Candidate forum focuses on Danville commission’s past decisions

Published 6:53 am Friday, November 2, 2018

Danville’s four current city commissioners and two challengers hoping to take a seat on the commission came together on one stage Thursday night for an hour-long candidate forum — the final Boyle County candidate forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce before Tuesday’s general election.

From the start, the questions drafted by the Chamber of Commerce and delivered by forum moderator Hershel McKinley were bluntly critical of the current commission and some of its bigger decisions in recent years.

McKinley asked about the city’s dilapidated downtown fire station and the plan to build a new one next door to city hall. “This condition did not happen overnight,” he said. “Why have ongoing repairs and maintenance not been done prior to this pressing disaster? It appears that no one has been watching.”

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Commissioner J.H. Atkins said he’s been on the commission for eight years and discussions about the condition of the fire station have been ongoing the whole time.

“As this goes on, 14 sites have been assessed and evaluated, and I feel really good about the decision the city has made to keep the fire station downtown,” he said.

Commissioner Kevin Caudill said at one time, firefighters had used plastic sheeting to control leaking in the building when it rained and route it out of a window. The city got the roof fixed in that case, but at this point, it’s time for an entirely new station.

“It was built in 1963 and we have put Band-Aids on it as long as we can,” Caudill said.

Caudill said the property next to city hall that the commission has voted to purchase was “not my first choice” but the property he had hoped to use wouldn’t be able to accommodate the fire station.

Commissioner Rick Serres said the fire station first landed on his radar when an engineering report was completed during his current term that went through the station’s many problems in detail. The city’s first had an architect work on a new station that could go in the current location, then began looking for other locations that could work.

“We were just handed this and we’re doing the best we can,” Serres said.

Commissioner Denise Terry said part of city commissioners’ jobs is to “make 50-year decisions” that will be looked back on by future residents as good ones.

“And I’m not even 50 years old, so that’s a little difficult sometimes to wrap your head around,” she said.

Terry commended Danville firefighters for doing a great job maintaining the old station and making it work. “It could be a lot worse,” she said.

Challenger Charles Singleton said he would like to see the new fire station remain on Main Street.

“Age is going to take advantage of us,” he said of the old building. “… As far as repairing the building, sometimes you just can’t put a Band-Aid on an open wound. It’s got to be addressed.”

Challenger Ronald Devrick criticized the city for deciding to spend $1.15 million on the land next door to city hall; he said he believes there is a $400,000 property available that could serve the purpose as well. “They’ve immediately over-extended the city by like three-quarters of a million dollars,” he said.

Devrick said the chosen property will have to be demolished, leveled and prepared before any construction could begin, and firefighters will have to continue to operate out of the existing fire station in the meantime.

Payroll tax increase

Another question took the city commission to task for a 2017 increase to the net profits and payroll taxes estimated to generate an additional $2.2 million annually. Commissioners said when they passed the increase in 2017 that it would help fund, among other things, a new ladder fire truck and the new downtown fire station.

McKinley questioned why the city’s current budget plans to spend a combined $7.5 million out of reserves in the general and utility funds on capital improvements, when the tax increase is estimated to bring in $2.2. million. “How do you explain that?” he asked.

“I voted against the tax increase that you’re talking about,” responded Atkins.

Caudill similarly touted his vote against the tax increase.

“At some point, we’re going to have to play with the money we have, and we all need to keep that in mind, starting with this budget year,” he said.

Serres said the commission voted for the increase because “we wanted to keep progressing this community.”

“One of the big things we talk here about is economic development,” he said. “And if we want economic development, we’ve got to invest in ourselves.”

Serres and Terry noted the commission was originally presented with a proposal to increase the payroll tax by .5 percent and they voted instead to increase it by .4 percent.

“None of us wanted to do that for the second time in two years,” Terry said, but the city needs funding to keep things moving forward in areas like workforce development. “We need to fund that. We need to run a feeder system with our high schools and have these kids be work-ready. … We need to teach the next generation trades. We need electricians, plumbers, those kinds of things.”

Singleton kept his answer to the question short, stating that “raising taxes is not on my radar.” Sometimes, a new fire truck may be needed, but he said he would not be for any tax increases.

Devrick said the city’s spending “doesn’t surprise me.” He said the city is “up against a wall” in regards to how much more it could increase the payroll tax, which is at 1.9 percent and can’t go above 2 percent. He also questioned why the city’s recently completed water treatment plant project cost around $26 million, when he said the original cost estimate was around $11 million.

Raises for elected officials

Another question aimed at the sitting commissioners concerned a pay raise for the city’s elected officials. The current commission voted earlier this year to increase city commissioner salaries from $6,056.04 to $9,084.06 and the mayor’s salary from $10,272.96 to $15,409.44, at a total annual cost of $17,248.56, or 50 percent more than the current salaries.

The raises go into effect in 2019, for the next elected city commissioners and mayor (Mayor Mike Perros is unopposed for reelection).

