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Mayoral candidates discuss finances, board unity at forum

Ward 4 Alderman Tom Fagan
Four candidates seeking to become Crestwood's next mayor were asked how they would solve the city's financial woes, build unity on the Board of Aldermen and to explain their stance on the use of public subsidies during a forum last week.

Ward 4 Alderman Tom Fagan, Ward 1 Alderman Richard LaBore, Peter John Mead and Roy Robinson, a former alderman, are seeking the mayoral post in the Tuesday, Aug. 3, election.

The special election is being conducted to fill the remainder of former Crestwood Mayor Jim Robertson's term. Robertson announced his resignation Jan. 27.

Ward 1 Alderman Richard LaBore
Whoever is elected next week will serve until next April, when Robertson's term would have ended. An election for mayor then will take place in April and whoever is elected will serve a three-year term.

All four mayoral candidates participated in the July 20 forum, which drew roughly 200 people to the Crestwood Community Center.

The candidate forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Area Chamber of Commerce and Call Newspapers.

Under the procedure established by the League of Women Voters, residents' questions were submitted in writing and then posed to the candidates.

Peter John Mead
The candidates were asked to detail, step by step, what they would do to end the city's budget problems and "misuse of funds.''

LaBore said, "Misuse of funds is something you're going to have to clarify, I'm not aware of misuse of funds. The city has been working for over a year and a half with its staff and with the board to correct the mess we inherited from former employees. They've done a fine job, I'll have to take my hat off to (City Administrator Don) Greer and (Director of Finance Diana) Madrid and (former Assistant to the City Administrator Matt) Conley ... for work they have done in ferreting out the problem, letting us know what it is so we can tell you what it is and begin to take steps to correct it. From this point on, it's a matter of tight budgets, cutting operating costs, finding new, out-of-the-box, dramatic ways of enhancing income and there are several of them already in our hands to take a look at.''

Roy Robinson
Mead said, "... The two aldermen meetings that I attended, it sounds to me like they are working toward dealing with the budget. We're dealing with two audits, a private one and a state one, so we're being watched. And given the current state of our city, we have every right to feel like we've been used and hurt and abused because we have been. Money was taken and we're behind now. We should feel good about the fact that we're being audited because it helps us feel secure. As far as misuse of funds, I think that's in our past and that's one of the messages that I want to convey in my campaign that as far as the fund problems go, those are being dealt with. And it's time to re-establish ourselves and feel good about the city of Crestwood and start rebuilding our vision.''

Robinson said, "... Our budget problems were caused by people who didn't — or our elected officials not using enough of their abilities of reviewing what our staff was doing. In the past when I was there, they used to — we had plenty of money and they tried to pass, they would move money from fund to fund without board approval. I always objected to that because the board has to approve these things. That means they are knowledgeable of them ... The thing we've had here is I don't think anybody stole any money. I think we are in the midst of being — spending too much. They don't realize that you can't spend more than you've got coming in. Somebody has to say no and I'm the guy that can do that ...''

Fagan said, "... Step by step, it's a two-part equation — expenses on one side and revenues. You have to hold the line on expenses. We're doing that the best we can. For the general fund, personnel costs are 80 percent, approximately, of our expenses. So unless you're going to cut services big time, you're going to have to be very careful with expenses. Revenues, obviously it's a longer term projection. We have to get new businesses in. Step by step, I will meet with businesses immediately, ask what we need to do to keep them here.

"I will solicit business. I will go out to Los Angeles to meet with Westfield's officials to see what we can do to get them to pour more money into the mall. It needs to be done immediately. Frankly, there was a comment made about the years Mr. Robinson spent on the board. If you look at the accounting then, in fiscal year '88 we had cash of $1.69 million and when he left office in fiscal year '91 or '92, we had less than a million, as low as $462,000. This is not just something that happens with just our board, it's happened previously. Cities have to be careful and judicious in spending their money. We try to be and we will continue to do so,'' he added.

