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Council candidates discuss sales tax at forum

WORTHINGTON -- City Council candidates tackled issues surrounding the controversial local option sales tax at a forum Tuesday, also answering concerns about the potential for a long-awaited senior citizens center.

Candidates began the forum, which was sponsored by the Government Affairs Committee of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Darrell Stitt, with an opening response.

Mike Woll, the incumbent alderman-at-large, spoke of the city's current potential following years of slow growth.

"I want to push the community toward great things but with an awareness of the fiscal aspect of things," he said.

Scott Nelson, who is challenging incumbent Bob Petrich in Ward 2, said he had been in the community nearly 20 years and spoke of his qualifications, saying he is "a good listener and a team player." Jason Barrie, who is challenging Woll for the alderman-at-large seat, talked about community projects he's been involved with and his work at Lynch Livestock.

"I'd like the opportunity to keep moving Worthington in the right direction," he said.

Lyle Ten Haken, who is running unopposed in Ward 1, read a statement detailing his family and work history. He has been the owner of Echo Lighting Design Gallery since 1979.

"Having been in business for nearly 30 years in Worthington, I bring a level of experience to city government from the private sector side of the fence," he said. "We have the responsibility to it that the taxpayer is getting their money's worth."

Ward 2 incumbent Petrich gave a history of his experience and said he had enjoyed his time on the council.

"Council has kept me busy and I like to be busy," he said.

Stitt asked candidates to voice their opinions of the local option sales tax, to be presented to voters Nov. 4. Four candidates supported the tax, talking about the value an events center and a renovated Memorial Auditorium would add to the community.

"We've been without a facility of that type for many years," Woll said of the events center.

Petrich added the tax would allow visitors to partial fund the projects, where other methods would not. Ten Haken acknowledged difficult economic times, but said the tax would have a minimal impact on families while freeing up city funds.

"It frees up the budget to allow a senior center to go into a normal budgeting routing much easier," he said.

Only Barrie opposed the tax, saying the proposal had "a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions" to be dealt with before the vote, which is less than two weeks away.

"I'd like to see the senior center on top of the list," he said, referencing the fact that tax collected cannot be used to fund recreational facility for senior citizens.

Candidates were also asked to describe how they would fund a proposed senior citizens' center.

"I think it's going to have to come from city funds. It's way overdue," Nelson said. He explained he wouldn't use hospital sale funds outright, but would consider borrowing against them and paying the money back later.

"We owe it to our seniors to build something that's functional for them ... so they can go on and enjoy their day just like we do," Barrie said.

Ten Haken and Woll said the need for organization of programs is more important than the need for a facility, and noted that a half-time staff person has been dedicated to researching the needs of area seniors.

The forum was then opened for questions from the audience. One attendee asked whether a referendum with similar goals could be passed in years to come.

Candidates said this was a last-chance vote. "We've got a small window to get this done," said Petrich.

Candidates also answered questions about how they would prioritize Memorial Auditorium, a community center complex and a senior center. Most stopped short of giving a clear prioritization, but council members pointed out the city's dedication to a senior center. Nelson and Barrie, meanwhile, questioned whether the three buildings could be combined into one or two.

The final question dealt with the uncertainty of state funds, asking candidates what they would do if Local Government Aid monies continued to decline.

All agreed corners would be cut and innovation would be necessary.

"I wouldn't cut the senior center,' said Ten Haken. "The golf course would be on the chopping block for me. ... I'd have to give up golf before I'd give up unplowed streets."

In the candidates' closing responses, many spoke of issues that went unaddressed at the forum.

Woll mentioned the housing shortage, while Nelson made reference to the city's assets, mentioning Lake Okabena and Prairie View Golf Links. Barrie talked about his desire to serve the city.

"I guess I'm a little wet behind the ears, if you want to say that," he said, "but I'm willing to learn ... (I want to) see Worthington keep striving to move forward and be a successful community."

Ten Haken spoke of the need for an increase in the number of "living wage" jobs and detailed plans to improve the housing shortage.

"Bottom line is we have a gap between the developers cost of providing housing and the renters' ability or desire to pay the rent level needed," Ten Haken said. "I intend to continue to have discussions with major employers and developers to bridge that gap. My goal is to have free enterprise, 'supply and demand,' balance the housing issue and the government roll is to help and not hinder the process. As we prepare for an uncertain future, let us keep the faith, stay strong and work together."

Petrich said he won't seek re-election after this upcoming term, but would like to finish strong.

"I'd like to go out in a blaze of glory and finish it up," he said.