Five of the eight candidates for alderman in the City of Racine participated in a forum Thursday at Gateway where residents asked the majority of the questions.

The forum was hosted by the Racine Taxpayers Association and Racine County Eye. Both the RTA and RCE contributed two questions, but the rest were submitted by members of the audience.

Monte Osterman (5th District); Eric Mohr and Ray DeHahn (7th District); and Melissa Lemke and Edward Diehl (15th District) were present. Steve Smetana (Osterman’s opponent) and neither 11th District candidate – Mary Land and Angelo Karamitos – were present.

After a two-minute opening statement, George Meyer from the taxpayers group read the first question. Here are some of the highlights; the entire forum video is attached to this story.

Do you think we have enough police officers and fire fighters?

Osterman: I believe right now that we do. I recently had an experience when I had to call emergency services, and the response was swift, adequate, and very good. If we have to eliminate personnel that would be an issue; based on personal experience we have adequate staff in the fire departement, and based on interactions with police as well, I do believe we have the staff there.

Mohr: Without knowing exact numbers, and I haven’t checked into that, but I haven’t received any complaints so, yes, I’d have to say we have an adequate amount as of right now.

DeHahn – Yes, we have enough, but the response for paramedics is considerably higher than I’d like. It’s important to we look at rescue squads sometime in the future.

Lemke – There’s a presence you see on the streets of police and fire, and people are very proud of our police and fire. I’ve talked to three residents of the 15th District who are public safety personnel, and they echoed Alderman DeHahn’s concerns about paramedics and said particularly on the north side response times are higher … I’d be willing to find out more about how to staff differently the paramedic side of things.

Diehl – Some police protocols require two or three officers to show up, so it depends on what you want for police services. Some calls delayed because we don’t have enough people on staff; if we have critical situations, we certainly can’t cut more. On fire, response times are up by sometimes as much as 10 seconds. For anyone who thinks 10 seconds isn’t a long time, try having a heart attack or watch a video and see a Christmas tree catch on fire. At the very least we shouldn’t cut any more from public safety.

What can be done about the excessive time it takes for new businesses to get a permit?

Mohr: That’s been a question I’ve been writing down and asking myself. I think we need to simplify the process. I’ve been through a process once when I applied for a bar license (bad idea) and I seen what it took and it seemed I wasn’t getting answers anywhere. There’s not sheets … I think we should have businesses working now … make a checklist maybe. The sheet I got at City Hall really didn’t help me. I would like to dig in and find out what the reasoning is.

DeHahn: We need to streamline the system, right now it gerrymanders all over the place. People call me and I tell them to go to this person and that person, and it ends up like jumping over a fence. The keep going back and forth. There’s a way to streamline, we just have to get department heads together and how to do this thing better.

Lemke: – In order to streamline the permitting process, I think what needs to happen is, when you run for office you get a great packet with the exact steps so we should do something similar for people betting small business permits so it’s clear the steps you need to take, who you need to contact … and hopefully you can do it in quick succession.

Diehl: Staff and personnel with the city need to have the same sense of urgency the businesses have. These folks take personal and professional risk every day, not just with their own finances, but employing other people. I’d like to revisit the entire conditional use process. Maybe we could change the whole zoning situation; the place can be zoned retail and still have have to … talk about all of these things and then it’s “yay” or “nay” if it fits into the vision of that particular area. Make it more upfront and streamline the process so it doesn’t come down to design review at the end and have projects delayed six or eight months.

Osterman: Each one of the candidates is right and each of them is wrong. The process cannot be piecemealed; we can’t just change zoning; can’t change just the permit application. What can be done is what I’ve been talking about my entire campain: lean government initiative … is an entire process for continuity. We go through the entire thing from mayor to front line workers for create an entirely new process increase efficiencies and eliminates waste. In government the best thing we sell is time – if we can decrease time though process like lean government initiative, that’s how we can change this for new businesses coming in.

Is it really the city’s responsibility to solve the emergency overnight shelter situation in Racine?

DeHahn – I’d say yes, and one reason is because whether they homeless or not, they are our citizens. Maybe through a combination of the county board and city council to work together to get that resolved. HALO is in place and doing fine job, but some folks are not welcome there because they don’t abide by the rules. Somewhere along the line, we need to step up for those and find a place and work with county government. Because without that, these folks continue to suffer.

