need to start doing those things.”
Developing a long-term strategy to fix the streets is also one of Heitschmidt’s plans if elected mayor.
“The first strategy is to have a strategy. That’s why some streets have gotten worse, because we are shooting from the hip and that’s not the right way to go about it,” he said. “We need to take a stand on streets before it gets too late, then we won’t have enormous costs to fix multiple streets.”
In order to have the money to fix infrastructure problems, he believes rates need to be high enough to maintain the current budget, but low enough to not be a burden on residents and businesses looking coming to town.
“The city doesn’t have to do refuse and electrical. We don’t get the choice about what rates get handed down to us,” he said. “I don’t agree with not supplying refuse and electrical because when we have problems we have the guys who fix them.”
Candidates were asked to answer the same slate of questions, but it was the public’s questions that received the most heated responses.
Disagreement about a radio tower at the county jail resurfaced during the question “Where did you see Marion five years ago, how do you see it today, and where do you see it five years from now,” asked by Jeremiah Lange.
“Our city government did no justice for how it handled things in the past,” Heitschmidt said. “I’m running because I don’t want that anymore. I don’t want to fight over a 40 foot tower, a 90 foot tower that got ugly and disrespectful to the county and the citizens of this town. It looked terrible in the paper. If you looked at that and didn’t live here would you want to move to Marion? And what I’ve seen over the past five years and I’m disgusted. It’s time to change.”
The discussion continued after planning commission member Ruth Herbel asked why the council voted to remove the zoning regulations from the city’s website.
After discussing that a business had seen the regulations on the website and decided to not locate in Marion without contacting the city about the regulations, Heitschmidt pointed out the planning and zoning committee’s role in the tower debacle.
“Your group will have a large responsibility of fixing these things (regulations) if I’m mayor,” he said. “Ruth, your group caused a heck of a mess with this dang tower. That is not acceptable to me.”
It was then Olson joined the discussion.
“That tower was not the fault of the planning as I went to city admin for six months and asked if we got everyone on board and what did it come to? The Marion County Record and an embarrassing mess that the jail did not get building permits,” she said. “That wasn’t the planning and zoning fault; that was somebody else’s fault down there at that particular courthouse that didn’t come together and do their planning.”
Olson said if the county had continued with its plan to build a larger tower that she would have been unhappy, and other residents would have been unhappy.
“We’ve got a tower down there that you can’t see if I had a big 90-foot or whatever it was suppose to be tower I would have been hurt,” she said. “That wasn’t our fault Todd, and I don’t like to have things made without our planning board knowing about it. I will stand up with that board today because they did their jobs right.”
If a business declined to come to Marion because of regulations posted on the website without even contacting the city, then they weren’t very interested in coming here in the first place, she said.
“If you start at square one we’re going to work with them,” she said.
Candidates for council Chad Adkins, Jerry Kline, David Mayfield, and Melissa Mermis had differing opinions on government matters largely because of experience with city government.
Adkins, social studies teacher and wrestling coach at USD 408, said the most important role for city government is to promote growth.
“The city has a role and needs to provide opportunities for businesses to come in,” he said. “The city needs to have a plan as to what they want in the future. We need jobs. It is important, and we need the citizens to be involved.”
Adkins said his goal if elected to council is to provide opportunities for his daughter and others in the future to come home and have a job in Marion if they choose.
“The town has a rich history that we need to hold onto, but if that’s all we do then we will be history,” he said. “We need to stop thinking and talking and do it. The future can be bright.
“I want my daughter to come back to live here as long as she wants if there is a job available. There is a lot of opportunity for growth here. I want to be a part of that change.”
The budget is a key issue for Adkins.
“It seems like we are doing a lot of putting out fires,” he said. “I think it is fiscally important to put a plan together and have a plan for when things need replaced or upgraded.
“We need to plan where we want to be and have a responsibility to know what our residents can afford. I think that through cooperation with other communities we can solve some budget problems.”
Utility rates need to be set at a point that it provides the best possible service to residents for the best price,” he said.
Incumbent Kline is running under the same belief system that got him elected the first time, to keep the city financially responsible.
“It’s a lot of work when it comes budget time. We know we got to pay a certain amount and have to know what residents can afford. The city has a rule of thinking how much we can afford to do,” he said. “Our goal is to take in enough money to make ends meet. The city should work smart so the city does not raise rates, but sometimes we can’t avoid it. We do our best to keep costs low.”
Kline is a strong supporter or maintaining streets and addressing street issues as they arise, within budgeted funds.
“We need a five-year plan for each street and we should always be looking for grants and do things to save the streets,” he said. “We need to maintain streets, but that depends on money and repair when get bad and have a plan to fix one every so often. The rest we can shoot off the hip.”
While Kline believes Marion is in good shape relative to similar towns, he hopes to make the city better during another term.
“Things happen so little at a time that you don’t know what all has changed,” he said. “I know we need a lot of improvement but what we need most is pride. We’re better than a bunch of small towns but we can get better yet.”
Kline said he would like to see the city hire an economic development director in the near future.
“We need to furnish a director whose job is to look for grants and businesses,” he said. “We need the city to provide the land and the tax incentives and to back. The city needs to keep their costs low so businesses can afford to come in.”
Mayfield said he would draw on his experience as former city administrator to help make informed decisions if elected.
“My goal is to make the best decisions for the majority of residents, not the few,” he said. “I want to make Marion a better place to be.”
By focusing on infrastructure, Mayfield said the town will prosper.
“I think our focus has to be to take care of infrastructure,” he said. “We have to have the funds available to see that that stuff keeps running. Than we need to look at revenue coming in and work up a budget off those numbers. We need to look at plan where we can do things outside the budget but might have to expel those because of rising costs Jan. 1.”
Long-term maintenance plans are the key to providing good infrastructure, said Mayfield.
“Maintenance is imperative,” he said. “Some streets have gotten so bad city crews can’t fix them.”
Utility rates need to be fair to provide the city with financial stability, but also to not drive out potential businesses, he said.
Using population to measure town growth, Mayfield said the city has been stagnant at bringing new jobs to town.
“We have to look at small businesses that can be brought in,” he said. “We’re over the economic decline and I look forward to the future and how can expand on that. I would like the council to consider a program that Harvey County is doing where everyone helps with economic development and different towns and the county help each other.”
Mayfield said the council can focus more on growth if it is not micromanaging city employees.
“There should be trust. We need to stop micromanaging and make intelligent decisions to benefit most residents not just a few,” he said. “Day to day decisions should be up the administrator.”
Mermis, a registered nurse, admitted to not having government experience, but said her love for the community is why she is running for council.
“I want to be involved and see that Marion moves forward,” she said. “I have no experience, I have never done anything like this, and have no government background, but what I do have is a love for the city and I want to help it grow.”
She said economic development should be a collaborative effort between the city and residents.
“I’ve been here for five years and I moved here from a small community,” she said. “They are worse than we are. I was very impressed about how clean the town was and how welcoming. We’re happy here and hope more families like ours will get that impression from here. I think the town is doing OK.
“We need to fight to bring business in and get more young families here.”
As far as budget decisions, Mermis said the city should first figure out how to fund key operations and then prioritize what else to budget for.
“Think we need to focus most on operations of the city and do what we can to keep costs down for residents,” she said. “The goal should be to not increase rates, but I know that’s not how it always works out.”
With streets, she said city crew should try and fix them right the first time, to avoid repairing the same potholes over and over.