Editor’s Note: Updated with correction on Bob Morawitz’s city priorities
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Four candidates for two open city seats discussed a variety of issues in a mostly cordial exchange prior to the city’s general election in less than two weeks.
Mayoral candidates Chris Sorrentino and Brad Randolph and 2nd ward candidates Brian Wright and Bob Morawitz were quizzed in council chambers in front of about 25 people by Fort Madison Partners Executive Director Tim Gobble at the event sponsored by Fort Madison Partners and the Fort Madison Daily Democrat.
Randolph is seeking his third term as mayor after being appointed in 2013 and reelected in 2015. He was on the Fort Madison City Council from 2006 to 2013.
Sorrentino is a regional truck driver and has been critical of recent moves of the city with regard to new parking regulations and is campaigning on new trust with city leaders.
Wright was appointed to the council in 2011 and won a special election in 2013 and then was re-elected in 2015 with Morawitz as his opponent that time as well.
Morawitz is an electrician and veteran of the U.S Navy who has sought several offices including state senator and Fort Madison City Council.
Wright said the last annual city planning meeting with the city focused on streets.
“My number one priority will be Avenue F, from 2nd through 22nd streets, specifically the 900 block to the 1500 block has the most deterioration going on. We’ve already done 13th and 14th streets, but I think the city has done a lot with streets.”
Wright said the city has been answering the call of the residents, but decisions have to be made with regard to the city as a whole.
Randolph clarified the city budget for streets comes out of road use fund funds from the state.
“We get a percent of money based on per capita and fuel tax. We also have the Local Option Sales Tax which used to be 60-40 and is now 80-20. The 80 percent goes to tax relief and 20 goes to capital improvement so we’re tasked with using 1.4M to 1.5M the best way we can,” he said.
He said the city passed a quality of life bond in 2014 to help offset some of the costs of getting the roads cleaned up and was able to complete 15th, 24th, and 48th streets and was able to do seal coats and overlays.
Sorrentino said he agreed with the mayor on the funding.
“When it comes to streets you do have to prioritize the right ones from the wrong ones and which are in most disarray and have the highest volume of traffic,” he said.
Morawitz said he commended the city’s Public Works Director Larry Driscoll on doing the best he can with the resources he has.
“I think we should leave that up to Larry and the citizens should have some input,” he said. “We’ve been doing better, but we did borrow against the general fund for the road repair program, but I don’t think next year we’ll have the ability to do that. I think we’re going to have a budget issue next year.”
Morawitz was talking about the state’s backfill obligation on commercial property taxes that may not be backfilled next year.
CITY PRIORITIES WITHIN A TIGHT BUDGET
Randolph again brought up taxes and said the state set the city’s general levy of $8.10. The city’s part of residents’ property tax bill is a total of $15.91 and he said the $8.10 goes to the general fund levy.
“That’s all we have in the general fund,” he said. “That’s police, fire, parks, policy administration, pools – all the things we like. It becomes difficult at times when you have only a basket of money that we cannot tax more for, to keep things the way they are and that’s been a challenge since I’ve been on the council.”
Sorrentino said the city should be prioritizing departments and prioritizing funding to figure out which departments get which funds.
“You can’t say this department’s going to get this and that department’s going to get that. You have to look at the 5-year plan. But one of my goals is emergency services such as police and fire. Those have to be our number one priority. Without those, we cannot function.”
Morawitz said the number one priority is making sure the residents are safe and then the fire department and water and sewer would be the top priority.
“I know we’re going to have issues next year,” he said. “The economy has not improved, as the state has indicated, and we’re going to lose that $97,000 backfill. They did the same thing in the 1970s with the machinery tax that they said they would backfeed and after about three years they stopped backfilling and left us to our own.”
Wright added that the city has had a balanced budget and has had that for several years and has increased the general fund. He said the past couple of years the backfill has been paid by the state and he thinks it will stay in place for the next couple of years. He said Driscoll has been very good at getting grants to help offset some of the infrastructure costs to the city.
