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Council candidate forum held at Lowe Park
by Nancy Grindle Correspondent · October 26th, 2017

(Note: This is the first of two articles about candidates for Marion City Council and their viewpoints. These comments are from the forum at Lowe Park. The Marion Times will send a set of relevant questions to Bruce Cummins for his comments. Those and the remainder of comments from Candidates Jensen and Johnson will be included in next week's issue.)

The second forum for Marion City Council candidates was held on Monday, October 23, at Lowe Park. It was a shortened meeting because only two candidates spoke that evening, Steven Jensen and Peter Johnson, who are running for the Ward 2 position being vacated by Joe Spinks.

Randy Strnad had been prepared to attend, but Bruce Cummins, who is running against him, was unable to be there.

The League of Women Voters sponsored the forum and member Amy Reasner served as moderator.

Both Jensen and Johnson spoke at the beginning of the forum about their backgrounds and why they want to serve on the Marion City Council. Steve Jensen told of his many years as a CPA, CFO and his capabilities in budget, strategic planning and serving on boards such as the YMCA and metro organizations. He wants to help the city continue to be a place to live better and raise a family.

Peter Johnson mentioned his desire to get more people involved. He has four grown children and nine grandchildren, all living in the Marion/Hiawatha area. He has an office on 10th Avenue. He noted that he wishes to emphasize using common sense. His campaign is totally self-financed. He also talked about change and mentioned that taxpayers are Marion's greatest asset.

In response to a question about taxes, Johnson responded first. He noted that taxes have gone up 62 percent, regardless of whether that is from the county, city, schools or where. He said there must be judicious use of that tax money and some things can be done differently.

Jensen noted that when a person looks at taxes closely, the city's levy is only up 1.4 percent over many years.

One question asked if there are items about which the city has not used good judgment as far as finances. Jensen noted that the city has a $22 million dollar budget. He noted Marion's AA1 bond rating and said that it is one of the few cities in the state with that good a rating. This gives a high confidence level about Marion.

Johnson thinks Marion did not act wisely about the airport. He mentioned that it spent $1.6 million for the land which had just earlier been sold for $1.3 million.

Another question was asked about whether or not TIF funds are being used appropriately. Johnson mentioned that he feels these funds have been somewhat overdone and stretched to the limits. He said one should compare Marion with Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha.

Jensen mentioned the site of an old gas station on 7th Avenue with underground tanks. He said TIF is helping there and also noted that TIF rebates on original taxes help businesses.

Jensen further talked about tax help and mentioned a competitive agreement between Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids and Marion. There are lots of assets.

Johnson noted that there is only so much you can give away (in taxes). Marion should be developing more as far as breaks.

One question asked about citizens being permitted to vote on large projects, as has been mentioned at some council meetings. Johnson mentioned that residents should be given a chance to vote on large projects.

Jensen said the city makes a lot of decisions on an annual basis, and he feels a project should cost at least $100,000 to be considered for a vote of the citizens.

The council should make decisions, but it should communicate with the citizens.

Another question mentioned all the little fees tacked onto such things as the water bill, like a fee for garbage, etc. Neither man seemed to be familiar with those fees and what they are for. Jensen said there must be good reasons they are there. Johnson said he has been busy examining the recent city survey and he hasn't contacted City Hall. However, he wants to get "you" involved in the process.

When asked what top priorities he has for the city, Johnson answered with three items. One was the library, then the completion of Tower Terrace Road and then Uptown's development.

Jensen said he wants to look closely at the tax base and work on it. He stated that 75 percent of taxes are from residential areas, while both Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha are about 50-50 residential and commercial. He wants to expand commercial. A second area he mentioned was major roadways as the city expands.

Will Tower Terrace become the "New Marion"? Jensen said no, Marion is Uptown. While Tower Terrace is a corridor and it is going to attract, it will not become a new downtown.

Johnson said Tower Terrace is a main artery but not Main Street, although there is more development needed along Tower Terrace.

A question was asked about how do you "do" Uptown and Tower Terrace also? Johnson feels there must be a cohesive plan. The railroad history is important and he wants a thriving Uptown. While residential areas will go north, he doesn't think they will "cannibalize" Uptown.

Jensen wants to see Uptown develop and provide housing for people who can walk to work, as well as more jobs and more businesses.

With regard to the library and whether or not the candidates support a public/private partnership, Johnson does not see this as necessary, nor does he feel the library should be part of a multi-use facility. He mentioned that more than 1,000 students are home-schooled in Marion, and the library is a big part of their education.

Jensen recently went to one of the library meetings and looked at the plans presented there. He said the plan seems clear.

Jensen feels the railroad historical factor is important to Marion. He said Marion needs a vision, and then citizens need to get behind it.

Johnson said there should be a historic plan with private investments to create a cohesive-looking area. He does not see urban living in the area. Families would be more in Tower Terrace and other outlying areas.

Jensen feels Uptown could provide lots to offer families and individuals who would like to live in an urban location.

The next question was about a fire station. Jensen said the city needs a fire station on the north side. It will cost around $2.8 or $2.9 million dollars, and city council is talking about it.

Johnson said a third station was proposed in 2016 and needs to be created as soon as possible. The tentative site needs to be near Hwy. 13 in the northern part of Marion. He said the city needs a response time of four minutes or less.

How can more jobs and businesses be attracted to Marion? Johnson said to support MEDCO and the Chamber. Jenson mentioned the economic development experience and that the majority of new jobs come that way.
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