The forum, conducted by the Cherokee Tribune and WLJA radio 101.1 FM, drew about 75 residents to listen to the council hopefuls discuss the future of Woodstock.
Woodstock City Council candidates up for election include Warren Johnson and John Szczesniak for Ward 1; Judy Davila and incumbent Bob Mueller for Ward 3; and incumbent Bud Leonard and Susan L. Jones for Ward 5.
Davila and Jones were unable to attend the forum.
Candidates were given two minutes for opening statements, and Ward 1 candidates Johnson and Szczesniak spoke first.
Szczesniak, a 17-year Cherokee resident and Etowah graduate, has lived in Woodstock for seven years and said he’s seen the city change a lot. He’s served on the Planning and Zoning Commission for about seven years and said he’s worked with the city council on many different projects.
“We’ve done a lot, and there’s a lot more to be done,” Szczesniak said. “We’re at a pivotal role in changing how we support our infrastructure.”
Szczesniak said it’s important to “have strong leadership and move the city forward,” and he wants to form a stronger bond with the county to work together “across county lines.”
Johnson, a 13-year Woodstock resident, said he fell in love with the city and moved to the city when Woodstock was still a “sleepy” downtown.
“Along with the growth, we’ve also seen a lot of issues that have developed,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a pretty serious traffic issue, whether you’re sitting on 92 or gridlocked on Main Street, we’ve got a parking issue.”
Johnson said Woodstock also has a “debt issue,” and “it’s not sustainable to continue at the pace we have the last six years.”
Ward 3 incumbent Mueller, a 40-year Woodstock resident, has been a councilman for 18 years and served on the Planning and Zoning Commission for 10 years. He said the’s seen changes and the city is “doing great.”
“On the debt issue, if anybody out there owns a house, basically, you’re (in debt too),” Mueller said. “We’ll come out of it, especially since the (outlet) mall opened.”
Mueller said most people in the city like how Woodstock is growing, and, in the last six or seven years, “Woodstock has really come out of the hole and progressed faster than any city in the South.”
Ward 5 incumbent Leonard, a 20-year Cherokee resident with eight years on the city council, said when he came to Woodstock, Highway 92 was a two-lane road.
“I’m a retired first sergeant of the United States Army, and when I finished my 28 years of service in the military I wanted to find another way I could serve the public,” Leonard said. “In the last eight years, especially, I’ve seen Woodstock grow and become the envy of the state of Georgia.”
Leonard said Woodstock is held up as an example of “what a city should be like,” and of “fiscal management that moves the city forward.”
“After the crash of 2007 we had a decision — we could sit back and hold our hands as the mayor and council and hope things got better — (but) we chose to take a progressive approach,” Leonard said. “We chose to step out and make investments in the city’s future.”
Cherokee Tribune Managing Editor Rebecca Johnston moderated the forum, and a panel of journalists asked the candidates questions.
The three-person panel consisted of WLJA co-owner and longtime radio personality Byron Dobbs, WLJA radio news reporter Michael Searcy and Tribune reporter Joshua Sharpe.
The first question asked each person why he was the best candidate for the office.
Johnson said he isn’t a politician, he’s “a citizen who fell in love with the city.” He said he believes in growth and wants to maintain the small town atmosphere.
Szczesniak said he’s been a civil servant since high school, and he’s served the city for more than a decade. He said “it’s extremely important to be a civil servant, not a politician.”
Mueller said he’s the right person for the job because he’s got experience on the Planning and Zoning Commission and on the city council.
Leonard said one of his best qualifications was that he was a “proven business owner,” and said a city needs to be run like a business. He pointed to his eight years of experience on the board, more than 20 years running a business, and said his military experience shows he is also a “proven leader.”
Candidates were also asked to indentify the city’s most pressing issue and how it could be resolved. All four candidates at the forum agreed traffic needs attention. Mueller said that traffic and parking were a big problem, especially when there were concerts downtown.
“We’re going to work on that excessively,” Mueller said. “The Downtown Development Authority is also working on this, and it’s going to take time, like anything else, but we will have enough parking.”
Leonard said that since Woodstock has become “such a desirable place to live,” growth was both a problem, like traffic, and positive aspect of the city, such as increased revenue. He said that some solutions are already being implemented, with him on the council, like the SmartCode, a moratorium on apartment complexes, annexations and good management.
“Part of the problem of managing growth, is managing it with smart growth,” Leonard said.
Johnson agreed traffic was a big problem, and said taking traffic into consideration when developing the city would be a good solution, along with the grid program that has already begun.
“We need to really look at that during the development phase,” Johnson said.
Szczesniak said he supports the SmartCode and also thinks traffic is a big issue. He said the economy downturn caused the city’s grid program to move slower, but said he supports the plan moving forward as quickly as possible.
“If we don’t want debt, we can’t just go out and buy up all the property (for the grid). We have to wait for it as it develops and comes into the grid,” Szczesniak said. “That’s how you alleviate the downtown traffic.”
Szczesniak said the city has been looking at expanding along Highway 92 to alleviate some of the congestion, and the street grid was the main priority.
“I believe (Highway 92) is the second busiest road in the state,” Szczesniak said. “I think there’s a ton of possibilities to get people from an entire area and move them out so it’s not so congested.
Mueller said he saw Highway 92 go from one to eight lanes, and there have been many improvements, but there’s still an influx of people.
“As long as we have an influx of people, which is very good for the city, we’re going to have traffic,” Mueller said. “Everybody loves Woodstock, they love to come to Woodstock.”
Leonard said there are no good answers for relieving congestion on Highway 92. He said, right now, “there are just more wheels than there is asphalt.”