The candidates were asked to explain how they plan on building unity on the Board of Aldermen.

Robinson said, "Well, first of all, I think that we have nothing but good, honest people on the board. I've never questioned any of their integrity or their reasoning for what they do. I talked to — as I traveled through the neighborhood, I talked to (Ward 4 Alderman) Pat Duwe the other day at her door. I knew she was supporting Mr. Fagan, but I told her, I said: 'No matter how this thing turns out, we need to work together' and I promised her that I would do that with this board if I'm elected mayor. There's always those who will be unhappy in the end, but I think if we (have) mutual respect and we have people like Dr. LaBore there, who's a driving force to make it a level playing field and I'm hopeful that if you decide to elect me that I'll be able to bring this board together — we can have honest discussion.''

Fagan said, "... How am I going to bring unity amongst or among the Board of Aldermen? I can tell you we already have that I think with myself and with the four other aldermen supporting me. Do we agree on all the issues? Certainly not. They will tell you I have been a lone dissenter on numerous occasions and for that I take my position very seriously. I think having unity among the board does not mean you agree all the time, it means the mutual respect and admiration for the other board members. It means listening to their point of view, but the end of the day, I have to make my vote on what I think is the best vote for the city of Crestwood. I do that each and every time. People may disagree with me. That's their right. I encourage them to do so, but I will tell you my vote is based on what is in the best interests of the city of Crestwood as a whole. I think if I'm elected mayor ... with your good votes, we will have great unity amongst us and we will be able to push things forward since I already have four other aldermen supporting me at this time.''

LaBore said, "One gets consensus and unity in a group the same way you do in any other group. I've done that in the region,

in the county, Municipal League, in the city ... My profession is people centered. There's a lot of guidelines and you've got many of them in your own pocket. You don't insult people. You be very careful what words you use when you talk about people and about their views. You listen.

"You sort out good ideas from whatever source and try to weave them together. Be as careful as you can with how you treat people and most important so it's not a horizontal reaction just between people, give them a vision and a goal, specific things to work on together. The vision I have for the next one year for this city has been handed out to most of you already in your homes. It's on the yellow sheets in the back of the auditorium to pick up when you leave ...,'' he added.

Mead said, "I've been to two board meetings, as you know, so I'm not too aware of what goes on there, but I was intrigued and excited by what I saw. Four-hour meetings are very rarely intriguing and exciting to normal people. As far as building unity, I usually rely on my boyish charm to attract people to myself, but I think I've got a very limited amount of that left. Being 39 years old, I'm going to go over the top of that.

"But I wanted to say is I do bring some talent. I'm a small-businessman and I work in meetings and try very hard to run tight meetings. I'm impressed by the board. It looks like it's full of talent. I have a knack for seeing strengths and talents in other people and encouraging those in a meeting. I also run very tight meetings. The other thing that I just have a natural knack for is helping people see and work toward consensus ...,'' he added.

The candidates were asked to discuss their philosophy about using tax subsidies such as tax-increment financing and under what circumstances they would use tax-increment financing and condemnation.

Fagan said, "... The question was am I in favor of tax-increment financing and other economic tools? I can tell you I've made many statements over the years, that is not my preference. But let's be fair, people. Our sister cities are using them. They're using them effectively. They're getting all of our businesses. They're luring our businesses away. So if we want to unilaterally disarm, we won't use them. But you know what? That's not good economic sense. That's not good rational economic development for the city of Crestwood.

"It's better to have three-quarters of a pie as opposed to none of a pie. You have to use these vehicles, albeit untasteful or distasteful, to get and lure new businesses to the city of Crestwood. Under what circumstances? That would not be the first circumstance, but frankly there are times when you have to use either, whether it's tax-increment financing, transportation districts, community improvement districts or eminent domain. I know a lot of people want to put in their literature they're opposed to eminent domain. But if you know the facts about it, sometimes that's the only way you can get a project moving and if necessary, unfortunately, against businesses we have to use it sometimes. And please keep in mind businesses are fairly and justly compensated when used,'' he added.

