By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles covering Enid City Commission candidates’ views on some of the major issues facing the city in the next four-year term. Each of the candidates were asked the same slate of questions.
The election for the Ward 3 seat on the Enid City Commission will be decided Feb. 12 between Enid attorney Ben Ezzell and former city of Enid employee Eldon Stephens. Ezzell works as a bankruptcy attorney in Enid. Stephens worked for the city of Enid for 23 years, rising to the position of heavy equipment operator before his departure from city employment last August.
Enid News & Eagle will host a forum featuring candidates in all three wards up for election at 6 p.m. Monday in commission chambers, 401 W. Garriott.
City water issues
High demand and a record-breaking drought combined to exceed the city’s water delivery capacity last summer, ushering in city water conservation measures and watering restrictions through September.
According to figures provided by the city last summer, residential use amounts to 30.4 percent of the city’s water. Commercial usage is 65.6 percent. The city of Enid has announced plans to increase municipal water supply by one million gallons per day in 2013 and an additional two million gallons per day in 2014 by expanding city water rights and infrastructure.
Question: Are the city’s plans to expand the water supply sufficient to meet Enid’s growing demand? What would be your plan to increase water supply for the city?
“Water supply is a problem, but we have a great solution,” Ezzell said. “If we can get our industrial users to be able to use our outflow water, that would effectively double our supply.”
Ezzell said a water treatment plant capable of “scrubbing” gray water to be within Oklahoma DEQ standards for companies like Koch Nitrogen would go a long way to addressing the city’s water issues.
“We really need to get our outflow water to Koch, and get them using that again,” Ezzell said. “That would double our potable water supply, and that buys us decades.”
“I feel like we have a pretty good water source,” Ezzell added. “We just need to make better use of it.”
Stephens said the city should cut back on potable water usage for splash pads and proposed water features in the parks plan.
“I think we need to not only attempt to address the problem, we also need to look at some of the practices we have in place,” Stephens said. “The two splash pads we have, that water is not recycled, it goes straight into the sewer.”
Stephens questioned whether the city’s planned water supply increases would be sufficient to meet extra demands involved with a proposed water park in the parks plan.
In the long term, Stephens said a city lake could be a solution to the city’s water issues.
“We would have to make sure we have a viable water source to fill that lake,” Stephens said. “We wouldn’t want it to end up like Lake Optima out in the Panhandle, and build a big lake and have no water in it.”
Question: Should attracting new industry and supplying current commercial users be a priority for the city’s water resources?
“Our water demand will continue to go up, and we need to place our city’s water needs high on the priority list,” Ezzell said.
He said raising the city’s water rates for commercial users could help fund a water-treatment plant to prepare gray water for commercial use.
“Our industrial water rates have been kept relatively low,” Ezzell said. “If we need to do some $10 million investment to get the outflow scrubbed, I think it’s only fair for the industrial users to chip in and help pay for that.”
Stephens said the city needs to provide water to new industry if it hopes to attract new jobs to town.
“I believe if we don’t have water to provide companies like the canola plant, and any other manufacturer coming in, then we’re not going to be able to attract those companies,” Stephens said.
He said there needs to be a balance between meeting residential users’ demands and providing water for new and existing commercial users.
“We have to have enough water for us to survive as a city,” Stephens said. “When a prospective company is coming in, we need to know up front what their consumption is going to be, and then weigh that with any restrictions it’s going to put on our residents.”
Enid Renaissance Project
In 2010, Enid voters rejected by a vote of 4,023-3,892 a $20 million bond issue for the Gateway Enid project. The city had committed to add an additional $20 million to the project.
The city opted in 2011 to go ahead with renovation of Convention Hall and construction of the new Enid Event Center, with the “brick-and-mortar” expenses to be covered by the city’s $20 million share of the original Gateway plan.
Convention Hall was reopened to the public in November after a completion of a more than $7 million renovation contract. Enid Event Center is nearing completion, with a contract and change orders that now have topped $18 million.
