The Saint Paul League of Women Voters offered city residents the first glimpse of two very different mayoral candidates together at Q&A Public Forum at Highland Park Library. The General Election will be held November 3, 2009.
LWV volunteer Jaclyn Schroeder served as the event moderator, noting the event was not a debate, but a public forum as part of its mission to inform citizens and inspire participation in the civic process.
Nonetheless, Incumbent Mayor Christopher Coleman and independent challenger Eva Ng were cordial in conversation but differed greatly in tier perspectives.
“We face a time of economic uncertainty with unemployment rates approaching 10 percent, with businesses fleeing and residents leaving,” said Eva Ng. “As a result we have nearly 30 percent office space vacancies downtown, an estimated 2 to 4 thousand foreclosed or abandoned homes, and a much heavier tax and fee burden on each resident and commercial entity.”
Ng is the CEO of Blanda, Inc. and a center-right conservative running as a non-partisan candidate, and endorsed by the Republican Party, said she is running for mayor because she believes her 30 years of private sector experience as an internal consultant and troubleshooter is a good match for the city. She was a presidential fast tracker and trouble-shooter for a Fortune 100 company, before becoming consulting as a “turn-a-round specialist” for small and medium sized businesses.
“Turning around difficult situations and making the most out of every dollar and influencing others to right the ship, is exactly what St. Paul needs at this specific time in our history in the mayors office,” said Ng.
“We must pull St. Paul out of this downward spiral by first freezing the property tax rates and fee increases followed by finding ways to reduce them,” she added. “We then have to create jobs and also ensure that our neighborhoods are safe and secure.”
Coleman, completing his first term as Mayor after defeating Randy Kelly, was a former City Councilman who said he ran because he wanted the office to have a strong working relationship with the council, city departments and citizens.
“Four years ago I got to be mayor of the city I was raised in, and I didn’t like the direction with the City Council and the Mayor at loggerheads,” said Coleman. “There was a structural deficit that was not being dealt with and the community was feeling shut out of the process, and felt like they had no voice in the process. There was also neglect in the parks, libraries and public buildings.”
Coleman pointed to his six point strategic plan of his first term as a success. He said it worked because it approached problems with a long-term approach, and solved a $16 million structural deficit in the third year of a four-year plan.
When asked what their priorities would be, Ng said she would freeze tax and fee rates and work to reduce them. She would streamline city operations and boost the tax base by creating jobs. She also said safety and security is paramount and would look for ways to make spending for fire, police, and emergency services more efficient.
When asked what they would do to revitalize downtown, Coleman said the comprehensive long-term strategy has blossomed with Cray Computer, Microsoft and GovDelivery, Inc. coming downtown, along with Central Corridor light rail and high speed rail to Chicago. He said 12 new restaurants and bars opened downtown despite a bad economy.
Ng replied that a few hundred new high tech jobs pales in comparison to 13,000 jobs lost during the recession. She said the city has not realized a one-to-one return on more than $19 million spent to revitalize downtown.
Ng said she would dedicate staff to market downtown for long-term business outside the city and state, to create jobs, and demand for business and housing vacancies that would boost the economy. would also believes an entrepreneur incubation system in vacant offices, would lead to qualified micro businesses and promising upstarts.
“Then let them grow and as they do it will create jobs and the new economy,” she said.
Asked how they would keep neighborhoods safe and deal with high crime areas, Ng said that comparable “safe” cities have fewer police and smaller budgets. She said that as a consultant she could help the department assess whether police and complement staff are spending their time effectively.
“There are pocket crime areas in the East Side and North Side that is disconcerting,” said Ng. “There are crimes not being reported because they need to fit a certain category to get reported. Are we doing best practices? Are the police visible enough?”
Coleman said the city did conduct a best practices audit of the department just two years ago. He said the largest city department budget had not ever been examined to whether it was spending its money or deploying officers wisely. He said the result was to correct its management to line officer ratio and deployment of officers.
He said the study showed that the city would need 630 for best possible function and they were able to achieve that this coming year. He said that problems with the transition to a new computer system have been overcome.
Asked how they would work with citizens to address vacant and abandoned properties, Coleman said the recent acceleration of foreclosures had brought a need to find creative ways to help owners keep their home. He said City Attorney John Cho drafted demand letters for lending institution to encourage more of them to work out plans to restructure mortgages.
He said community organizations and the Department of Safety and Inspections have worked together on creative ways to identify the worst properties to get rid of them. They worked with libraries and neighborhood organizations on foreclosure prevention assistance in six languages to stop 1,900 foreclosures.
“There is a lot more to be done,” he added.
Ng said that the city is effectively taxing citizens right out of their own homes. She blamed successive annual tax increases of 9 percent, 15.1 percent, and 8.6 percent, with another 6 percent proposed for 2010. She also blasted increased right of way fees, utilities and maintenance costs, building permit hikes, and rising paramedic and transportation fees.
“This is something that we cannot continue,” she said. “We cannot let this go on.”
The candidates differed entirely on the Central Corridor light rail issue.
Coleman said he was proud that after 30 years of delays, that it is finally beginning construction. He said light rail is an essential investment to a revitalized downtown and to ensure that University Avenue neighborhoods are part of a first class transit system.
Ng said light rail is an important and integral part of a vibrant city and has merit, but that this corridor plan is riddled with flaws. She said the 1,000 business along University Avenue that stand to lose street parking and customer traffic deserve better.
Ng said the economic downturn would require citizens to shoulder unnecessary burden, and that projected costs of the line would likely double after business loss mitigation, lawsuits, eminent domain and parking garages. She would prefer the corridor to have underground or above ground light rail as a “new dimension to the traffic system and not just a compromise of the existing system.”
“There are people that spent 24 years building their businesses and they can’t afford to move,” she said. “They are getting ready to go bankrupt in their 60’s. This is a travesty to the businesses along the university corridor.
“This is not right. This is not the time to do it,” she added. “We could delay this and maybe when we do it we do it right, with the right amount of money and we have a grade separation that is safe.”
Both said the city park system and 36 recreation centers is a valuable asset to the city. However, the economy has required the closing of eight centers with eight more to close next year.
Coleman said he was careful not to choke the life out of system, and made strategic closures to allow savings to be reinvested into other center, in partnership with schools and organizations to ensure they were effectively engaging kids, families and seniors.
Ng said she is willing to make tough decisions in difficult times and would take a look would like to see more partnerships and volunteer opportunities to keep centers operating.
Asked about the wide disparity among the various neighborhoods of the city, Coleman said that the Invest St. Paul initiative and other work is designed to address crime, joblessness, foreclosures, and other factors that keep four neighborhoods struggling. He believes the district council system is a good voice and a way to bring business and nonprofit into problem solving.
“St. Paul is a city of neighborhoods and if one is struggling then all of them are struggling,” he said.
Ng said she would organize a citizens advisory council. She would also schedule weekly neighborhood listening sessions and try to resolve their top concerns by the end of the term. She would also maintain an online forum for residents to speak to topics of concern to help her gauge how to conduct business.
Schroeder said the LWV studies and takes stands on issues but does not endorse or support political parties or candidates.
“We do encourage membership and others to get involved in the community and the political party of their choice,” she added.