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Budget, growth top of mind

Tough questions put to mayoral hopefuls

March 28, 2012

Economic development and reducing city costs were among the topics addressed Monday by the two candidates - Peter Donegan and Kathy Ehley - hoping to become the next mayor of Wauwatosa.

Neither candidate is new to city government. Donegan represents the city's 1st District as alderman, while Ehley leads the Village Business Improvement District as executive director.

Donegan started the forum by stating it would be their resumes and management experience that sets the candidates apart more than their policy statements.

He said he's familiar with how the city operates and the hot issues, particularly the budget gap of $1.2 million for 2013. Making the jump from alderman to mayor would allow him to put more time into investigating solutions and communicating the urgency for change to members of the Common Council and city staff.

"I want to expand my influence over the city and move it in a direction of change," he said. "It's imperative we adjust our organization to the new economic realities."

Ehley likened her job as BID director to "running a mini city," from handling sewer and garbage complaints to long-term planning and working with groups to brainstorm creative solutions to problems.

The mayor has no authority over the council, but needs to work with it, she said. With several changes in departmental leadership, she's confidant the city is heading in the right direction.

She sees the mayor's role as one of communicating changes that have been made and ones coming in the future. As BID director, she started a weekly email newsletter that promotes area businesses, gives updates on capital projects and provides a calendar of events for the Village.

"People now take ownership of that area. They love it, and they support it," she said. "We can do the same for the entire city."

Development in down economy

Economic development seemed to be the topic of the night with questions submitted by the audience as well as forum sponsors League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County, Wauwatosa Chamber of Commerce and Wauwatosa NOW all taking up the issue.

Donegan pointed to projects in the planning stages - such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Park and the Mayfair Collection at the Burleigh Triangle - to prove "we're doing better than most communities."

However, he's unsure about how much more money the city should invest in economic development efforts at a time when there's little out there to attract. Those projects that do come in generally want some kind of financial assistance.

"How much of future tax revenue are we willing to give up to get something going now?" he asked.

Ehley agreed that developers are struggling to find willing lenders. Therefore, she suggests taking time to identify the places ripe for redevelopment and preparing, so officials can really sell the community when money becomes available.

"What we need to do during this time is to get our house in order," she said. "We need to put together more marketing and really sell the community."

East Tosa a hot topic

Several residents wanted to hear if the candidates would support development, specifically in East Tosa.

The city has earmarked $3.5 million in the five-year Capital Improvements Program to improve the North Avenue commercial district. Some of that money may be used to make a property acquisition, which Donegan said was in negotiations so he couldn't give specifics.

"We cannot leave North Avenue to the whims of the market," he said. "The city must intervene and capitalize on change."

He said he would look to staff to assist in coming up with redevelopment plans including assembling parcels of land to allow for a "significant game-changing type of redevelopment."

Ehley questions whether the city should purchase properties for the purpose of redevelopment in this economy. Funds allocated should be used to make the area more attractive so private investors will want to come to the area, she said.

She sees a need to create a business association to get the business and property owners of East Tosa more involved.

"The neighbors have been there supporting them," she said. "Now we need increased engagement by business owners."

As road reconstruction projects are scheduled in the future, improvements to the weaving patterns that impede traffic flow on North Avenue could be addressed at little additional cost, she said.

Controlling the city budget

The candidates also fielded questions about the city budget and how to keep costs down.

"The priority would be reform," Donegan said. "A great deal of productivity improvement is available within the current organization."

He said he'd push the council and department heads to not fill positions vacated via retirement, and that the state budget bills provide more room to change employee benefits.

It's time to empower city employees to contribute to the organization and perhaps come up with more efficient ways to deliver services, he said.

City staff has been working more creatively and collaboratively than ever before and that needs to continue, Ehley said. She credited the Police and Fire unions with negotiating benefit reductions.

With an alderman serving as liaison and a city employee staffing each of the nearly 30 boards, commissions and committees within the city there may be savings by looking at combining or eliminating certain groups, she said.

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