Lemke: I work with the Faithworks Council on issues of hunger and homelessness. I believe it’s partially the city’s responsibility to solve the homelessness problem, but the city is only one player. The city alone does not have the resources, but city needs representation at the table along with the Continuum of Care, a group of non-profits, also the county, and individual citizens. It’s going to take a whole lot more. The city has a role, absolutely, but the city is not the only group responsible.

Diehl: That’s not completely correct about HALO; there’s all sorts of criteria that can get people kicked out or not accepted. I was an overnight volunteer; I’m an advocate for the homeless in this area. There’s a difference between starving in midst of nothing and starving in the midst of plenty of food. We have around 50% unoccupied beds in the shelters here – not including the Hospitality Center. We need to do a better job directing resources and personnel at the problem we know exists. The people who don’t have a place to say now that the Hospitality Center closed, I wish those people had somewhere to stay tonight. Let’s get them theservices already available and let them stay somewhere.

Osterman: I am the Vice-chairman of Racine county health and human development committee, and we deal with homeless and mental illness. The two almost always go hand in hand. The first thing that needs to happen is more focus on mental health awareness and services. That will help curb the need to serve the homeless. Ms. Lemke is right; everybody should work as a family together – the city, county, and the state .We need to work together to tackle this problem and we can’t turn our back on this because it costs more money. Dealing upfront with the problem in a proactive manner eliminates future costs, but we so have a problem with state budget cuts in health and human services department.

Mohr: Yeah, real easy the city, the community, the county everybody has to be involved. Is it going to be the city’s money? I’m not so sure about that. The Hospitality Center seemed like a good thing so don’t know why we can’t find the money for that when we find money for everything else. $4,000 in donations, classic example, but we don’t have a homeless facility.

I-794 will be extended in the future. What route through Racine would you recommend; down Memorial, West Blvd, the old train route, or Highway 31?

Lemke: I think the first thing we should so is talk to the people in the area who will be impacted, because people have strong opinions about these things as demonstated by the roundabout. Highway 31 would seem to be the best route to go because of its direct route into the metro area, but we have to to talk to the people and businesses impacted.

Diehl: Somebody needs to start with a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – for what would best route to run that through the city.  There are environmental issues as well. We need to talk to engineers at state and local level for best decision. Racine is limited in attracting new employers and new manufacturers because of 20 minutes; it is a 20 minute community from downtown to the interstate … a  trucking company loses a significant percentage of travel … so the highway has to come through here somehow.

Osterman: I have received some preliminary information, and studies are very early so not all the information is available. It can take years to study the situation and find out the most efficient way to do this. Highway 31 would be problematic because it’s spanning several municipalities and there would have to be intergovernmental cooperation. ; West Blvd could involve a lot of extra expense because of having to acquire property; right now, Memorial Drive location seems to be the most feasible to at least study in-depth simply because of the number of properties would have to be purchased and how far you can take those  easements, plus the majority of it is in the city you’d have a more controlled environment for governmental cooperation.

Mohr: The state’s going to have to decide; it the DOT said they weren’t going to put the roundabout in, and we decided for it; I don’t think the city should worry about the way it’s going on; maybe just approve it. The state has the smart guys we and know where the road’s supposed to come in; we don’t need to spend money on what road is going to work. The state should tell us.

DeHahn: We have a study going on for better access to the city; made the proposal last fall to run four lanes down KR to 32 and four lanes down 4-Mile to 32. SEWRPC said to pass the resolution and they would study it and they’d return a recommendation in 2015. It’s not rocket science; but they could understand the need; why people are not locating here is because they don’t have easy access. Highway 20 isn’t the way to do it.

What is your opinion of Machinery Row type of projects? Should we do more of these or is this an activity for private sector investments rather than taxpayer money?

Diehl: We need more up front cooperation with developers and not have them at the end. We have economin development issues, and we need to kickstart these things in the city. My job is to provide transparency, and I think that makes the project better; better for taxpayers; better for everybody involved. I do think my peripheral enterprise concept around TIF districts, which would allow assessments to be locked for five years to allow those businesses to take on the risk to grow, to hire more people and to attract more businesses might be the missing piece of the TIF district concept. It’s up at the state level being discussed.

