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At Large Council Candidates respond to forum questions
by Staff report · November 2nd, 2017

This is the second of two articles about viewpoints of candidates for Marion City Council. Bruce Cummins was unable to attend the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters held at Lowe Park on October 23, but he did respond earlier this week, as did his opponent Randy Strnad, when we emailed them a number of questions similar or identical to those asked at the LWV forum. Here are their answers.

Q. Please give a little background information about yourself and why you want to serve on the Marion City Council.

BRUCE CUMMINS: I was born and raised in the Marion area, moving into town when I was 14 years old. During that fall, at SuperSkate, I unknowingly met my future wife, Carrie. We got married when I was 20, and then we moved to one of my in-laws' farms, also in the area. Like so many families, our younger years were focused on working, taking care of family, and the farm. We moved back to Marion in 2005. At the moment, I am currently working at Four Oaks to help the troubled kids try and make better life decisions. I've also been an emergency responder, contractor with the U.S. Postal Service and served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to represent you, the people of Marion on the City Council in a different and unique way by walking the streets, going home-to-home, asking you what you like and don't like and what changes you'd like to see.

RANDY STRNAD: As a child I grew up in the area, having other family members as residents of Marion. I was able to witness and participate in the city's way of life for nearly five decades. So, I remember buildings and businesses and the way things used to be. I can appreciate these things that we are trying to preserve and hold onto today. Early on in my working career, I traveled with a corporate grocery store chain for many years working in management. While in this capacity, I worked alongside 200 to 300 employees at one time. Multitasking was a way of life and still is today in my insurance career. I own and operate a business in Marion myself and face the many challenges that all small businesses do. I moved to Marion in 2000 while renting office space and then purchasing real estate for the same business. I know what it takes to run a business and the dealings that go on from a day-to-day operation. As a business owner you must balance payroll, federal payroll taxes, accounts receivable and accounts payable, all areas in which a city operates as well. So not only owning a business comes to mind, I am obviously a resident as well. I have children that have gone through both of our great school districts, raised a family and shop locally just as my customers purchase from me. In addition to working and living in our community, I also give to our community. I have participated on many levels with our city. I am currently a volunteer firefighter serving on our great Marion Fire Department which I am greatly honored to be a part of. Within the fire department, I also serve on many different committees and also have been a past president of the Marion Firefighters Association. Other areas include Marion Chamber of Commerce, Hotel / Motel Tax Committee, Local Option Sales Tax Oversight Committee, The Ambassadors (Past President) and I also served on Council in 2016 when appointed by the current city council. Serving in our community has and always will be a part of what I do.

Q. What are your feelings about taxes in Marion - are taxes reasonable for residents? What would you do differently in regard to taxes for Marion businesses and residents?

CUMMINS: Marion taxes are a lot higher than our neighbors around us. It puts everyone on a fixed income in a difficult situation. As taxes increase, they're forced into selling their home and moving because they cannot afford to live here anymore. Bringing in new industry to Marion would help offset the burden on our Marion residents and bring residential taxes down for everyone.

STRNAD: We have a perception that our taxes are going up....and they are. In my research, this is what I have found to be true. Marion's levy rate is currently 13.98943. In the last 27 years, we have only once, gone above 14.00 and this was in 2008. Otherwise we have been between 12.439855 and 13.98943. Realizing that we are all experiencing our property taxes going up, this is because our property values are going up. Our assessed values are determined by Linn County, not the city. So, as we see these come up, naturally our tax bill does as well. As I look at my own personal tax bill, 35% of it goes to the city of Marion, the remaining goes to schools, Linn County, Kirkwood Community College, Linn County Assessor, Agriculture Extension and State of Iowa Levy. I want to try to keep our tax levy in the same band rate as it has been for the last 27 years. I want to make sure that we continue to live in the safest city in Iowa, We all want to keep our taxes as low as possible but I also realize that we must pay for the services that we receive. I witness going on the 911 calls when our citizens and general public need our assistance. The little things matter. If you call 911, our city responds without delay. When I visit with people, they say they want to make sure that their daily needs are met first and foremost. Things like: snow removal, garbage pickup, water at my sink, sewer, dialing 911 to name a few. We are receiving great services for our taxes like any city would be expected to provide.

Q. Concerning finances, are there cases in which the city has not used good judgment? What are they and what would you do differently?

