Village Board Candidates Face Tough Questions in Men's Club Forum
Village Board candidates faced tough questions Wednesday night about business, parking and an error by Shorewood's assessor at an election forum. School Board candidate David Cobb, essentially running unopposed, also spoke.
Tough questions about tough issues: In a nutshell, that is what candidates for Shorewood Village and School Board faced at an election forum Wednesday hosted by the Shorewood Men’s Club.
Newcomer Avner Zarmi is challenging incumbents Jeff Hanewall and Thad Nation for two seats on the Village Board. In the School Board election, David Cobb will essentially run unopposed — challenger David Gess has dropped out of the race, though his name will still be on the April 3 ballot — for the one open seat. School Board President Paul Zovic announced his retirement from the board Dec. 22.
The forum allowed for an introduction and closing statement from each candidate, but mostly consisted of questions from audience members.
Cobb gave a brief introduction — since he doesn't have a challenger — and said he hopes to bring transparency and financial responsibility to the district while continuing to help attract the best educators available.
He added that the biggest decision he'll make once he is likely elected to the board is being part of the process of selecting a new superintendent.
"That sets the tone, as any executive does, for how an organization operates," he said.
Trustee candidates introduce themselves
Hanewall, who has served on the board for six years, opened Wednesday's forum by touting the Village Board’s work in overhauling Shorewood's sewer system following severe street flooding and basement backups from a July 2010 storm.
“For many years, prior to the flooding, we had already stepped up efforts to identify problem areas and we have added additional resources and maintenance of the sewer infrastructure,’ Hanewall said. “…We had already engaged with engineers, but once the flooding came we realized he really hadn’t pictured this in a large enough scope.”
Hanewall also referenced the consolidation of services among North Shore communities, including the recent merger of the Shorewood/Whitefish Bay and North Shore Health Department, as a board accomplishment from his tenure.
He also boasted about the hand he has had in recent developments sprouting up on North Oakland Avenue as a member of the Community Development Authority, including one in the Sendik’s parking lot.
“Those are very important to us, because they stand to increase our tax base,” he said.
Nation has only been on the board eight months, but said working in government for eight years — including services as a top aide to three different governors — taught him the ins and outs of government.
“In this time when we are seeing tremendous change coming from Madison, and tremendous change coming from the federal government, can I be of use in terms of my knowledge base, in terms of helping Shorewood deal with these changes," he said.
Zarmi said he moved to Shorewood 15 years ago. He spoke Wednesday of home values, and that despite the quality of life in the village, those values are not always increasing.
He said he spoke with a woman whose home was assessed at $280,000, but was told her home likely wouldn't sell for more than $220,000. She wasn't able to find a buyer and with her family on a fixed income and husband battling medical issues, they are struggling financially, while at the same time, property taxes keep spiraling upward.
“It’s a story that is not unique; it’s a story I’ve heard repeated over and over again,” he said.
His point was that it’s difficult to bring young new families in the village when older families and empty nesters aren’t able to sell their homes.
Zarmi said he has been in the contract business for years, and with the village doing business with different contractors for different goods and services, his knowledge would be a real asset Shorewood.
Subject: Business Loans
How are officials deciding which businesses should receive loans or grants? Candidates were asked, in particular, why was a loan given to a bookstore, Open Book on North Oakland Avenue, that has apparently gone unpaid while the business has closed.
Zarmi responded by saying the government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers and there needs to be an level playing ground for all longstanding and new shops in the business district.
“If the Village Board is really good at picking winners and losers, I think we should send a delegation of those people to Las Vegas and perhaps improve the bottom line of the village and relieve taxes,” Zarmi joked.
Hanewall said when a community creates a special taxing district, its purpose is to invest in business.
“By default, when you create the TID, you are forced into decisions that are picking winners and losers if you want to look at it that way,” he said.
He added all the loans and grants are fully vetted and weighed and the community came to the board asking for help for the store.
Nation said he is all for using tools like a tax district when they are available to bridge a gap and they are amenities that the community wants.
“When looking at them on a case-by-case basis, you need to make sure they make sense, there’s a good financial plan, there’s a good business plan, and that they get fully vetted, but the community has decided to put those tools in place,” Nation said.
Subject: Assessment error
One of the most heated topics of discussion centered around an error allegedly made by Shorewood’s assessor which valued Shorewood’s Tax Incremental District No. 1 at $77 million instead of $77,000. A resident asked who is responsible for oversight of village staff and when a huge mistake like an assessment error is made, who should be held responsible.
Nation responded by saying the Village Board is ultimately responsible for mistakes that affect residents, and that the current board is threatening ligation if all fees incurred by Shorewood aren’t reimbursed.
“We will make this right,” he said.
Sen. Alberta Darling, who represents Shorewood, drafted legislation that, when signed by Gov. Scott Walker, prevented property tax bills from increasing in the course of making up for the error.
Nation said his experience in government and politics was vital when reaching out to Darling, and he was able to guide village staff through the process.
Zarmi said the error should have been caught in the first place; such a mistake should have been obvious to those working on assessing the tax district.
Hanewall said it isn’t about the mistake itself, but about how those guilty of committing it handle it after it’s made.
He added Shorewood won’t pay for the error and the assessor will be held responsible.
In the dual urban-suburb community of Shorewood, parking has always been a hot issue. Candidates were asked the reason behind the prohibition of night parking in Shorewood, and how they would address the problem.
All the candidates said they couldn’t answer the question of why night parking isn’t allowed and said it’s a very complicated issue.
Nation said he knows there are practical reasons for the policy, including having the roads clear to allow street sweepers and snow plows to do their job.
Hanewall said the board recently dove into the issue after fielding complaints from residents about University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students and staff clogging the streets and limiting daytime parking in the southeast portion of the village.
“It’s probably the most difficult problem we have; far more difficult than sewers,” Hanewall said.
Zarmi said parking is a matter that should be reviewed.
“I would certainly be in favor of changing the policy, if it needs to be changed,” Zarmi said.
Vision for the village
Shorewood Police Chief David Banaszynski asked the candidates what innovations they would like to see the village undertake.
Zarmi said a Milwaukee Magazine article last year labeled Shorewood as one of the worst communities in the Milwaukee metro area. His innovation would be a marketing plan to show the village in a positive light and talk about what Shorewood has to offer to prospective young families.
Hanewall said the village needs to focus on what officials have on the table right now, but also echoed Zarmi’s comments, saying the village has created a program tasked with doing just that: talking up the village and shooting down the misconception that property taxes are spiraling out of control.
“We are starting to toot our own horn, and it’s beginning to pay off,” Hanewall said.
Nation said he would like to see the village and school district work more closely together and look for ways they can share services.
“If we can work together, figure out where we can share more of our services, where we can cut down on overlapping and duplication, I think it’s an area we can save money and make our services more efficient,” he said.