The city’s department heads and their assistants might want to look over their shoulders if Republicans Steve Carmichael or Dave Compton are elected to the City Council Oct. 15.
Both men said at a candidates forum Sept. 25 that if job cuts are imposed to improve the city’s finances, the cuts should start at the top and make their way down.
The warning shots did not quiet much when Libertarian Michael Knebel took the microphone.
Knebel wants the city to take a serious look at handing many of its functions – he specifically mentioned the recreation and fire departments – to the private sector, using the savings to reduce taxes.
Only Steven Dawes, who drew laughter when he described himself as “the tax-and-spend Democrat in the race,” sounded a conciliatory note as he repeatedly praised council members for raising taxes in order to maintain services.
“Compared to having rotating blackouts for our fire department one day out of four – we now know that our home insurance rates would have skyrocketed if that had happened,” he said.
The forum, sponsored by the Bellevue Leader and moderated by Leader Managing Editor Scott Stewart, was held at the Bellevue Volunteer Firefighter Hall at 2108 Franklin St. The four candidates are contesting the open Ward I seat on the City Council.
Carmichael, who served 17 years as Bellevue’s chief building official, said the pending burden of a full-time paid fire department will force the city to take a close look its higher-paid employees. Over the next several years the cost of operating a fire department will soar from $2.8 million a year to $12 million, he said.
“We’ve got to get a handle on that,” Carmichael said. “The city was planning to cut 20 employees. I disagreed vehemently with that. They were all low-level employees. If we’re going to evaluate personnel, my philosophy is evaluate all personnel and consolidate the top levels of our administrative staff.”
Compton, who owns D.C. Electric in Olde Towne, stressed a single theme throughout the evening: economic development.
He said everything the city wants to do, from funding a full-time paid fire department to installing infrastructure in developable land south of the city, depends on attracting business activity that will generate sales tax revenue.
The city of Papillion, just a few miles west of Bellevue, shows what can be done, he said.
“Papillion has made economic development number one on their priority list,” he said. “That is why they’re where they’re at, and we’re where we’re at. The City of Bellevue has not made that number one on their list at all.”
Knebel urged the city to ease its code enforcement function, a clear contrast with Dawes, who called for its strengthening.
Knebel said code enforcement, and the permits and inspections department generally, is a lead culprit in chasing business developers away.
“If you talk to people from Papillion, Dundee, Omaha, even Lincoln, one of the things they say is, ‘Isn’t that the city that has a lot of repressive codes?’ It is,” Knebel said.
“Try putting an awning on your house, or a front porch, or make small repairs, how many permits and red tape do you have to go through? This is a department that has way too much funding, way too much time and way too much control over our personal lives, our properties and our businesses.”
Dawes said the permits and inspections department plays a critical role ensuring that businesses operating in Bellevue do so safely.
“We have a business in Olde Towne that’s leaving because it can’t get the landlord to fix items that need to be fixed under city code,” he said. “Codes need some enforcement behind them.”
Carmichael said he would look elsewhere for cuts, citing in particular the more than $500,000 the city spent on legal services last year, and the hiring of an assistant city administrator.
“We hired the city administrator to administer the city, and now we’ve hired a second one to administer the city,” he said. “I find that a little bit odd.”
The re-emergence of Olde Towne, an area that forms the heart of Ward I, was an important topic for all four candidates.
Compton said the phased removal of the City Hall complex is an opportunity to restore the area’s identity as a vibrant commercial zone. He said private funding in the form of grants should be sought to attract new businesses to the area.
“I would love to see a grocery store down there,” he said.
Carmichael and Knebel found common ground in calling for reduced regulations to encourage business startups in Olde Towne.
“When I was growing up, downtown Bellevue was a small, vibrant community, a place where we all went,” Carmichael said. “We need incentive-based economic development in order to get businesses to locate downtown.
“But you have to reduce the restrictions, permits, design standards, the fees that we charge. People don’t open businesses if they’re not going to make money. We have to make that viable.”
Knebel agreed that more economic activity would occur in Olde Towne if the area was more business-friendly.
“Why are other small towns successful,” he said. “I spoke to some friends who own businesses in Dundee and Papillion. I asked them if they ever thought about building in Olde Towne. A few actually have. I think we would attract a lot more business if we made it easier.”
Dawes dismissed concerns that Olde Towne is a difficult place to do business.
He said the success of the Swine Dining restaurant, which took space previously occupied by the Old Fontenelle Gun Shop, proves businesses can succeed in the area.
“Restrictive codes did not stop Swine Dining from being successful,” he said. “They do more business in a day than the gun shop did in a month, and that means sales tax coming into the city.”
Candidates fielded 16 questions during the two-hour session.
The forum will be aired on Bellevue TV, Cox Channel 17, every day at 7 a.m. through Oct. 12, as well as weekdays at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m.