CUMMINS: The current City Council has misused our taxes changing our intersections, city streets, and spending millions when there was nothing wrong with them to begin with. That was a gross negligent use of our tax dollars. Instead, I would have used this money to improve a lot of our city streets that are in poor shape and put the money towards our new developing sections of Marion.

STRNAD: Of course, there are areas for improvement or possibly areas that could have been done differently. I think a lot of us could agree that the roundabout could have been built bigger on 29th Ave. and 35th Street. Though some traffic goes through there just fine, we seem to find larger trucks that just want to drive over the center. I think it's an area where no one is looking, people just want to drive over it rather than around it. While on council there were opportunities to make decisions like doing a study for a roundabout at Indian Creek and 29th Ave. I voted "No" on this one. Our city and its growing is forcing challenges to city council and the Directors of our departments. The entire city must work together to make good decisions. There are times when decisions will be challenged and not everyone will agree upon them, but we must compromise and not let this stand in the way of progress.

Q. Are TIF funds being used appropriately? Please support your viewpoint with examples and tell why you do or don't agree.

CUMMINS: TIF funds I believe have a place, but only when a business is going to be big enough to hire a large number of workers. Hopefully, Marion workers. TIF will not work with a corporation not promising growth and would be a waste of money without a good return.

STRNAD: I agree with most of our TIF offers. TIF must be used wisely. It can be a great tool or it can be a terrible liability. This area is so commonly misunderstood. When the city is considering or an application is submitted for "TIF," it's because progress is at hand. We are seeing this throughout the corridor. When a business is looking at building in our community they must do their homework and pencil it out from the purchase of the land (or building) to the day they open the door. There are applications when the TIF will be the deciding factor in a business coming to town. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is only applied to a project for the brick and mortar of the structure per se. When applied, it would be for things like fire suppression, ADA accessibility, ramps, etc. It can and is only used for the structure itself. If the occupant of the business were to leave, the building is repurposed and sold to the new owner and remains on the taxable basis for the city. Here in Marion, we use the rebate process. This means that the business pays 100% of their tax and the portion of their TIF is applied as a rebate to the owner. The cycle continues per the agreement of the TIF. At such time, when the agreement is fulfilled, the owner is back to 100% of their tax basis. I do agree with the TIF. Without it, we would not have the growth that we are witnessing today.

Q. Should citizens be asked or permitted to vote on large projects? Recently this has been brought up at council meetings. What is your opinion and if yes, what size project or cost would you ask residents to voice their feelings and vote on?

CUMMINS: The people of Marion should be the ones deciding on the changes that happen in Marion, especially when they have a price tag of millions regardless what it's attached to. When it comes right down to it, the people need to decide what's best for us, we can decide what's best for us and where our tax dollars are used.

STRNAD: I understand this question and in theory it sounds like a great idea. What concerns me and would happen is that we would only have a few people voting on specific topics. How would we determine the voting? Would it require 75% of all registered voters to participate. What would happen if we would not get the turnout? This is why city government has a council. We would not be able to move forward or make the decisions necessary for the next step to occur in the daily business for the city. What would be considered large projects? What would not be? We must rely on the citizens working with their respective representatives in their wards to work together. Meetings in the Wards are great opportunities to visit and learn more about what is going on in an informal way. Our city leaders have been more available today for discussion then ever before.

Q. What is your opinion about the "little fees" attached to things like your water bill, etc.? Is this happening too much, is it okay, or how do you feel?

CUMMINS: With a growing city, unfortunately there will be growing pains such as water and sewage lines. To accommodate changes in our expanding town, added fees would help pay for the expense of new water and sewer lines.

STRNAD: Currently this is what is on my water bill: Garbage, Sanitary Sewer, Sewer, Storm Water, Urban Forest, Water and Water Sales Tax. They concern me a lot. Sitting through the council sessions I get the opportunity to hear the reasoning behind these just as the citizens of Marion do. It would be nice to somehow communicate this information to all residents as I know the city has tried to do. Perhaps an explanation during a meeting in the ward or something at the public library, etc. I continue to hear citizens say that they didn't know or didn't see anything on these informative topics. I'm continuing to ask people what the city could do different every day to get the word out.

Q. What are the top priorities you have for the City of Marion? Please mention a number of them and tell why you feel they are most important?

