By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Editor’s note: This is the final article 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 was asked the same slate of questions. Other questions asked of the Ward 6 candidates appeared in Thursday’s News & Eagle.
The election for the Ward 6 seat on the Enid City Commission will be decided Feb. 12 between Mickey De La Cruz, Joey Meibergen and Dr. David Vanhooser.
De La Cruz is owner of the downtown restaurant Pane Vino Wine & Steak. He opened the restaurant nine years ago after moving to Enid.
Meibergen is executive vice president of W.B. Johnston Grain Co. Meibergen returned to the family business after graduating from Oklahoma State University in 2004 with a degree in agriculture and natural resources and a minor in agribusiness finance.
Vanhooser is a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at Integris Bass Baptist Health Center, where he has served since May 2001. He also is a local business owner of office and storage lease space. Vanhooser is a current commissioner on the Enid-Garfield County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
Current Ward 6 city commissioner Todd Ging is term-limited.
Enid News & Eagle will host a forum featuring candidates in all three wards up for election — ward 3, which includes parts of east and southeast Enid; ward 4, in northeast Enid; and ward 6, which is in northwest Enid — at 6 p.m. Monday in commission chambers, 401 W. Garriott.
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?
De La Cruz
De La Cruz said the city needs to invest in its parks, but doesn’t need to spend the $50 million specified in the parks plan.
“I don’t know if parks should be a priority,” De La Cruz said. “Are parks a needed item? Absolutely. But, it could be scaled down quite a bit.”
He said he’s opposed to building the planned community park at 30th and Randolph.
“I don’t know that we need to build that on a side of town that will be inaccessible by a lot of people,” he said.
He said the city’s proposed parks plan doesn’t take into account added expense and support requirements that would come with more parks.
“More people in the parks creates more necessity for police intervention, and we don’t have enough police as it is,” he said.
De La Cruz also said the proposed $852,000 for a new downtown park actually is a “back-door plan” to add lighting, speakers and green space for the Enid Renaissance project.
“Do we need to spend money on parks? Yes,” De La Cruz said. “Do we need to spend that much? No. And, we don’t need to back-door money to a project a lot of people are already upset about.”
“Water needs to take priority,” Meibergen said. “When you start talking about water parks and new pools, and people couldn’t even water their lawns, it shows where the priority needs to be, and that’s water.”
Meibergen said the parks plan would be a positive for work force recruitment and retention, and overall community quality of life, but he said addressing the city’s water needs should come first.
He said he’s still undecided on how he’ll vote on the parks plan in the March 5 election.
“I want to vote yes, but I think there’s other priorities out there,” he said. “I’m having a hard time voting for it, simply for the fact of the drought situation. The timing is not so good, especially on the water park portion of the plan, considering the water rationing we had last summer.”
Vanhooser said he is voting against the proposed parks plan.
“We don’t have $50 million to spend on parks when we have to do $3.2 million of emergency water line repairs, and that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Vanhooser said.
He said water infrastructure improvements should take priority over parks improvements.
“It’s not very sexy, it’s not very fun, but it’s something that has to be done,” Vanhooser said. “Providing water is one of the basic functions of city government, and that’s something we need to focus on for the people.”
Vanhooser said he’s “not against doing something for the parks and not necessarily against building a new park.”
He said he’s against the parks plan because the $50 million doesn’t account or provide for the costs of establishing a sufficient parks and recreation department. He said it would take $4.5 million per year to maintain the parks specified in the parks plan.
“There’s nothing in the budget the way it’s set up to spend $4.5 million a year on parks maintenance,” Vanhooser said. “We’re going to spend all this money to build new parks, and we’re not planning to take care of them.”
Vanhooser said the city should allow the current bond to expire, then “come back to the public and have an open, honest discussion about parks.”
He said he’ll stand by and support whatever choice the voters make on March 5.
“If the public says ‘We want to build these parks,’ then I’ll be all for it,” Vanhooser said. “I’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure we spend the money responsibly, and that we get the most for our money.”
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?
De La Cruz
De La Cruz said he’s not necessarily opposed to city incentives for new business, but the incentives need to include locally owned businesses.
“We’ve left out people like the local business owners, who don’t get the benefit of those TIFs,” De La Cruz said.
He said he’s opposed to TIFs for retail development, such as the TIF for Oakwood Mall. He said retail TIFs increase competition for locally owned businesses, and large businesses are more apt to leave town if the economy slows.
“If Staples decides ‘We’re just not cutting it in Enid any more,’ they’ll leave. Can Merrifield (Office Supply) do that? No. Can For You! (Boutique) do that? No. It doesn’t work like that for locally owned businesses, and the city needs to do more for local businesses when they do something for big businesses.”
Meibergen said Enid needs to use incentives, like TIFs, to compete with other communities for new investment.
“Our competing communities are doing it, and we have to show we’re competitive with other communities,” Meibergen said.
He said TIFs are better-suited to industry than retail development, and he supports the TIF for the canola processing plant.
“That deal is huge,” Meibergen said of the Northstar Agri Industries canola plant TIF. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s not going to just impact Enid, it’s going to impact all of Oklahoma and parts of southern Kansas. Northstar is going to be a great member of the community.”
Vanhooser said the city needs to offer incentives for new industry, but needs to establish an economic development fund so incentives don’t have to be funded by bonds.
“We absolutely need all the industry we can get to Enid,” Vanhooser said. “Getting them here in today’s environment apparently means buying the business, and that’s what a TIF does.”
“One of the things I want to do is develop an economic development fund so we can offer TIFs without borrowing money for bonds and paying interest expenses,” Vanhooser said. “Instead of paying that interest, we could be putting that money back in the fund. If we were able to give TIFs without having to borrow money, and pay interest, we’d be able to offer twice as many TIFs.”
Vanhooser said TIF incentives need to be limited to certain industries, and he’s opposed to the Oakwood Mall TIF.
Question: What is the biggest issue facing your ward in the next term?
De La Cruz
De La Cruz said Ward 6 has newer infrastructure than older parts of the city, and the city needs to focus on preventive maintenance to keep streets and roads from deteriorating.
“Ward 6 is a little different than the city’s other wards,” he said. “It’s a newer part of town, and some of the infrastructure problems don’t exist there like they do in the older wards. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, and maintain what we have there.”
Meibergen said the city needs to focus on water, and make improving transparency and accountability a priority across all wards.
“Most of the concerns I’ve heard concern the water rationing,” he said. “People want to feel confident something’s being done, and they want to know what the plan is for maintaining and improving our water infrastructure.”
“The people want communications and transparency from their city government,” Meibergen said. “When you say you’re going to spend something, you need to be accountable to that number.”
Vanhooser said water concerns are the biggest concern for the city as a whole.
Regarding Ward 6 specifically, he said the city needs to ensure upcoming road improvement projects in the ward are completed on time and within budget.
He said the forthcoming widening of Willow between Cleveland and Oakwood will be of particular concern.
“We’re not going to give someone a 365-day contract to do a two-month job,” Vanhooser said. “I’m going to fight tooth and nail when we start letting contracts to make sure we get a contractor who’s going to put a full crew in there.”
He said the city needs to impose stiff penalties for contracts not completed on time.
“We need those contracts to be performance contracts,” Vanhooser said, “and they need to get in there and get the work done.”