WILMINGTON — City of Wilmington at-large council candidates explained their positions on taxes, legislation and G1 Gateway zoning, among other talking points, at Tuesday’s candidates’ night.
Incumbent Republicans Mark McKay and Randi Milburn as well as challengers Democrat Kelsey Swindler and Republican Linda Eichelberger will be on the Nov. 3 ballot. Council has only three at-large positions.
Vinton Prince, a former history professor at Wilmington College, asked the candidates questions selected by the party chairs and submitted by the audience of about 70 attendees.
Linda Eichelberger said she would use her 23 years’ experience in city government, as the mayor’s executive assistant, to benefit the city.
“We listened to the citizens and we spent tax dollars wisely and we supported a balanced budget,” and negotiated contracts with employees, Eichelberger said. “I want to maintain all the current services of Wilmington.”
Milburn said the city needs to find a way to attract and retain people “that lead and shape our community and future” by, for instance, continuing use of the Wilmington Succeeds program.
“We don’t have problems, we have challenges,” Milburn said, adding that leadership is needed to return Wilmington to glory.
She said that in her two years on council, it has added police and firefighters, paved streets and attracted entrepreneurs. She also promised to “stand up to tax increases.”
McKay said he has chaired many of council’s committees during his tenure on council and has seen many changes, such as connecting roads and the annexation of the Wilmington Air Park.
“We are on the upside of the curve,” McKay said. “But we still must continue to work diligently to make Wilmington attractive to those businesses seeking a better location to call home.”
“Given the proper leadership the city of Wilmington will once again regain (its) status as one of the best small towns in America,” McKay said.
“I believe in the power of local government,” Swindler said. “Honestly, I’m running for city council so that we can start having real conversations because we’ve been hearing the wrong one for almost a year.”
That wrong conversation, she said, is how to balance the budget, which she said is a task and not a goal. Instead, the conversation should be “What community do we want to live in?”
She said for her, she wants a Wilmington that is “the community of choice for young professionals, families and companies.”
“I am against an earnings tax increase,” Milburn said, responding to whether she favored an earnings tax increase. “I don’t think it’s the answer. … We want to keep that money in everyone’s pocket so they can hopefully spend it on the local economy.”
She said she’s seen people struggling to make it, who are unemployed or underemployed and can’t afford a tax increase.
“You elected us to make these decisions and to represent you,” she said. “I’ve not met too many people who are supportive of an earnings tax increase.”
Eichelberger said she’s also against increasing the income tax.
“People out here in this work world right now cannot afford any more,” she said. “I manage apartments. These people live paycheck to paycheck. … It takes everything they can do to pay rent, take care of their children and even get transportation to get back and forth to work.”
Swindler agreed with Eichelberger that voters must approve any tax increase and with Milburn that council members must lead and have frank conversations.
“I don’t think we can get where we want to go by making paper cuts to the budget,” Swindler said. “I just don’t think that it’s going to be enough. I think we have to look at all options.”
McKay said the city has spent more than it raised in revenue by at least $1 million a year for several years and is running out of money it saved before DHL left.
“We need to have this discussion,” he said. “It’s not for council necessarily to make the final decision. I believe that council should make the decision to go to the voters and let them decide what direction we should take, whether we should be decreasing more services or we should be try to increase the revenue.”
Swindler said she’d like to work on legislation like one currently under consideration that would create a Community Reinvestment Area to provide property tax abatements for residential development, as previously reported.
“I think that’s a great way of, one, not spending any of our money but, two, also really incentivizing exactly the kind of change we need in the community which is taking some of these older homes that have been ignored or have been split into too many units … making them livable, saleable, viable homes again.”
McKay said he agreed with Swindler about the CRA and said he wants to work on legislation that “protects the fabric of our community, (increase home ownership rates) and also anything that would keep our young people in town.”
He said he also advocates for anything that can improve the downtown area, which he called “the front door to our community.”
Milburn also spoke in favor of the CRA program as well as the city plan, which she says has good ideas and insights into how to attract businesses and residents to the city.
“I think that that’s going to be a focus of mine in particular,” she said. “If I am re-elected, I will continue to look at that city plan, pull out some of the ideas and some of the things that we had discussed that need to be in there.”
She said she’d also like to keep taxes low, retain residents and retain young professionals.
Eichelberger also spoke in favor of the CRA program, which she said is an example of using incentives to “get our town back to ‘Let’s all be next-door neighbors.’”
She also spoke well of the city plan, but said, “That’s something that we need to communicate in great detail, so you know what’s going on.”
Swindler was asked, “Given your previous comments regarding the Republican leadership, how would you work with a council where all of your colleagues will be Republicans?”
Swindler wrote a guest post featured in Plunderbund that criticized Republican Gov. John Kasich’s policies, particularly his cuts to local government funds. Plunderbund is an online news outlet and is critical of Gov. Kasich.
“The same way I’ve worked with my family,” Swindler said to laughter. Swindler is from a Republican family.
“I believe in nothing more than working together,” she said. “You don’t run for a legislative office if you don’t have an interest in working with other people. … We don’t have to share a party, we just have to share a vision and a goal.”
McKay said he’d have no problem working with Swindler if she was elected to council.
“I run for the city of Wilmington as a Wilmington candidate, not as a Republican candidate necessarily,” he said. “Once you’re elected, that’s your role and that’s your goal. … Parties take a back seat once you sit in that chair.”
Reach Nathan Kraatz 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.