At a Dyersville City candidate forum, candidates jockeyed for position, with sharp disagreement on the state of city finances and the role of municipal debt, as well as other issues.
In the Nov. 3 election, incumbent Al Haas and former council member Dan Willenborg are vying to be Dyersville’s next mayor, while at-large city council member Mark Breitbach is opposed by political newcomer Mike Mullis.
Ward 2 candidate Mike English is unopposed, and he threw his support behind Willenborg and Breitbach. “We’ve become a do-nothing council governed by email,” he said.
The forum at Beckman Oct. 14 was held only nine days after the council chose to retain City Administrator Mick Michel. Consideration of his termination ignited political disagreements in Dyersville and drew hundreds to the Council’s meeting.
Haas said that, as mayor, he has made strides in settling lawsuits against the city, improving relationships with surrounding communities and improving “respect” at city hall. Willenborg said in his opening statements that the city needs to more fully fund its volunteer organizations and improve “transparency” in city hall, calling city staff a strength of the municipality.
Mullis stated that his military experience has prepared him for high-stakes situations and interactions with diverse community members, while Breitbach said that he believes he can be a “positive influence” if re-elected to the council.
The first audience question came from Catherine O’Hea, who called the candidates’ descriptions of the city’s financial state “contradictory.”
Haas said that Dyersville’s debt had jumped significantly from 2006 to 2013 but that the city has cut that debt by between $1 and 2 million since he took office.
“We paid off part of a library debt, that reduced it by about a million dollars,” said Breitbach.
Audience member and former city attorney Marc Casey argued that debt reduction in recent years has been a result of “a well-structured bonding process… by previous councils.” He asked Haas how his actions had lowered city debt.
Haas argued that not incurring new debt has helped the city lower its load as existing debts are paid off. “I’ve been very cautious and very conscious of any development agreements,” Haas said. He said that part of the debt reduction is a credit to the current council and part of the credit should go to previous officials.
“Right now, we are $9.8 million in debt, total, and right now we are paying $1.5 million off that each year, about $400,000 of which is interest,” said Willenborg. He said the city’s debt will continue to decrease as long as the city doesn’t incur more, but that some municipal debt is an inevitable result of large-scale projects.
“We always incur some debt over the years because of the process of building sewer treatment plants and all that,” Willenborg said. “We’re just in good financial shape.”
For Mullis, the city’s overall debt is too much to swallow. “We weren’t really responsible with y’all’s money,” he said. “You start digging a hole that big, and we’re all going to be speaking Chinese.”
He said that Haas has done a good job of reducing debt and that he wants to be “part of slowing some of that debt.”
Breitbach said that debt is inevitable in delivering big-ticket services. “The city is going to incur debt, if you want sidewalks or new streets or bike paths or development.” Development will eventually hopefully reduce overall tax rates, he said. “If you want a good quality of life, you have to spend some money, and hopefully it’ll pay off in the end,” he said.
English pointed to the city’s favorable bond rating. “When we borrow money, we do it in a responsible way in Dyersville,” he said.
English compared Dyersville’s municipal debt to making monthly payments on a home loan. “We have a triple-A-plus rating and, just like any other loans, you pay them back on schedule,” he said.
Haas said that city officials need a firm grasp of outstanding tax-increment financing obligations.
Matt Mescher asked if the city should take into account the opinions of property owners who are not resident voters, like himself. Haas acknowledged that Dyersville has an effect on property use within two miles of city limits, and Willenborg said he believed that the city has “listened” to Mescher in the past.
Matt Bockenstedt asked about residential development agreements. Mullis said that he believes “some of the developers are not being treated fairly,” while English said that “not all residential developments are cookie-cutter” and hence have to be addressed separately.
Library board member Angela English asked how the candidates will support the James Kennedy Public Library. Haas said that he believed that how local libraries pay for services to out-of-town users needs to be overhauled, while Breitbach questioned why the council had refused a previous $3,000 pass-through payment to the library.
Breitbach said that speaking to forum attendees was like “preaching to the choir.” He urged attendees to encourage their friends, neighbors and families to go to the polls Nov. 3.
The Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce and Dyersville Commercial sponsored the forum.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Angela English as the library board president instead of a board member.