CUMMINS: One of my top priorities in Marion is to stop all the wasteless spending on projects that are not needed and wanted. Another priority that we need to have is bringing in more businesses so our local residents can work right here in Marion instead of going to neighboring cities to work. I'd also like to see no more tax increases on our local residents so they can live more comfortably and not feel burdened with a heavy tax load our city put on them.

STRNAD: Economic Development - as a city grows, there are typically two tax platforms; commercial and residential. We just talked about residential. Our community has grown by leaps and bounds with residential property. We all know and see this. What we don't realize is that the tax basis for residential is at 50%-55% of its assessed value. The city does not collect the taxes on 100% of the value. I looked at mine and it's 56.9% of value. When we bring in commercial business it's based at 100% value. Now, currently the state of Iowa is offering a "rollback" of 10%. That means, 90% of the tax is on the books to the city. We not only want to create this tax basis, we also want the products and services that these businesses offer. So, it's really a balance. With building out the Economic Development, this takes the burden away from other areas that will require more dollars to be spent in areas needed. Imagine the potential employment opportunities if we would have companies that would consider Marion as their corporate headquarters and the need for a major workforce. We already see it today in thriving commercial businesses in our community. I am so excited to see current businesses grow out of their facilities and look to our city for guidance and opportunities to expand.

Infrastructure - We all understand this! We are experiencing large traffic volumes on our streets today, expanding neighborhoods that are requiring larger amount of water, traffic lights needing repaired or replaced, streets that have outlived their life expectancy. These are all signs of infrastructure items that need our attention. As I look down our streets and watch the roundabouts, where do these cars come from? Traffic counts are incredibly higher than they used to be and the streets are showing it. We need to be proactive and not reactive on repairs and adjustments. Just listening to the engineering department talk about how storm water is collected from different parts of the city and tied together to a final distribution system is incredible. As our city is growing with businesses and residences, we are seeing an increase in transportation and we need to prepare for it.

Budgets - Having been on council, I have witnessed the challenges of budgets, Strategic Planning, Capital Improvement Projects and day to day operations of a city. As the city is faced with challenges each and every day on what takes priority and what should be put to another day, these are all concerns. Everything from the city pool needing updates to street lights needing repaired or replaced, how do we balance all of this? These are areas of concern and it takes everyone's participation to bring it all together. It must remain a concern as we move forward.

Q. Do you think the Tower Terrace area will become the "new Marion" and why or why not?

CUMMINS: The Tower Terrace project has been determined a long time ago and how they would like to go about changing Marion to make it our new downtown. The current city leaders feel that would be a good thing. I don't think they're listening to the people in Marion. We want to keep Downtown Marion like it is and use our historical building so to draw people to shop our downtown businesses and surrounding areas. I'm not saying adding new businesses to the north is a bad thing, but I don't think we need to change the whole face of Marion because a few people think we should.

STRNAD: I've heard people say that there will be an "Old Marion" and a "New Marion." What the future holds for these two definitions is hard to say. For businesses that need a larger footprint, Tower Terrace will the place to be. Again, this will be the goods and services desired by our community. I see there being some larger possible places for groceries and pharmacies, etc. Industrial will be in better suited locations throughout the city. The days of inside malls are gone for now. Remember Lindale Mall when it was originally built? It was a walkable outside mall later covered under one roof back in the 1970s. The trend now is people want to drive up to the front door. This is what I see Tower Terrace looking like. I would like to see our city adopt a concept of what this looks like from Highway 13 through our city to the western city limits so that we know what to expect for a buildout standpoint. I want a favorable transition from commercial to residential. This would be a great thing to see and allow everyone to be on the same page when that day comes.

Q. How can the city support expansion both at Tower Terrace and in the Uptown area?

CUMMINS: The city can support the Tower Terrace Project by listening to the people already living there. For example, closing off Indian Creek Road. The people already there would like to have a traffic controlled intersection and keep Indian Creek Road open. The plans for changing the city toward the north should keep in mind the people already there and listen to their wishes and needs instead of always wanting to have it their way. The city should also highlight and advertise to get tourist groups to visit downtown Marion and our historic buildings, and also set up tours to see the Granger House. These are excellent historical landmarks to bring in outside funds as well to promote our city's new businesses going to the north to create revenue for them and our city.

STRNAD: Our city is getting to the point where we cannot serve all the needs of everyone now. Our previous studies with Blue Zone and other reports that I have read, state that people today are wanting this walkability in their neighborhoods. We desire to be able to walk to the pharmacy, convenience store, doctor's office, dentist, etc. By providing these services to strategic locations, it would be a balance that will be welcomed.

