While no single candidate for mayor or city council had a surefire cure for any problems that ail the community, there was no shortage of opinions about them Wednesday evening at the Peabody Candidates’ Forum at the senior center.
Both candidates for mayor, incumbent Larry Larsen and challenger Steve Rose, and city council candidates Joan Berg, Tim Caldwell, Megan Holt, and Kenny Rogers were present for the event. Council candidate Travis Wilson was unable to attend because he was on duty with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.
All candidates indicated water and sewer infrastructure problems are the most important issues the city needs to address. They agreed there is no fast fix for replacing the 100-year old distribution system. Most realized the cost of replacing a block of water or sewer lines is about $15,000.
“Maybe if we replace a block or two a year, we would at least get started,” Rogers said. “Other towns don’t have this problem. I think the city should quit buying real estate and spend that money on improving the system.”
Caldwell suggested finding a program that would help homeowners put in extra filtering systems that were affordable. He also thought the city should quit spending money on streets and concentrate on water and sewer. “I would gladly trade my bumpy broken asphalt road for a dirt road if we could get good water,” he said.
Larsen agreed that water is a problem, but said he is not afraid to drink it.
“The system is old and needs to be replaced, we agree,” he said. “But the system is looped. There are maybe three dead ends. Get the facts. A lot of what has been said is not factual. We need to keep working on it and hope we can get additional grants.”
Rose disagreed, noting Peabody’s grants and loans for bringing in the new water source and building the new sewer system make the city ineligible for additional grants of the size necessary to improve the distribution system.
“We have tried to find money,” he said. “But the odds are not that good with our debt load.”
Candidates had a variety of changes they would like make if they win a seat at the council table.
Rose wanted to increase economic development and bring new businesses to town to improve the tax base.
Berg also saw new businesses as an area to improve.
“We need a place where people can get fuel if they don’t have a credit card,” she said.
Holt, on the other hand, thought the community needed to pull together to support the businesses it has rather than just try to find new ones.
“Do we shop locally? Get our hair cut here? Shop at the hardware store? Get groceries here or go out of town?” she asked. “Lack of unity is a problem.”
Larsen echoed her sentiments. “We all have to play together in the same sandbox,” he said. “We need to work together.”
Rose and Larsen were the only two candidates with experience working with the city’s $1.4 million dollar budget. The others agreed that it was no different from a household or small business budget, except for the additional zeros.
“I’ve never worked with that much money,” said Berg. “But it’s a matter of living within your means. You save for lean times and have a reserve to fall back on.”
A question about encouraging businesses, homeowners, and tenants to keep property clean and up to city codes brought strong reactions.
Holt said first impressions are important and if Peabody is trying to attract families or businesses to the community, they should see a town that takes pride in itself.
Berg thought improving private property only makes taxes go up.
Caldwell declared, “I don’t care if your house looks like a shoebox, it is your property and you can do as you wish.”
Rogers said he thought about 25 per cent of houses in Peabody are vacant and too many codes and regulations are the reason people left.
Larsen and Rose spoke in defense of the codes, citing the need to have leverage over citizens who allow buildings to become dangerous and piles of trash to attract rodents and wild animals.
When questioned about what residents can do to help law enforcement keep down crime and drug activity, most of the candidates felt better communication within their families and neighborhoods were key ingredients.
Rose reminded listeners of the annual Safe Kids Camp at the elementary school each year.
“Events like that help children feel comfortable with law enforcement,” he said.
Rogers and Caldwell both felt problems are not being addressed by law enforcement.
“I work in towns with no police departments and they don’t have the problems Peabody has,” Rogers said.
Caldwell felt the police budget was unsustainable for a town this size and the department did not serve the needs of the community.
Both said law enforcement could be handed off to the county for more efficient service.
A final question for Larsen asking about his accomplishments as mayor brought a response about his time as a public servant.
“After six years serving the city, I think my best accomplishment is being able to serve all of you,” he said. “I have volunteered to do many things with the Baker buildings, with water leaks, after storms, coaching kids, and being on the ambulance crew. But the best is my service to you.”
Caldwell is running for school board as well and will likely win a spot, since there are four people running for four positions. The board meets the same night as one of the two monthly city council meetings. A final question for Caldwell was whether he thought missing one half of all the council meetings in a year’s time gave “…the city a dedicated candidate for the job?”
“I can be both,” he said. “People miss meetings all the time — life goes on. I will have the agendas and I will decide from them what the important issues are that need to be covered or voted on.”
The other candidates ended the forum with a summary statement.
Berg: “I’d like to visit with other communities to see how they save money. I hope the election turns out best for the city.”
Holt: “I moved here by choice and I will stay by choice. I love Peabody and want to have my kids grow up here. I want to be involved.”
Rogers: “I’m not a miracle worker. But I would help slow down the backward slide.”
Rose: “I’ve been on the council 16 years and I think it is time for a change. I’m not a smooth talker, just a person who listens and will get an answer if I can.”
The forum was sponsored by Peabody Main Street. There were about two dozen people in attendance and the forum was moderated by David Colburn, news editor for Hoch Publishing Company which publishes the Peabody Gazette-Bulletin.