Osterman: I am very much in favor of Machinery Row and projects like it. The question is whether this should be private or public sector funds, but the days of separate funding are over. Local governments work with non-profits and private investors and entrepreneurs on projects to move cities forward. It’s almost like projects gets auctioned off. A project comes to Racine by means of discussion and by means of a lot cheerleading. When somebody decides to locate a project here, they see an advantage so public-private project partnership; I am very much in favor of them because they do increase the tax base.

Mohr: I didn’t like Machinery Row; I’m sure it’s a great project, but is the time right now? I think there are other things to spend money on; I realize tax base goes up. I understand we need the new stuff to bring taxes down, but you know … bigger is not always better. Sometimes it’s good to stay where you’re at and get the world class facilities. Do we want to fill up the Root River and the lakefront with high rises? I don’t want to live in a city like that. I think the quaintness of 76,000 people is pretty good. If we bring all that stuff in, it helps the tax base but also brings in more services like more cops, more firemen; it’s a never-ending battle. I think we should be happy with what we have.

DeHahn: Machinery Row – the thing out there is that if you do nothing, you get nothing. So if you take $65 million investment – the city borrowed them $4 million, and that’s not free. They’re paying taxes back to us, plus the principal and interest. You have to be a little visionary. Those buildings have sat empty for 40 years doing nothing, and here comes a gentleman willing to invest in our lakefront and in that area. Is manufacturing coming back? No, not in that way, but small business? Yes, we’re hoping to pull them in and support them

Lemke: As I go around, I think the biggest challenges in Racine are clustered around unemployement, Job growth and poverty. The state gave $1 million to clean up the Machinery Row area with a projected 100 jobs in the near term and 500 jobs in the long term. I don’t think Racine – given our unemployment rate – can afford to turn down 500 jobs in the middle of the city. We need to look for projects like this, and I agree we are in an age of public/private partnerships so they should be funded with both public and private dollars.

People are voting with their feet by moving out of Racine. How do we stop the exodus?

Osterman: Some of that is natural curvature of the earth – people want to expand – they want to move out, but nationwide people are coming back to cities and back to urban environments which is why Machinery Row projects take off. We have to engage young people from the beginning. The entire idea of the youth council is to get them to come back to Racine with their education and talents after college.

Diehl:  Taxes are high, employment is poor. The high taxes make people leave town who are on fixed incomes; reitred folks when people are shopping for a place to live, they look at Racine and unless they’re brining their own business with them, employment prospects are low.  – have to do better job of encouraging with small biz growth & develop; to acctract jobs, people,  jobs, families; more revenue to drive down debt and decrease taxes. That’st he only thing that will make people decide to stay or move here.

Lemke: I prefer to look at our assets and what’s coming in. One of the things we notice is that peole tend to be coming up more from the south – from Chicago and Kenosha. So instead of our three close sister cities, I would encourage closer partnerships with folks to the south because they bring the income to Racine and to Southeast Wisconsin.

DeHahn: By bringing in small business and use lakefront where our boats are; the $22 million development from the county. We have another 100 boats coming this year that weren’t there last year. his year; Those bring people and money into community. People leaving is their choice. We used to have a lot of industry so people stayed; When industry left so did the people. We have to encourage small business people and be active; and that’s what our mayor has done;  bringing people in to live in our community. We’re on the right path, we just have to continue it.

Mohr: Basically brain drain is what we’re suffering from. I’ve lost a lot of family because they’ve left the area. Wisconsin has lost a lot of people – it’s not just Racine. Jobs are great and small business are fantastic and make area the community vibrant. But you have to get paid to want to live in that community. I can’t come here and live on $9 an hour. We need jobs that will pay more. The key is, we need some sort of transportation system. I know it costs money. I thought high speed rail statewide would have been great. I could work in LaCrosse and live in Racine or work in Madison or work in Chicago. Driving takes a long time. That’s where I’m losing a lot of my young friends; they work in Milwaukee os they move to Milwaukee.

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