Q. With regard to the new Marion Library concept, do you support a public/private partnership or not, and why? What do you envision for the new Marion Library?

CUMMINS: If there is to be a new library, a partnership with an outside group would take the revenue it would take, to build it off the taxpayers back and I don't support putting apartments above the library. I believe in order to get the approval for the current Marion library, it was sold for everyone so it could be expanded when the building gets too small and now they're saying they can't, so which is it? Was it a big lie for the city to get a new library back then, or can we actually add on to the building? If they want to close 11th Street, I say add on to the existing library simply because that's how it was sold to the people to begin with. I would like to see a new library to the north where our town is expanding, and in the Linn-Mar School District to allow school kids and residents to use.

STRNAD: As things line up for a library in the uptown area, I must note that no final plan has been proposed to the city council. Because of how this is set up, the current idea will be a mixed-use building facility. The library board is in the process of putting the finishing touches on the upcoming proposal to the project. This expansion is a needed item for the library and the city. I think we all agree that a library is important for everyone's benefit. In the conversations that I have been having with the citizens, it has become clearer that there is a communication breakdown as to how this whole project comes together. Understanding that this "Building" again increases the tax basis for the city again shows that there is a great benefit to the city and its "Economic Development" that I outlined previously. With the increased retail space that it provides, it also provides additional living space by the residential property located on the upper floors. Bringing in the urban living component to our city is another consideration. In the middle of this comes the library. This library would be much larger, provide more services and can provide additional services that we do not have today. This current idea allows the library to operate on almost its current budget without having a huge demand for more working capital as a second library would require now. This also gives the library the flexibility in the future to alter its operating style by not making this a structure only intended for the library, should changes need to be made in the future to create "Satellite" facilities.

Q. Should the library have multi-use areas, such as shops, apartments, etc.? Why or why not?

CUMMINS: As I said earlier, I do not support apartments above a new library for the safety of our kids. I also don't support shops on the lower level, as I believe it would be a distraction to those who want to do research and those trying to relax after a long day of work.

STRNAD: I don't believe the library's intent is to own real estate. But having this service within the uptown area where so many people depend on walking and can use these services within walking distance would be a great plus for many.

Q. What are your feelings about adding another fire station in Marion, perhaps even two of them?

CUMMINS: We definitely need another fire station because response time is extremely important, especially in a life-threatening emergency. As our town keeps growing, I would advocate for adding a fourth fire station in the future.

STRNAD: The Fire Department has had their fire station location study done and it proves that there is a need for a third fire station and a fourth. Working in the insurance industry, I want to outline a detail here. Each City/Fire Department is given an ISO rating. ISO (Insurance Services Office) identifies what a city's rating will be based on. Items like number of apparatuses, water flow (gallons and minutes), response time etc. The lower the number the better our rating. Marion is currently a 3, seeking to find ways to become a 2. What does this mean for our city and us citizens? This means that the fire department is exceeding the expectations set forth by standards in responding to calls, prevention of fires, preventing loss of life and property only to mention a few. Each time this number drops in the rating, it also means savings to the residents and commercial businesses. Each policy owner experiences a lower premium in your city and fire departments insurance rates based on ISO rating. This means a savings to us and a safer city! Our city is ready for this addition, as it was 1991 since our last station #2 was put online. It is imperative that we keep our response time to a minimum. Currently right now, the Marion Fire Department arrives on scene in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, on average.

Q. How can Marion attract more jobs and businesses?

CUMMINS: Marion can attract more businesses which will create jobs if we promote the great schools we have for our kids, a great living environment with parks and walking trails, and the great work ethic our local residents have. Also, we can attract businesses with more room for future expansion of their business in our local area!

STRNAD: Currently right now we have a wonderful resource for businesses looking to relocate or start-up in Marion. We have the Marion Chamber of Commerce, MEDCO, UPTOWN and Commercial Realtors to name only a few for businesses to use. There are studies to show that there are needs for businesses to complement each other and needs for additional businesses to fill gaps and vacancies in our needs for services and goods in our community. The plans for additional growth are being worked on as this goes to print. The prints and drawing of site plans are impressive to witness as our great city continues to grow. With the trend that we see coming, there should be plenty of employment opportunities for everyone, and opportunities to retain our children and seniors who are entering into retirement and desire something part-time.
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