Council candidates speak at forum
The six Yuma City Council contenders met Wednesday in a council candidate forum where the majority of the audience-generated questions concerned budget-related matters, including spending, taxes and support for individual items like police salaries or parks.
The event was sponsored by the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Executive Director John Courtis. Each candidate was asked a different question at random, given 45 seconds to answer, and others on the panel were given 15 seconds to respond if they used one of their three “response cards.”
Gary Knight, an incumbent city councilman and deputy mayor, was asked how the city can cover the cost of raising police officer pay and spending on road maintenance, while not raising taxes or disrupting economic growth, which has picked up recently with announcements of manufacturers bringing new jobs to the area.
He said more growth is the solution. “We’ve got to bring the businesses here and we’re in the process, we’ve been doing that really well for the last couple years, everything we’ve been doing is finally coming together. We’ve seen a lot of new businesses come here with new employees, our property tax revenue is going up, our sales tax revenue is increasing.
“And that’s the only way we can increase the city’s revenues so we can pay the first responders more money,” he said.
Candidate Kristina Rojas McNair, a manager at Yuma Regional Medical Center, responded there’s more to be done from within. “We do need to increase our tax base, that will absolutely help it, but there’s a lot we can do without even going that route,” she said.
“Looking through our city budget, there are some departments which have had budget increases over the last two years — 402 percent. What is that 402 percent, and why did we increase it that much? Let’s ask those questions. Looking at some of these other departments, you’re seeing increases of 31 percent, 26 percent. What is going on in two years?” She did not say which departments or how many dollars are involved with those increases.
Leslie McClendon, a former two-term city council member in the running after being off the council for two years, said budget discussions at the council level should be more in-depth than they have been in the past few years.
“I’d like to go back to where I had started in the beginning, where each department comes in front of council and discusses their budgets, their departments, their needs, their wants, what we can make some changes and adjustments with, but I want to be able to talk directly to the departments. I feel that’s most important in being able to determine a thorough budget plan,” she said.
The just-opened Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex has the support of all the candidates who were asked about it, but Ken Rosevear, former executive director of the chamber, said he looks ahead with some trepidation.
“Based on the projections, it’s going to be pretty good. But making payments on a $14 million bond is a tough nut to crack. I am fully in support of the programs that are coming about with the PAAC and I’m optimistic that those numbers will come about. That goes for any measure, when we stretch a bond issue, we’d better be able to pay for it. And if it doesn’t happen, we’re in big trouble,” he said.
Greg Counts, a retired Yuma police lieutenant, said the city’s parks and recreation department will need to continue marketing the six-field softball complex to tournaments, but its location is ideal for doing that.
“We are in the hub, between San Diego and Phoenix, we have a great area to have a PAAC. I think realistically, this is a softball mecca and a baseball mecca. This is one of those places where people from San Diego who don’t want to travel all the way to Phoenix, but they’re going to meet teams here in Yuma, from all those other places.”
Candidate Karen Watts, a nurse-practitioner and active volunteer with Amberly’s Place and Crossroads Mission, said she would not support raising the city sales tax to the state average and freezing property tax rates, a proposition similar to one rejected by voters last November.
“I’m not in favor of a sales tax increase. I think we’re already at the highest sales tax already, so no, I’m not in favor of that, no,” she said.
Counts responded that he would favor a sales tax increase, which brings in revenue from both residents and visitors, and said Yuma’s is actually one of the lowest in the state.
“The total sales tax, I thought we were at like a 10 percent, I thought that was ... no?” Watts asked. The current city sales tax is 1.7 percent, which when combined with state and county taxes adds up to 8.41 percent.
Other questions touched on subjects not tied directly to budget policy, including the city’s efforts to establish a “University of Yuma” in Old Town South, to revitalize the downtown area and create more educational options for residents.
McClendon said she would rather support the growth of Arizona Western College, which is offering four-year programs in conjunction with the state universities.
“The program that they did at council before was very informative, but I can tell you I am not for that university. I truly believe we can utilize what we have and work with (Arizona Western University) and (Northern Arizona University), and try to bring the programs to a four-year degree in that area, and try to develop the downtown into something a little bit different than the university,” she said.
Watts was asked about her view of the relationship between city council and the city staff: “We look to our staff to be professionals and to be subject experts in their field, so I think they should definitely take part in the retreats and conferences, ask them the questions, and making sure that citizens are also involved and get their opinion.
“But the staff should be professionals and experts in their field, and look upon them for advice and use them, along with the citizens, to make hard decisions.”
A couple queries involved code compliance issues, and Knight was asked how many cars are allowed to be parked in a residential front yard. He replied he doesn’t think there’s a specific number, but the council had recently updated the code with revised requirements based more on distance from property lines.
“You can park no closer than 5 feet from the property line in the front setback, and you can also park at the side of the house, you can park in the driveway, I don’t think you can be any closer to the property line than 5 feet. You can’t park a vehicle there permanently, it needs to be something that you’re using, it comes and goes,” he said.
Rosevear ended up with two questions about the city’s role in addressing homelessness, which he said is mainly done through support of social service organizations. “They need to be dealt with, and you’ve seen the situation in California where they’re now in disease mode of homelessness, and we can’t let it get that way,” referring to a hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego. “We have to properly support those organizations in town which are responsible for it, and experts in it.”
One questioner noted the city of Yuma is over 50 percent Hispanic, and wanted to know what could be done to insure that Latino voices are heard. Counts, a Yuma native, noted that his wife is Latina while saying he didn’t see making any particular effort to include the voice of a particular demographic group.
“I remember from school, we didn’t look at color, we didn’t look at what language you spoke, it’s just you were part of that community. And all the decisions that we’re making up here, all the decisions the council is going to make in the years to come, need to be based on the community of Yumans.”
McNair fielded the question of how to address the need for affordable housing, as identified in a 2015 stakeholder survey.
She said she hasn’t read the survey, but added, “The city has actually done some really great things. They’ve partnered and given away property recently to be able to develop the new affordable housing that’s being built off Arizona Avenue. I think the city needs to continue efforts like that to increase affordable housing in the community, but really, we also need to step aside and let the private sector do what it does best, which is provide for those needs.”
The town hall was held at the Yuma Civic Center. on the same day the Yuma County Recorder’s Office began sending out early ballots for the Nov. 7 election.
County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette, in remarks just before the forum started, implored the nearly 25,000 residents who would be receiving those to return them, as only about 27 percent did for the August primary election.
YUMA CITY COUNCIL GENERAL ELECTION CANDIDATE GREG COUNTS (left) opens Wednesday’s Yuma City Council Candidate Town Hall at the Yuma Civic Center with his position statement. Also seated on the dais are (from left) incumbent Gary Knight, former council member Leslie McClendon, Kristina RojasMcNair, Ken Rosevear and Karen Watts. Following their position statements, the candidates fielded questions from the audience.
MARIA CHAVOYA uses her cellphone to video Wednesday’s Yuma City Council Candidate Town Hall at the Yuma Civic Center.