Question: What are your thoughts on the renovation of Convention Hall and construction of Enid Event Center? Is Enid Renaissance Project a good investment for the city of Enid and its residents?
“We don’t know yet if it’s a good investment,” Ezzell said. “I voted for it when it lost, and I would have liked to have seen that dedicated funding source go through, because I think investment is a good thing for our community.”
Ezzell said the renovation of Convention Hall “is gorgeous,” and he hopes the total Renaissance package turns out to have a positive economic impact for the city.
“I want it to turn out well, and I want it to be a great deal for the city, but we don’t know yet how that will turn out,” he said.
Ezzell said the manner in which the city transitioned from Gateway to Renaissance could have been handled better.
“There was a lack of communication between the city and the people, and I think that was a failure with that project,” Ezzell said.
Stephens said he agreed with, and voted for, the original Gateway plan, but he disagrees with the way the city implemented Renaissance.
“Originally, I was a supporter of Renaissance and revamping Convention Hall, but when it didn’t pass, the city lost a lot of credibility by going ahead and pursuing it,” Stephens said. “I think there is value to it. But, I think when the voters turned it down and they went ahead with it, to the regular citizen, that perception brought a lot of distrust towards city government as a whole.”
Question: Looking back on the transition from Gateway Enid to Enid Renaissance Project, what should we learn from that process?
Ezzell said the Gateway to Renaissance transition shows the city needs to have better communication with the people.
“As we go forward — and that should be what we’re focused on, finding ways to grow Enid — the biggest thing the city can do is just talk to the people,” Ezzell said. “It’s just communicating, and talking to people. The people just want to know what’s going on.”
“Transparency is the No. 1 thing with government,” Stephens said. “We’ve almost created the environment here in Enid of the federal government, where the people no longer trust their own government.”
He said the city needs to improve its transparency with the people before that perception can be overcome.
“People see things that aren’t even there, merely because of a cloak that’s been put over the whole process,” he said.
Enid residents will vote March 5 on a pair of proposals that would generate $50 million in revenue to upgrade the city’s parks system.
The parks plan is split into two ballot questions: one to raise $20 million by increasing the city sales tax rate by one-half cent for five years, and one to pay for $30 million in general obligation bonds by extending an existing 7 mill ad valorem tax.
The largest development in the bond plan would be a new park at 30th and Randolph, which would include “softball fields, soccer fields, football fields, outdoor basketball courts, playgrounds, a skate park, picnic shelters, restrooms and concession facilities” at a cost of $13.4 million.
Another $6.8 million in bond funds would be split between improvement projects at all of the city’s neighborhood parks.
The sales tax funds would cover expenses not paid for in the bonds, including replacement of Champlin Pool, portions of the city’s trail plan, and construction of two new neighborhood parks.
Question: Should the parks plan be a priority for the city right now, and why?
“We need to invest in our parks, but whether that means $50 million is up to the voters,” Ezzell said.
He said he personally plans to vote in favor of both the sales tax and bond initiatives.
He’s in favor of the parks plan because the city’s parks, particularly in Ward 3, have become dilapidated over the years.
“I live next to Glenwood Park, and there was a lot of work done in that park when I was 10 or 12, and nothing has been done since,” Ezzell said. “I live next to a park, and I can’t take my daughter there because it’s in such bad shape. It’s upsetting, and especially in Ward 3, our parks are in terrible shape.”
He said parks improvement needs to be a priority, whether it’s through the $50 million parks plan or a smaller-scale plan.
“If both measures pass, then every park in our community will be renovated or improved,” Ezzell said. “We have to invest in our parks, and if we don’t decide $50 million is a good investment, as a community, we still have to do something with our parks.”
Ezzell said the city needs a properly staffed and funded parks and recreation department to maintain parks.
Stephens said he will “definitely be voting ‘no’ on the parks deal.”
“I don’t believe borrowing money and raising taxes for something that’s going to be used by a small portion of the city ... I think that’s unnecessary projects right now,” he said.