McKinley told the candidates starting salaries for Danville police officers have gone up by $272 since 2003. “Last year, the mayor and city commissioners voted themselves a 104-percent pay increase,” McKinley said as he read the question. “How can you justify that to the citizens of Danville?”

“In short, I couldn’t, so I didn’t,” Caudill responded. “I did not vote for that particular increase. I can’t defend that. That’s something that we have to change. Do I have any quick answers? Of course not. There are no quick answers.”

But Caudill said city staff and the police department are talking about the situation and “recognizing that there is a problem” with police-officer pay.

Serres called the numbers quoted on police salaries by McKinley “bleak.” He noted he voted against the increase to elected officials’ salaries with Caudill.

“Certainly, we do want to look at our police department and bring those salaries up,” he said.

“I don’t agree with the numbers on that,” Terry said of the question.

Terry noted of the raise, “We didn’t give it to ourselves,” that it will take effect for whoever takes office. She said she voted for the increase to put the city in line with what the county pays magistrates.

The police pay scale does need to be adjusted so Danville can attract and retain experienced and educated officers, Terry said.

Atkins said while he voted in favor of the salary increase, he sincerely regrets it now.

“I regret voting for it, I tried to rescind my vote and I’m apologizing for it again tonight,” he said. “I have always made it known I support salary increases for all Danville employees.”

Singleton and Devrick were critical of the city for allowing the police department to serve as an “academy” for new officers to get experience before taking new jobs with agencies that pay better.

Singleton said he stands behind Danville’s police officers and firefighters.

“We need to up their salary as commissioners; we don’t need to worry about our salary, we need to worry about their salary,” he said.

“Quite frankly, I think the city manager, Mr. (Ron) Scott, set you guys up to fail by putting that increase before you,” Devrick said of the raises for elected officials. “I feel really, really sorry for you because he didn’t explain it and it did a number on you.”

Devrick said the city needs a schedule of pay that will allow the city to retain officers. “We need to do that just for self-preservation. Our guys are going on elsewhere; we need to keep them in the City of Danville.”

Hypothetical restaurant tax

Multiple candidates questioned the numbers on a question about a hypothetical restaurant tax in Danville. No restaurant tax could currently exist in a city of Danville’s size, but there is a possibility that legislation next year could make a restaurant tax legal.

If legalized, Danville would have the option to institute a sales tax on restaurant bills of between 1 and 3 percent. In June, Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jennifer Kirchner estimated a full 3-percent restaurant tax could generate a total of about $1.9 million — $400,000 for the CVB and $1.5 million earmarked for economic development in the city — from all restaurant sales.

McKinley told the candidates that “one report demonstrated how this could turn a $54 dinner check for two into $70” and that a restaurant tax would “cost the residents of Danville an additional $1.9 million per year to dine out.”

“Do you support a restaurant tax and why?” McKinley asked.

“Based on that question, that looks pretty dim, so I probably would not,” Serres said.

But, he cautioned, he would want to digest all the information on such a topic before actually making a decision.

“I would want to look at all the information that’s there,” he said. “I don’t know if I like those numbers or believe them, but certainly if they’re true, the answer would probably be no.”

Terry similar answered, “I don’t think I agree with the math on that question.”

“You’re talking about 1 to 3 cents on the dollar that has to be used for economic development,” she said, noting that while 30,000 people live in Boyle County, it pulls in more than 100,000 people.

“That means that three times our population are coming into this county. They’re working, they’re eating, they’re shopping, they’re using our roads, they’re using our electricity, they’re using our water, and they’re not paying for it,” she said. “A 1-percent restaurant tax could bring us about $700,000 or $800,000 for local economic development, and Parks & Rec could be considered economic development.”

Devrick said he also doesn’t believe the $54-to-$70 figure stated in the question.

“I believe the number is about 6 percent,” he said.

Devrick said he wouldn’t want to see all the money from a restaurant tax go to parks.

“Instead of putting more trails out there, how about putting some sidewalks in neighborhoods and keep kids from having to walk on the streets to have to get to their schools?” he asked. “… We need to do more than just think about parks all the time. I think that I would have to look at it more closely. 1 to 3 percent wouldn’t hurt us all that much.”

Singleton said, “Raising taxes is not on my radar, but I understand what they’re saying: We need to focus on our community. But as far as raising taxes, we need to look elsewhere before we do that.”

Atkins said “the research is still out” on a restaurant tax and he can’t say “yes or no” on the issue at this point.

If the state legislature were to make it legal for Danville to have a restaurant tax, Atkins said it would be “worth taking a look at it.”

Caudill was also skeptical of the figures stated in the question.

“Part of the problem is the nature of the answers we’ve had and the question itself. Nobody really knows what this is about,” he said. “And so, until that time it would be very difficult for me to say if I would be in favor or not. If it’s turning a $54 bill into a $70 bill, I’m certainly not in favor of. A small percentage, 1 to 3 percent, is something I would consider. But like all things of this magnitude, I would want to get significant input from everyone — restaurant owners and restaurant customers.”

This story has been updated to clarify that the Chamber of Commerce drafted the questions used in the forum.