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Mequon mayoral candidates diverge on development, vision for city

Gielow, Abendroth share views at candidate forum

Lin Clousing, center, moderates a debate between Mequon mayoral candidates Curt Gielow, left, and Dan Abendroth, right, Thuesday, March 21, 2013, in Mequon, Wis.

Lin Clousing, center, moderates a debate between Mequon mayoral candidates Curt Gielow, left, and Dan Abendroth, right, Thuesday, March 21, 2013, in Mequon, Wis. Photo By Peter Zuzga

March 26, 2013

Mequon - While incumbent Mayor Curt Gielow and challenger Dan Abendroth agree on many issues facing the community, the two remained divided at a candidate forum held last week at the Sarah Chudnow Community over how the city should approach development and balance its budget in the coming years.

Abendroth, retired Operations Manager of Milwaukee Transport Services and a 27-year Alderman, said the city needs to stay the course recommended by its land use plan and resist urbanization while looking for ways to trim the city budget.

Gielow, an Executive Dean at Concordia University who served as an Alderman and state representative prior to becoming mayor in 2010, said the city should, among other developments, grow the tax base with higher-density housing young families can afford - which, by his reasoning, should help mitigate operating cost inflation in the city budget and drive enrollment in the schools.

Different takes on development

At the heart of the debate between Gielow and Abendroth are their fundamentally different plans for development, one of which voters will set in motion April 2.

Gielow calls his vision a "balanced growth" strategy of encouraging residential, retail, industrial, manufacturing and apartment developments with a focus on the residential portion. According to a study Gielow presented to the Thiensville-Mequon Rotary Club last November, construction growth peaked in 2007 at just over $120 million and fell off sharply as the recession hit before reaching a low of about $9 million in 2011. The same study shows an average of about 169 housing units built per year between 1970 and 1999, falling to about 77 per year since 2000.

Gielow said that he would "cheerlead" for Mequon to draw developers to the area and increase construction growth to earlier levels.

"Development today is a third of what it used to be just a decade ago," Gielow said. "We have dwindled to a circumstance where the community is not growing, the community is aging and our schools are dwindling."

Abendroth said development should follow the path charted out by the city's land use plan and should conform to existing zoning codes. He said the land use plan, itself a product of years of planning and community input, has contributed to a low tax rate, high property values, and overall high quality of life in Mequon.

"Everything is categorized and everything is regulated, and the development we get is constricted by the infrastructure we have," Abendroth said. "As long as we follow the land use plan and the standards that we have for many years, urban sprawl would hopefully be something that occurs in someone else's community."

Both candidates said any expansion of commercial zoning could only come with an expansion of sewer services provided by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which would require scrutiny and public input.

Budgeting and infrastructure

Both candidates were critical of the Common Council's decisions to borrow for road maintenance costs over the course of the last six years, though they have different ideas on how the city should fund the infrastructure work.

Abendroth said the council should prioritize the city budget to free up funding for the road work.

"We have to live within our means," he said. "The way to do that is to realize how much revenue we have and what we need to spend that money on."

Gielow said development is the key to funding road projects without having to reduce the city budget elsewhere.

"My opponent may suggest we can find a million and a half (dollars) to cut out of the budget to pay for the roads," he said. "I don't know where he'd find that money. The only way we can generate enough revenue without borrowing is to broaden the tax base and taxpayers."

In his proposed 2013-15 biennial budget, Governor Walker includes a continuation of the tax levy freeze, which only allows municipalities to raise taxes in the case of new construction that adds to the tax base.

Faced with the prospect of flat tax revenue over the next several years, Gielow has commented that development is the only surefire way to fund the city budget without cutting services.

Abendroth has said the city should look to streamline costs to mitigate operating cost inflation while using the land use plan to pursue developments that would bring in more tax revenue than they would cost in city services.

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