Stephens said he’s not opposed to improving parks, but he said streets, water and sewer infrastructure should take priority.
“Your quality of life and parks are important, but your water, your sewage and your streets should take priority,” he said.
He said the city needs to abide by the voters’ decision in the March 5 vote.
“If the people of Enid vote for it, then let’s build it,” he said. “But, if they don’t vote for it, let’s not build it. We have to rebuild the trust of the people of Enid.”
Tax Increment Finance districts
Enid City Commission recently approved two TIF districts to attract new investment to the city.
A TIF district creates incentive for new development by allowing a portion of the ad valorem tax revenue created by building new business to be returned to the developing company to defray start-up investment.
One TIF would create $4.6 million in incentives for Vector Properties to purchase and “de-mall” Oakwood Mall, a $35 million project. The other TIF would create $15 million in incentives and $12 million in public infrastructure improvements to bring a $200 million canola processing plant to Enid.
Question: Are these TIF incentives an appropriate means of attracting new investment to the city, or should private industry fund its own development?
Ezzell said incentives such as the TIF districts are essential to bringing new industry and new jobs to Enid.
“If you look at the way communities are doing incentives in other, perhaps more-competitive areas, it will blow your mind,” Ezzell said. “Getting new investment in our community is a huge deal.”
He said Enid’s population, currently about 50,000, is at a threshold for attracting larger companies and more amenities.
“We’re at the 50,000 census threshold, and we need to push past that,” he said. “At 2020, it would be great if we could be at 60,000 or more.”
He said achieving that growth requires taking the risk of offering incentive packages to companies looking for a place to invest their money.
“We’re taking a gamble,” Ezzell said. “People shouldn’t think of any of these things as sure bets, but it seems like a worthwhile gamble.”
Stephens said he’s not opposed to using TIF districts to attract new industry, but he was opposed to creating a TIF for the Oakwood Mall project.
He said incentives put in place to bring StarTek to Enid are an example of how incentive packages can benefit the company, but not Enid in the long term.
“Look at StarTek,” Stephens said. “They were brought here with city incentives, and once that went away, now StarTek doesn’t exist here anymore.”
He also questioned a TIF that helped fund expansion of AdvancePierre Foods.
“They were a good, vibrant company, and I don’t think they needed those tax breaks in order to expand their facilities,” Stephens said.
“TIFs are a double-edged sword,” Stephens said. “Yes, it does attract businesses, but are they going to stick around? You have to be very careful.
“You have to look at their track record and make sure they’re not just using this as a way to cut their production cost, and once that expires, they move on down the road.”
Question: What is the biggest issue facing your ward in the next term?
“Water is the big issue for the whole community right now,” Ezzell said. “As far as Ward 3 specifically, we need economic investment. We have a distinct lack of economic investment on our side of town, and it’s been that way since I was born.”
Ezzell said the city likely will not be involved directly in economic investment on the city’s east side, but the city could facilitate placement of new businesses there.
He said restaurants and retail shopping are particularly needed on the east side of the city.
“We need to keep in mind there are a whole lot of people over there who could use something more, and who would patronize it,” Ezzell said.
He said other major issues for Ward 3 are aging streets and infrastructure and a lack of affordable housing. He said the city commission could help alleviate the housing shortage by creating incentives for low-income tax credit developers.
Stephens also said water is the biggest issue facing the city as a whole. Regarding Ward 3 specifically, he said the focus needs to be on street repairs and improvement.
“The biggest issue in Ward 3 is some of the streets on this side of town,” Stephens said. “They’re not only bad, but some of them are flat-out dangerous.”
Stephens said economic development on the east side of the city also needs to be a priority.
“I’d like to see more retail, more restaurants, more businesses encouraged to locate on the east side of town,” Stephens said. “I’d like to encourage companies coming here to town to locate on the east side of town. We’re building west, and we’re not building east, and we should be building east.”