“Most of Highway 92 is controlled by the DOT,” Leonard said. “We’ve had several turn lanes that have been added … and every one of these things were a fight with the DOT to get things done. The coordination of traffic lights is something we’ve looked at, and it wouldn’t work simply because the fiber optics were not cost effective at the time.”
Johnson said pushing development onto Highway 92 could be done to expand downtown.
“If we can have a cohesive theme, it can continue to expand and still remain a part of downtown, I think we’d be able to expand our development, keeping that same feel to it,” Johnson said.
The candidates were asked about their feelings on the city’s debt and how it should be managed.
Leonard said “anyone who’s in business understands that debt is an investment.”
“We have, currently, just over $44 million (in debt), and $24 million of that is in a water and sewer plant that, we didn’t have any choice, we had to spend for the upgrades to get the water/sewer plant in compliance with the EPA standards,” Leonard said. “The rest of that debt centers around facilities and infrastructure. By the end of 2015, there’s going to be another, I think $4.5 million of debt paid off, and the remainder of the debt is long-term debt… the entire debt will be liquidated by 2030.”
Leonard said the city is not “going into the hole, it’s an investment in the city.”
Mueller said, in the same way that a homeowner has debt, “that’s the way it works in the city and that’s the way it works in everyday life.”
“I think that the main thing, is we’re going to be out of debt in 2030, I think that we’re doing very well. The city of Woodstock is growing like crazy,” Mueller said.
Szczesniak said managing the debt is always going to be a challenge.
“Grow smarter, and use that money appropriately. And make sure you’re a good steward of those funds,” Szczesniak said. “I think the city is on the right track. I think the Chief Financial Officer has a great plan for us, and I see our debt being easily withdrawn, as long as we don’t go too far.”
Johnson agreed debt is an investment, but said with any investment the “risk and reward” need to be looked at.
“The debt is a matter that we agree it is not sustainable to continue to increase the debt at quickly as we have. We invest well, we get a return for our investment, but we cannot continue to spend the way we have been in the last six years and not take some responsibility for the outcome,” Johnson said.
When asked how they would make themselves available for residents to communicate with them, all four candidates said they are always available.
Szczesniak said his phone is on 24 hours, seven days a week, and offered an apology to his wife in the audience, saying that residents could “call anytime.”
“My phone is pretty much 24/7,” Szczesniak said. “Having worked with the HOA, and getting a sense of how immediate everyone’s needs are, I think it’s very important to be able to get in touch with someone and express your concern, your frustration or your need.”
Mueller said being on the council was a time-consuming job, and encouraged people to attend city council meetings.
“I’m available 24/7. I have my city phone and my private phone, which is online also,” Mueller said. “I’m available.”
Leonard said the best way to reach him is through email, and said he checks it multiple times a day and responds promptly.
“Just about any time we have a city function downtown … I talk to many, many people there,” Leonard said. “I don’t keep myself hidden, I’m very much in the public in Woodstock. I get a lot of phone calls, and I’m always available, I’m visible … I’m approachable.”
Johnson said he’s always available through multiple means, especially with today’s media options.
“I have a headset at work because I’m always on the phone, through today’s technology with email and cellphones and other various ways, there’s no reason that I wouldn’t be reachable,” Johnson said. “I am always available.”
The council hopefuls were asked about their views on property taxes in Woodstock, and asked if anything needed to change.
Johnson said, today, property taxes in Woodstock were not “significantly bad.”
“If you look at the millage rate for property taxes since 2008, it has been increased almost every year, one year it remained flat,” Johnson said. “They’ve increased the tax rates on us every single year and that was necessary.”
Johnson said the city needs revenues to provide services, but said, as the property tax digest rises he hopes to roll back the millage rate.
Szczesniak said “it’s just not feasible” to provide the current services and address infrastructure if taxes are rolled back as much as possible.
“Currently our budget is at the lowest it could be, before we start cutting into police and fire and I don’t think there’s anybody that wants to see that happen,” Szczesniak said. “Yes, I would always love to say I could lower property taxes, but I would also like to make sure I’m being a good steward to the citizens, first, and not making change that would have a negative impact on the city.”
Mueller said that the city has been revenue neutral for “several years.”
“Houses will go up and down, and we can’t control that,” Mueller said. “Revenue comes from people’s taxes … I think the record on Woodstock is pretty well, since the last, I’d say 80 years, we’ve gone down and not up.”
Leonard said in the last five years, there’s been one tax increase that amounted to less than $50 on a $100,000 house, one tax decrease and three years of being revenue neutral.
“When the digest goes down and the millage rate goes up, it’s to compensate, it keeps us revenue neutral,” Leonard said. “Since 2008, we really haven’t had any significant tax increases, taxes have remain fairly level. If the digest goes down and we have to raise the millage rate, it’s to keep us on a level playing field so that we don’t have to cut back city services and lay people off.”
Leonard said the overall budget has been reduced since he took office, and agreed with Johnson, saying that if the tax digest goes up, he’s “all for” dropping the millage rate.
In closing statements, Mueller said he wants to stay on the council to help Woodstock grow faster, and keep progressing the city forward.
Leonard said he sees momentum, and a growing tax base, and he wants it to continue. Leonard asked the audience, “are you better off today than you were eight years ago? If the answer to that question is yes, then I don’t think you have any choice but to vote for Bud Leonard for another four years.”
Johnson said he wanted to help the city grow in a smart way, and said it didn’t need to happen so fast. He said that he manages projects and a large budget for a living, and said he had “the skills and abilities to make tough decisions.”
Szczesniak said the distinct difference between himself and Johnson is what speed of growth is best for Woodstock. He said coming out of such a bad recession, the idea of slowing growth scares him.