LaBore said, "I am a hard sell on TIFs. I've voted against them previously in this city because I did not feel they were appropriate. The TIF legislation was originally intended for situations where without that help there was no possible way a neighborhood or an area could improve itself. Over the years, my observation has been that TIFs have not been applicable to most of St. Louis County — inner-ring suburbs on the north are an area where we have been able to use that, but Crestwood does not fit the pattern. If the time came when it would be the wisest thing for you and for this city to use a TIF, I'll be sympathetic to that, but until then, the case has to be proven.''

Mead said, "There's an old and ugly term in American history — 'peculiar institution' — and that's how I feel about TIF spending. Peculiar institution referred, of course, to black slavery in the South. Like Dr. LaBore said, TIF spending was created by the government in order to help blighted urban communities that could not get out, change our cityscapes across America. However, what has happened because of different loopholes is that they are being used by other municipalities. They've become a part of our municipal political geography and I don't know that we always as a city can remain competitive — and we're talking about competitive here — because we need to bring businesses into our community and increase revenue. We can't remain competitive by out of hands turning them away. They should be used always with conscience and with caution.''

Robinson said, "Well, first of all, I was on the board in '88 to '92 when we were taking the drive-in theater and when I began, I was the only one fighting the eminent domain and taking businesses and giving developers the money that they wanted. I stood by myself and by the time that we got completed at that time, I had two or three other aldermen coming my way.

"I do not believe in TIFs because it's not necessary. I do not believe in eminent domain because that's taking property that does not belong to you. This is America. We don't steal property from people ... You go in and you buy the property and that's the way I feel about it. I would never — I would never go along with taking property. If you want the property, you buy it. It's only a means of giving developers the money that they know you will give them,'' he added.

The candidates were asked about their association with the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance, whether they had accepted any donations from the group and if they ever attended a meeting of the organization. They also were asked about the role this organization has played over the last year.

Fagan said, "I have absolutely no association with the Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance other than seeing them at Board of Aldermen meetings and receiving their literature, which a lot of times is factually inaccurate and factually incorrect. What I would say is I have had no contact with anybody with them. It's my understanding Mr. Kelley Isherwood is a member of Crestwood Smart Growth Alliance. He's attended several meetings. We have asked, specifically I have asked, for their membership list, not that they have to disclose it because they're a private forum, but I certainly think it would give some credence to them if they disclosed who they were with.

"No. 2 or lastly, what role have they played in local politics or in our city affairs? Frankly, I tip my hat to them because they've done a wonderful job of muddying up the waters of what the true facts are regarding Watson/Grant. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to address that specifically later, but what I will say is they've done a wonderful job of stopping that development or redevelopment from going forward at this particular time,'' he added.

LaBore said, "I have no association whatsoever with the alliance group; know very little about them. They have succeeded in muddying the waters as Alderman Fagan said and have been more a part of the problem than part of the solution in recent years in this city. At the same time, if their interest is in protecting small businesses and small-business interests, I sympathize greatly with that.''

Mead said, "I also have no association with them whatsoever. I have never attended a meeting — wouldn't even know where to go to attend one. And I agree with the very last thing that Dr. LaBore said. I'm for small business and it's good that people are talking about that, but again it sounds as though they haven't done a very good job of offering accurate information.''

Robinson said, "Statements have been made about me being a part of this group. Like the rest of these gentlemen, I've never spoken to anyone. I've never attended a meeting. I have never been involved with them. I have received no funds from them that I know of. If it's an individual citizen that belongs to them, I have no idea other than ... the city spent a lot of money to determine who these people were and what they — what happened to them.

"I'm deeply concerned about why people would go to the extent of organizing an alliance or a group to try to get their point across. If we had a truly open city, we wouldn't have to go that way. We need to be able to respect our citizens down the line. I don't care who they belong to, if I'm elected mayor, we will listen if I have to listen alone,'' he added.

