New Berlin - About 100 voters heard Mayor Jack Chiovatero and challenger David Ament, 7th District alderman, trade views on issues facing the city before the April 2 election.
The issues they addressed included keeping taxes low, bringing business into the city, reimagining the New Berlin's City Center and dealing with the controversial proposed Walmart Super Center.
But the differences between the candidates came into sharp focus on the issue of taxes.
Borrowing vs. taxing
Chiovatero, who has served for two terms as mayor, said the good news is that New Berlin's tax rate is the lowest in the state for communities its size. He also said the city was able to add $1.2 million to city reserves at the end of 2012 because of cost savings during the year.
But Chiovatero also said the city budget is being squeezed by a Common Council that borrows too much. For example, he noted, the council borrowed an additional $644,000 and he had to find cuts to keep the 2012 budget to a zero increase.
Two years ago, Chiovatero implemented a sweeping streamlining of city government he called NewGov. The plan has saved thousands of dollars. He had planned to phase it in, but had to implement it more quickly because the council was demanding a zero tax-increase budget.
If the council keeps borrowing, Chiovatero said, "We could go broke."
However, Ament, elected alderman in 2001, strongly challenged Chiovatero's budget proposals, saying that if the council had approved them as presented, the property tax levy would have risen 24.4 percent since 2009.
Ament maintained that it was the council that has been bringing spending and the tax rate down to near zero year after year. And that, in turn, won for the city its AAA bond rating upgrade, he said.
"We know how it's done," Ament said of keeping the budget down.
To him, it involves setting priorities and staying within a budget. That's what he has done for 12 years as chairman of the Public Works Committee, he said.
The candidates also differed on bringing business into the city.
Chiovatero said he has made hundreds of business contacts that have resulted in major businesses such as BuySeasons not moving out of town and actually expanding locally.
The vacancy rate for the New Berlin business park is lowest for industrial parks in southeastern Wisconsin, Chiovatero said.
He said he has brought in restaurants.Addressing stubborn vacancies, Chiovatero addressed the Sportsman's Warehouse store remains empty because the shopping center where it is located is in receivership, and a commercial building on Sunny Slope Road has been vacant since it was built because the rents are too high.
"We're working very hard" to fill vacancies, Chiovatero said.
Ament acknowledged that some businesses have come in, but said more have left. He would focus on redeveloping commercial areas that have lost their vitality, rather than on building on open land. That approach would help preserve New Berlin's rural atmosphere, he said.
Development shouldn't come at the expensive of the quality of life that attracted people to New Berlin in the first place, Ament said.
And the city should plan smarter to be sure proposed developments will survive, he said.
To help bring in business, New Berlin needs to repair its reputation from the harm done to it in battles over New Berlin City Center development, he said.
"It'll take fresh ideas," he said.
The two mayoral candidates clashed on what should be done with the City Center, a retail and residential area basically on both sides of National Avenue from Moorland to Coffee roads.
Chiovatero said that some who thought of the City Center as a place of boutiques and restaurants might be disappointed, but despite the recent economic downturn, he has almost fulfilled his campaign promise to fill the center. Only one outlot remains to be developed and the one vacancy filled, he said.
City Center development would have been boosted greatly if the council had approved two roads in the plan, Chiovatero said. A third road, Wall Street, was built, he said, with Ament voting against, Chiovatero said.
Ament said he voted against building roads because they were to have been built by the City Center developer, not taxpayers. Chiovatero, however, disagreed, saying the center was to be a public-private partnership, with the council originally setting aside money for one of the roads that was never built.
Ament, who many has said the center's development has fallen short of its vision, promised his major focus would be on reviewing the whole City Center.
The new Walmart
The candidates found common ground on the question of the proposed Super Walmart. Because of the risk of the city being sued if they expressed an opinion before the crucial traffic study is in, both withheld comment.
Ament did say, however, that Walmart has notified the city that it will close the current Walmart in the City Center, regardless of whether the new Walmart is approved.
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