“I think we’re good here for the forseeable future, but I agree that we need to be fiscally responsible and make the best decisions for the city,” Wright said.
Sorrentino said Fort Madison doesn’t have the bigger crimes of the bigger cities, but he said the problem is that people are getting bored in the city and getting into mischief.
“We need to start implementing programs for the youth and getting some of the entertainment businesses back here so we as adults and our children have something to do. I’ve lived in big cities and without nipping it in the bud now, it won’t get better, it will get worse.”
Morawitz said citizens need to be more proactive in their safety and do their part to help the city police itself.
“I had a resident from across the street talk to me about our crime and asked if I would help get a Neighborhood watch program, which we did. We’re not going to get more money in our coffers for more police officers, so the city residents have to step up and chip in,” Morawitz said.
Wright said neighborhood watch groups are going to be another set of eyes to keep crime at bay. He also said working to eliminate nuisance properties would help reduce crime.
“Our new police chief, Chief Sittig, works well with the county and Lee County Task (force) and they have weekly meetings to talk about what’s going on in the community and we are working with certain individuals in the community to keep their eyes and ears open.”
Randolph said he was a reserve police officer for 18 years and has a unique perspective on how hard it is to police a community. He said neighborhood watch groups are good, but being good neighbors is also good.
“While the Police department does a great job in trying to be proactive, they can’t do it by themselves. You need a partnership with residents in the community to help create a safe environment. It’s a combination of things and the policing needs to evolve with your community,” he said.
Morawitz said the marina and the riverfront are one of his biggest concerns. He also said tourism is lagging and in his travels around the state he doesn’t see any information for Fort Madison in the hotel racks or tourism racks.
“We have a beautiful riverfront and marina and we don’t use it. We have a pavilion that sits idle way too much. I don’t know if the rent is too high or what, but we need to have more activity there.”
He also said the marina restaurant is vacant and two entities had approached the city with renovating the restaurant but the city has turned them away.
“I don’t understand that,” he said. “We need to be putting people in there and getting some activity in the riverfront.”
Wright said the river is a great asset and the marina has had tournaments and boats that use it. He said dredging the silt that settles is a problem and he said there needs to be a total renovation of the jetty to help thwart the sediment settling that’s going on. He also mentioned cruise lines looking at possibly docking here.
He mentioned the American Cruise Lines and Viking Cruise Lines have been talking with the city about docking here.
“As Bob mentioned the pavilion and we do need more activity there, but if Vikings Cruise Lines come in they can use that as a stopover and there are a lot of assets down there.”
Randolph said water is an attraction and our location provies us one of the most unique spots in the country on the river.
“Our marina is a problem. It’s in the flood plain. I’m unaware of Mr. Morawitz’s claim that there are peole wanting to come in down there. If there is, we’d be more than happy to talk with them. We need to have someone come in a private/public partnership where we lease the land and they run it. The city probably needs to get out of the marina business, we’re ok at it, but we’re not great.”
Morawitz said Randolph is the one who told him about the potential buyers, but Randolph clarified that he told Morawitz the inquiries were into the public/private proposal and not specific to the old Captain Kirk’s facility.
He said three people have inquired about the partnership with the city and he’s waiting for proposals. He also said the entrance to the park, dealing with the trains can be problematic.
Sorrentino said the marina is a wonderful aspect of the community. Sorrentino said he too was aware of entities since the flood that were interested in going into the marina resturant but nothing has come of it.
“There needs to be a key focus on tourism, with the history this city has, especially in the summer months, there’s no reason why our city isn’t flourishing,” Sorrentino said.
Wright said any annexation requires the provision of infrastructure to benefit all the individuals being pulled into the city.
“To benefit the city, there has to be some factor of expansion. Companies that look at Fort Madison want to know about schools parks, etc., but also want to know if we’re growing.
He mentioned the new infrastructure to RiverRidge and Woodland Heights.
“If we can do that and sell the benefits of fire and police, which already serve them anyway, it can be a good thing definitely.”
