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Auburn City Council candidates debate economy at Meddlers meeting

Public safety, wastewater and charter city also vetted
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Gary Moffat said he didn’t expect a friendly audience to greet him at the Auburn Chamber Forum’s meeting Tuesday that featured a question-and-answer session among the three city council candidates. Nor did he expect to change the minds of any in attendance, he said. “All I want you to know is that I’m a viable candidate,” Moffat said to the chamber forum, also known as the Meddlers. “If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine, but you should keep an open mind to my message.” Moffat is running against incumbents Keith Nesbitt and Dr. Bill Kirby for one of the two seats open on the Auburn City Council. All three voiced their messages and visions for the city by answering prepared questions followed by inquiries by those in attendance at the morning meeting. The prepared question asking what the biggest issue facing Auburn in the next four years and how the candidates planned to address it elicited a discussion surrounding the city’s economy. Kirby cited increased sales tax revenue, including a jump of around 30 percent during the past six months, as well as a drop in the commercial vacancy rate as positive indicators of the city’s direction. Moffat later responded to Kirby’s claims, saying Nella Oil being located in Auburn makes available “a huge amount of sales tax from their company that we would not otherwise get.” He also pointed out that Gottschalks closed before Kirby’s was elected and McCaulou’s filled its place by opening after Kirby entered office, resulting in a “net increase.” However, Kirby began his term in December of 2008, Gottschalks closed in July 2009 and McCaulou’s opened in July 2011. City Manager Bob Richardson said he was unaware of any recent study that reported on the number of commercial vacancies within Auburn. Moffat said part of his economic development plan includes the creation of a database of vacant commercial properties. As for the sales-tax revenue increase, the city brought in $1,353,809 in the second quarter of 2012, a 29.8 percent increase over the amount from the same period in 2011. This year’s first quarter saw a 6.8 percent jump, the least amount of growth over a previous year since the second quarter of 2010. In November 2011, Nella Oil, headquartered at Auburn Airport Industrial Park, purchased Fleet Card, a Southern California fuel business in Bakersfield, and the company’s officials told the Journal at the time that it expected Auburn’s sales-tax revenue to benefit from the acquisition. Richardson said Nella Oil remains a top-10 source of sales-tax revenue for the city. Asked to explain the city’s growth in sales-tax revenue, which has had double-digit percentage increases in all but three quarters since 2010, Richardson said individual businesses, not entire industries, are leading the way to recovery. He said 79 of Auburn’s top 100 businesses experienced growth in the second quarter of 2012. Nesbitt did not comment on sales-tax revenues or vacant storefronts but did say the most important issue facing Auburn is what is done on the state level in the near future. “I don’t think the tax increase is going to pass. The state is going to be upside down billions and billions of dollars and they’re going to push more of that responsibility to the city level,” he said. Kirby touted Auburn as “the best run city in Northern California, unequivocally.” Nesbitt agreed that the council has worked well to make the city a success. “I think the City Council has done a great job the last four years,” Kirby said. “We’ve balanced the budget all four years. We’ve put money back in reserve, we’re getting money back to our employees, our vacancy rate, in spite of what was said, is really going down rapidly.” He said public safety is the most important issue currently facing the city. “Closing parole offices in Yuba and Placerville are going to put a tremendous pressure on the local community, both sheriffs and the police,” Kirby said. “As a city councilman, I’m going to continue to support our police chief and department in working with the county to get at this very, very serious problem.” Nesbitt said the state releasing inmates and closing parole centers shifts the burden to Auburn’s law enforcement, illustrating the need to think in the long term. “More and more of those things are going to come down the pipe and come to Auburn,” he said. Moffat pointed to improving the economy and creating jobs as the crucial issue. “It is my belief that initiating changes to improve America’s financial strength is not a federally induced, trickle-down phenomenon,” he said. “I firmly believe it is local, bubble-up programs that are essential to jump-starting the economy.” He took issue with how the council managed funds devoted toward downtown development, saying, “The kind of economic development I envision is not as sexy as clogging up Central Square with two flagpoles, 22 light poles and a fire pit.” He called for “legitimate” Economic Development Commission work. Kirby responded, saying 85 percent of the money that was spent on Central Square went toward infrastructure. Moffat said Auburn lacks a formal, written economic development plan, and he went on to summarize his five-point plan of action. “From a decaying retail corner near Maidu to the never-occupied shopping center on Nevada Street, to the see-through office structures on Elm Street and High Street, to empty offices and storefronts throughout the community – something has to be done,” Moffat said, “and done right now, because we can’t build our way out of this mess.” Below are the two other prepared questions posed to the three Auburn City Council candidates and excerpts of their answers at Tuesday’s Meddlers meeting held in City Hall. There are two spots open on the council. The responses are listed in the order they were answered at the forum. What should Auburn do in regard to the future of its wastewater treatment? Gary Moffat, restaurant owner, writer: “My personal belief is there are many ways jurisdictions in our area can work together, and creating a regional sewer solution is the most urgent. But we must have guarantees for relief on the up-front costs, we must have a seat at the operations table, we must have a contract codifying the relationship, we must be able to rein in rates and we must be able to limit our exposure to any litigation that may result.” Keith Nesbitt, incumbent: “We are in compliance. The cost to our rate payers would almost double our rates. I’m in favor of going to the regional sewer but only when we have a guarantee that the rates are going to be controlled. The money for the pipeline has to come from somewhere besides Auburn, because we don’t have the money, and I am not going to put that burden on our residents.” Bill Kirby, incumbent: “Regional is by far the best solution, but the devil’s in the details. … What we want to do is protect our rate payers. As was said earlier, a small plant down the road will probably not be able to meet the standards that are going to be put out. … We’re going to have to improve our systems at some point and the cost may be prohibitive, but right now we’re in good shape. We can wait, sit down and negotiate terms.” Would you support another measure to ask residents to make Auburn a charter city? Why or why not? Moffat: “I spent $350 to create a giant banner that hung from my shop in Old Town that read, ‘Reject the Charter! ‘No’ on Measure ‘A.’ I have saved that banner, and I am prepared to use it again.” Nesbitt: “I would only support a charter, I think, if it is a citizen-based committee that brought the accordance forward to the council, and it came from them instead of from us.” Kirby: “I would absolutely support a new charter, and I think the city council needs to be the leaders. I think we should have a citizens’ commission review it and bring it back to us.”