Sunset Hills mayoral candidates participate in forum


With little more than a week left before the April 6 general municipal election, the four candidates for the mayoral seat in Sunset Hills took residents’ questions Monday night at a forum sponsored by the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Chamber of Commerce.

Incumbent Mayor Mike Svoboda, Ward 1 Alderman William J. “Bill” Nolan Jr., Ward 4 Alderman Frank Gregory and Mary B. Wymer are seeking the mayoral post, which carries a two-year term.

Asked to identify the “first two actions you would direct the Board of Aldermen to take” if elected mayor, the candidates gave the following responses:

Nolan said, “The first action I would suggest we do is develop a ‘Plan B’ budget. A ‘Plan B’ budget would be simply defined as what’s the alternative when revenues aren’t there. (It is) something that we don’t have in Sunset Hills, and last year revenues were off $787,000.

“Let me also suggest that I would like very much to see us develop a program of recording all Board of Aldermen meetings digitally, so that we can attach that recording to our Web site and proceed to let the people of Sunset Hills, at their leisure, listen to the meetings if they’re unable to attend. Presently we publish summary minutes, which really don’t describe the discussion that’s taken on at a meeting.”

Wymer said, “My first priority would be to work on the former Bob Evans site at Lindbergh (Boulevard) and I-44. This area needs to be more aesthetically pleasing to individuals as they enter our city, and this area needs to represent a more positive image of Sunset Hills. Neighborhood stabilization is important to keep our property values at a maximum.

“And I also agree with Mr. Nolan about the budget, having a ‘Plan B’ …”

Gregory said, “I’m not sure you can jump in and take any radical actions. Quite honestly, I think our city is heading in the right direction. My first priority, I believe, would be to re-establish some lines of communication throughout the Board of Aldermen to keep everybody informed in situations that they should be informed. In other words, take advantage of the talents and the insights and the business backgrounds that everybody has to get people involved.

“This idea of you’re part of a certain ward and you should only be involved in that specific issue I believe is wrong and it’s hurting this city. I think there’s a lot of talent on the board that can be used throughout the community. And I’ve always said that personally I’m elected based on geography but I represent the entire community, and that’s what we need to do.”

Svoboda said, “I think that the city is moving along just fine right now. People ask me what problems I would solve — Idon’t think there’s too many problems to solve in Sunset Hills. I think these past two years have been a good two years. The department heads have come together. They work with the board. The budget has been balanced by the department heads … Right now we’re looking at completing the pool and community center, and moving forward with some of our major street projects. That’s the main thing going on right now.”

The candidates also were asked to discuss the ramifications of declining revenues from the city’s half-cent sales tax, which was approved by voters as Proposition P in 2007.

Proceeds from the 20-year sales tax are supposed to retire the $14.1 million in bond-like certificates of participation, or COPs, issued last year to finance a new aquatic center, stormwater projects and a community center.

“I don’t think anyone can predict 19 years into the future,” Svoboda responded. “Our finance department has said that our sales taxes are showing an upturn now. They’ve bottomed out, and things are coming back. We do have a reserve that we could dip into if we had to pay off the bonds. We were short on the half-cent, but I personally don’t think that’s going to happen. And even if we were hundreds of thousands of dollars short, we’d still have enough in reserve above our standard reserve to pay off bonds for another five or 10 years.”

Nolan said, “I’d just like to correct one misnomer. These aren’t bonds, folks — this is a lease. We entered into a lease in order to obtain the money to build the aqua center, and the community center. The lease payment is $1,090,000 a year, and it’s $1,090,000 a year starting next year until the sunset of the sales tax, which is now about 18 years. So we’re not talking about bonds and we can’t pay them off early. We have to pay them out.

“Just so the residents know what we’re talking about, this year, 2009, the year in which we decided to do it, our gross collections on that tax were $1,068,000. So in the year we made the decision, we missed it by $22,000.”

Wymer said, “I believe in valuable recreational programs. The old pool was aging and needed to be replaced. The community center will foster a strong sense of community unity. However, with the downturn in the economy, we need to carefully consider any additional phases … to make sure it falls within the budget, and that we can make monthly payments on time on the current lease and obligations. The city must take steps to ensure no more tax money is used.”

Gregory said, “If sales tax revenue dips, we’ve got a problem, no doubt about it. This deal was structured with a preserve so that we can absorb some of that downturn. Will it take a downturn? Who knows? One of the things I talked about early on in my opening statement was to increase the retail and commercial development along the Lindbergh-Watson route to provide more quality tenants and a more stable tax base. I think that’s key.

“As Mr. Nolan mentioned, these are certificates of participation, the security for which is the land we are looking at. It’s a lease. Hate to be so blunt, but if we had to default on a lease, the facilities are still there for our use, and we just work out an arrangement with the bond holders to continue using them.”

Asked where the city will find funding to staff and operate the forthcoming community center:

“… It seems that we’ve borrowed capital but we haven’t borrowed operating money,” Nolan said. “So we’re going to have to cover the cost of the community center by charging the taxpayers to use it. It’s one of those interesting contradictions where you use taxpayer funds to build something and then you charge the taxpayer in order to be able to use the facility you used their money to build.

“But we have a pro forma that’s been done at this point that says 700 members are going to join the fitness facility at $400 a year, and that’ll bring in not quite enough to cover the overhead.”

Wymer responded, “The operational cost of the fitness facility also concerns me. I understand that the community center will have meeting rooms and a fitness center and a gymnasium that the residents can utilize. They will also have the parks department offices there. But that’s just another concern of mine also, because … in a fitness center you have to think about the equipment — you’re thinking about $2,000 at least for a good treadmill. You have to think about maybe the trainers involved. You have to think about custodial. You have to think about the staff you need for that. So like I said it has to be within our budget. We have that in our budget to cover the cost of the fitness center.”

“I’m not sure what other communities do with respect to residents, but I’m assuming that every one of them charge some fee for them to participate, whether it’s swimming, whether it’s basketball or whatever,” Gregory said. “So to say that we shouldn’t be charging our citizens to use (the fitness center) is not quite ringing true with me. There’s a list of information that we were presented … financial projections with respect to usage and fees. From what we were told it was well in-line. It’s not unusual, it’s commonplace, and I think that these facilities will create a bigger sense of community. There will be more involvement with a variety of people using both the swimming pools and the gymnasium. And that’s important to building community camaraderie. There also is some surplus money available in this COP so that if there is a shortfall, we can cover that.”

Svoboda said, “Gerald Brown, our parks director, when he was doing the figures, conservatively estimated 700 members. He’s getting a tremendous response. Hopefully we’ll be way above that for the first few years, and when it tapers down it might taper back to the 700 that it takes to run the community center. And there have always been fees associated with our parks, with our pool, with the shelters, and this isn’t any different than any other city does. Our parks director polled other cities and found out what they charged. We’re right in line with everybody else.”