Randolph said he doesn’t support forced annexation because the city should be able to market itself to those property owners and make them see the benefits of coming within the city limits.
“I’d rather people come to us and say we love the city and we want to come and we give them a big hug and welcome ’em in,” Randolph said.
Sorrentino said he wouldn’t commit to agreeing with forced annexations, but indicated that those cases should be decided individually based on the city’s infrastructure and how they can benefit future residents
Morawitz said he didn’t favor the idea either, but he wouldn’t rule it out because there could be a situation where it was in the city’s best interests.
“There are circumstances that could come up and I don’t want to rule it out, but I would rather they want to come into the city.”
BUSINESS ATTRACTION/EXPANSION INCENTIVES
Randolph said there are parts of our town that are suffering when it comes to retail and offerings.
“If you try to peel back the layers and find out what’s causing that and what keeps a business in town, it comes down to shopping local where we can, and granted Fort Madison doesn’t have everything, but if we keep that thought in mind whenever we can that money goes to sales tax and general fund and infrastructure. It feeds itself,” he said.
He said improving infrastructure and keeping focused on that will entice economic development.
Sorrentinto said this was another of his key goals as mayor.
“We have to pysicially go out and find these companies and show them what we have to offer. If we can get these budsinesses in here and the city can have a better stream of revenue from industries and retail stores, the city’s general fund from every aspect will continue to grow.”
He said at some point the city will have to answer for the loans it has out with the state and federal government and sooner or later the city’s going to have to answer for that.
Morawitz said he’s upset at how much money governments are paying companies to come into our town or state. It’s become a competition between cities in how much money you can hand out to get them in and I don’t always think it pays back.
A lot of businesses when they come to town look at infrastructure, we have a beautful highway with east and west connections, we have railroad. 25 to 40% of interstate traffic goes across our bridge through to Chicago. We need to promote those things.
He said TIF works if used properly but he said it’s been abused. He said he’s still upset about the money the state gave Apple when they were going to come anyway.
Wright said when you look at what you offer an industry to come to town, it’s not always what the city will get out of out, but the quality of life that can be gained.
He said the rehab going on downtown will help with variety and housing. He also said Fareway has been good for the city in giving another option to citizens and has cleaned up the corner of 18th and Avenue H. He said the Baxter Sports Complex has added quality of life to help attract new business and the new Highway 61 project will also be an asset to the city.
Sorrentino said he’s been asked numerous times about getting people engaged in the community again.
“We have to create more of an open door, and when I say open door we have to make it more accessible for the public. Have cameras in here and have it broadcasted. There’s no reason 10,000 people shouldn’t be watching this,” he said.
“It’s broken. there’s no trust left between the city government and the residents. Look at the election numbers maybe 2,000 people show up to vote out of 6,500 registered voters. It’s broken. They need to know their voice does matter, otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Morawitz said communication between the city and its residents is poor.
“The individual doesn’t think they have their voice heard or their voice doesn’t carry any power. I’ve had people say it’s just a good ol’ boys club and whatever the city wants, the council rubber stamps it and it goes on through.”
Wright said communication is improving from the city’s side. He said that’s why there is representation, but he does have people come up to him and he welcomes those conversations.
“We do have our meetings broadcast just like we are tonight so everyone can view them and they can go back and watch past meetings. The city website also has been kept up-to-date by John Luna. I believe the communication is open and transparent and it is there. I commend Bob for stepping up and running because few people do.”
Randolph said the feeling isn’t just local, it’s at the state and national level as well.
“People in general just feel disenfranchised with the way things are being conducted. For us, I have to say we’ve made some big strides to make local government open and transparent. We’ve tried to improve technologically to the point where we’re trying to make each representative up here more accessible. I hope we keep looking at that and finding our shortfalls,” he said.
Two other candidates for Fort Madison City Council, including Rusty Andrews and Mark Lair were in attendance, but didn’t participate in the forum because they are running unopposed. Absentee voting is now open and early voting is available at north Lee County courthouse.