Mequon - Mayoral candidates Curt Gielow and Dan Abendroth disagree on how the city should balance future budgets.
State-mandated levy limits restrict any yearly levy increase to the increase in equalized property value as a result of net new construction. With that restriction in play, the two straightforward ways to keep inflation from eating at the city budget year after year are to encourage development to generate more property value, or trim costs from the budget.
Gielow advocates the former and Abendroth the latter.
"Government inhabits an uncompetitive environment," Abendroth said. "People got tired of that, and that's what resulted in the tax levy freeze."
Gielow, on the other hand, would rather focus on encouraging development and growing the tax base to mitigate inflation.
"We've done everything we can to take costs out of the system," said Gielow, referencing the budget cuts which have accompanied a flat levy over the last three years. "You can't cut your way to prosperity."
The development dilemma
Abendroth and the constituents backing his campaign don't oppose development, but argue the city needs to be careful in what it approves.
"It's OK to encourage business development," said Abendroth campaign co-chair Bob Ashmore at a campaign kickoff event last week, "but it needs to be quality, not quantity."
The Abendroth campaign highlights a Taco Bell and a PNC Bank closely abutting Port Washington Road as examples of recent developments which could compromise the rural look and feel of Mequon.
"To start weakening the standards endangers the credibility of the city," Abendroth said.
He said the city can't "legislate people into business, or to developers, the price of homes," adding that any development in the city must be ones which generates more in tax revenue than it costs in city services like fire or police protection.
"That's hard to do," Abendroth said. "You have to look at each use."
Gielow's campaign platform focuses on encouraging development to increase the tax base and begin to undo the effects of past zoning changes which increased lots sizes "in a deliberate attempt to slow growth."
According to a presentation of Gielow's given to the Thiensville-Mequon Rotary Club in November, home development has tapered off from between 1,500 to 2,000 homes per decade between 1970 and 2000, to less than 1,000 in all of the time since.
"Let's build neighborhoods like we used to in the past," said Gielow, adding that he would like to see higher density housing developments at lower prices. "There are pockets where we could do this."
In that same presentation, Gielow indicates that he would want to increase net new construction growth to pre-2008 levels - between $70 million and $120 million annually - and shift the balance of residential and commercial tax bases. The city is at 86 percent residential and 14 percent commercial. Gielow said he would like to move toward 80 percent residential while looking to build apartments, restaurants and "first family" subdivisions.
"We really choked off the city's growth in the last 15 years, I think to the detriment of the city - certainly to the detriment of the schools," Gielow said. "All I want to do is loosen the grip a little bit."
The Gielow campaign focuses more on development generating more tax revenue than it does on trimming the city budget to battle inflation.
"My interest is in economic balance in the city," Gielow said. "You need to balance cutting with growing."
He added that he doesn't have an interest in "micromanaging" city department heads, saying that he would rather give them a budget to fit into rather than tell them what to cut.
According to Abendroth, the city needs to fight the urge to become complacent with annual spending.
"You have to evaluate what you're doing every year," Abendroth said.
He says the city must focus on cost cutting rather than rely on increased revenue via new construction and tax base growth.
"I could say we could develop like crazy and that will solve our problems, but it won't," Abendroth said. "The only place to look logically is to do things more efficiently."
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