The candidates were asked that, if elected, would they have Don Greer continue to serve as both city administrator and police chief.

Robinson said, "Since this has been a big topic as I go around the city and I find that most people think there's a conflict of interest between a person in that position and holding both hats. I tend to agree and I probably wouldn't even — I've talked to Don Greer about this and I come with no agenda. I will evaluate and then we will decide whether or not we need to go a different direction. I saw where Mr. LaBore stated that he was going to hire a new administrator. I would gladly say that I would do that too, but since the board, the other night on the 13th, spent probably the money that could of bought or hired a good administrator, they foolishly went ahead and gave the authority to hire four individuals. Just one of them would have been — would have been enough to a good start to get a good city administrator.''

Fagan said, "I have no plans if elected from changing from Don Greer as city administrator and police chief. Let me tell the cold, hard facts when it comes to economics: By having Don Greer in that position (city administrator/police chief), the city saves over $100,000 a a year in salary and benefits. Right now we have terrible financial difficulties and by keeping Don Greer in that position, we save money.

"Mr. Robinson alluded to the fact that we hired four new people. I voted to hire all four of them, let me explain why. Two of them are police officers. In 2002, we had 36 sworn police officers. Today we have 30. Police protection is so very important to this city. We have to have good police protection. We also authorized the hiring of an economic development director to replace Mr. Matt Conley, who went on to become the (assistant to the mayor/city clerk) in St. Ann. The economic development director is oh so important for our business community to get new businesses, to get new revenues. It all flows together. Finally, the fourth person we hired was a street maintenance worker. That's because we have street maintenance projects planned on Lowill, Sunray and other projects that we need to take care of,'' he added.

LaBore said, "Ditto what Mr. Fagan said about the four employees. They're critical at this time for the city. My proposal was not that I would hire a new city administrator, but that somewhere down the road when the funds were available and the board was ready, the board will begin the search for a new city administrator simply because it is not good for the man to carry both jobs. Can you imagine those two jobs being carried by any one of you — city administrator and police chief. On an interim, temporary basis, it has worked well to the city's advantage, but the time is coming when we'll have to let Mr. Greer return to his preferenced job of police chief and move on.''

Mead said, "I'll save time simply by saying that I agree with everything that Mr. Fagan said and he said it so well. And I'd like to add that as I've been at these, I know just a couple of meetings, every time Mr. Greer has said something, it's been the voice of calm in the storm. He seems to have great authority. He seems to know what he's doing and everybody on the board seems to respect what he has to say. That's a wonderful person and a great leader.''

The candidates were asked how many Board of Aldermen meetings had they attended during the past year?

Mead said, "Two. I had planned on going to three ... I was on vacation for one of them, so I just recently started going.''

Robinson said, "... Since December I think it is, I have been to all the (meetings) except for one when I retired. I took a vacation to Alaska with my family and most of the time I didn't stay very long at the meetings because I really didn't care for what was going on at the meeting(s) because they were quite unprofessional. So that's — I've been to most all of the meetings, I may have missed one or two, but I think that was it.''

Fagan said, "As a member of the board for the past 11-plus years, I've attended almost every board meeting with limited exceptions ... In the past year, I can't recall missing any, there may have been one or two that I've missed if I was out of town. I don't think that's the case. I'm certainly sure you can check the record, but I can assure you I've attended over 95 percent of them. I've participated in 95 percent of them. People on the board know I have an active voice. I don't try to impose my view, but I certainly do try to get my point across and give what I think aregreat opinions. The dialogue — I think the board has been very professional with all due respect. I think the exchange of ideas is good. I think it's good to not agree with everybody else all the time and if it was that way where everybody agreed, it wouldn't be very much fun and it wouldn't be very productive. For that reason, I think it's good to have the give and take and frankly I enjoy participating in it.''

LaBore said, "Over 21 years, the only meetings of the board that I've missed, regular meetings, executive sessions or special meetings, have been those when my profession required me to be out of town.''

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