Two of three Hammond president candidates sound off at forum
Dozens of residents turned out as two of three candidates for the position of Hammond Village President took questions from mediator Paulette Anderson at a candidate forum put on by the Hammond Events, Leadership & Planning (HELP) Committee on Saturday, Feb. 7, at Hammond Village Hall.
Incumbent Tony Bibeau and challenger Erin McComb were on hand to answer residents’ questions, give speeches and take part in an informal meet and greet. Candidate Mounir Tber, who has not run for office in Hammond before this election, chose not to attend the forum.
Bibeau has served on the Village Board since December 2008, when he was appointed as a trustee. He was elected as president in 2011 and again in 2013.
McComb served as a trustee for two terms (2009-13) before challenging Bibeau for the presidency in 2013. She lost that election to Bibeau by six votes.
Questions, submitted in written form to Anderson from the audience, ran the gamut from economic development possibilities, balancing the budget, feelings on just cause, the Davis Street project, high water and sewer bills, the seepage cell litigation and fun things to do in Hammond on a weekend.
Before the forum began, Anderson stressed that the forum was to be kept positive by candidates and residents alike.
Love about Hammond?
The forum kicked off with the feel-good question, “What two things do you love about Hammond?” Both candidates spoke of the small town atmosphere and residents.
“I’m a lifelong resident of the Village of Hammond and I don’t have any plans of not calling it home,” Bibeau said during his elevator speech.
McComb said the school district and the small town life Hammond offers families is what attracted her to the village from the Twin Cities.
“I have been a proud resident of Hammond for the past eight years,” McComb said. “It was my kids that brought me to Hammond and made me pick Hammond as my own.”
The next question was a little more hard-hitting: “Name two economic development ideas for Hammond (commercial and/or industrial). Is it even possible in this bedroom community?”
Bibeau said while he and others would love to bring more business and residential development to Hammond, right now the main focus must be the seepage cell litigation surrounding the sewer plant. According to Bibeau, the sewer system must be able to take on more wastewater before adding more businesses to an already struggling system. He said the village has been approached by businesses looking to locate to Hammond, but this issue must be solved first.
According to Bibeau in a letter to the New Richmond News, “I am working with our litigation attorney to remedy the issues with the seepage cells at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. The seepage cells should be seeping approximately 465,000 gallons of waste a day and are only seeping approximately 100,000 gallons of waste a day.
“I am fully aware of the high cost of village sewer and water – I am paying those rates too. I believe the best way to reduce these rates is to encourage and attract residential, commercial and industrial development to the Village of Hammond to add more users to the system. This would enable us to spread the costs out over a larger number of users. We must have the capacity at the wastewater treatment plant to handle that development when it occurs, and we currently do not have that capacity.”
McComb added that the $6 million plant, which was built in anticipation of a building boom that tanked with the economy, barely handles the 1,900 residents as it is thanks to the seepage cell issue, so agreed the issue is a number one priority to solve as a means to bring more business and industry to Hammond.
Bibeau also cited the scheduled completion of the second half of the Davis Street remodel will be key to attracting new businesses to town, not to mention making residents proud of their main street.
In a letter to the New Richmond News, Bibeau wrote “The first half of the Davis Street project was completed in the summer of 2013; the second half of the project has been approved and scheduled for completion in the summer of 2015. Our downtown is important to the current board; completion of this project is essential to replace aging underground infrastructure and improve the overall appearance of our downtown. Financing for the project is in place.”
A balanced budget
When Anderson asked “Do you have plans to balance the budget?” McComb said people should not assume it’s not balanced.
“Of a $1.7 million budget, $700,000 is from taxes and $1 million is from other sources,” McComb said. “Numbers do not always tell the entire story. You need all the facts as well.”
McComb also cited the hiring of clerk/administrator Sandi Hazer as beneficial for the village, as Hazer has a strong financial background and “does a fabulous job in making the numbers work.”
Bibeau said during his years on the board, he has overseen a substantial reduction in a $300,000-plus sewer deficit that had accumulated prior to his election as village president in 2011.
“This has been accomplished without raising the village budget,” Bibeau said. “The unassigned money in the general fund has gotten better. The budget is always a big thing. We’ve lowered the operating costs approximately 7 percent. Everyone has been pinching pennies and I appreciate that.”
Most important village issue?
When asked what they feel is the village’s most important issue, McComb said she appreciates the three years she has been off the board because it allowed her to see government from the residents’ point of view. That is why she feels board transparency and communication are key issues the village is facing.
“The biggest thing we need to work on is creating the dialogue,” McComb said. “It requires some creative, open and honest communication between businesses, residents and government about what we’re going to be now, five years from now, ten years from now. Pursuing it together, openly and creatively.”
Bibeau said he always keeps an open line of communication with residents, whether it be via email, phone or Facebook.
“Whenever someone wants to talk to me, I’ll make myself available for you,” Bibeau said.
However, he feels the biggest issues facing the village currently are the seepage cell issue and finishing the Davis Street project so the village is not being “nickel and dimed” by an aging infrastructure.
In fact, Bibeau said, construction of the second half of the Davis Street project will begin as soon as weather allows. The goal is to be done before the commencement of Hammond Heartland Days in August. Bibeau said the project will be done in block increments to alleviate burdens on the Davis Street businesses as much as possible.
Water and sewer bills
One question many wanted answered is “Why are the water/sewer bills so high?”
Bibeau began by explaining that the sewer portion of the bill is higher than the water because years ago the sewer fund “borrowed” $322,000 from the general fund.
When the discrepancy was found in an audit, the board decided not to forgive the debt, but to pay the money back to the general fund. To date, almost half of that deficit has been paid back thanks to careful budgeting and adding roughly $15 per month to residents’ bills. Bibeau said. That number, however, will not be confirmed until this year’s audit is complete, to see if an expedited payment using excess sewer funds can be made.
Both McComb, who is the former chair of the finance and personnel committee, and Bibeau agreed the decision to add $15 monthly was not made lightly by the board, which at that time they both served on. Of that $15, $12 is used “to get up to an even cash flow.”
The plan has been to pay around $22,000 back each year to the general fund for 15 years, beginning in 2012. According to McComb, the sewer budget is run in the most economical way possible and “all the fat has been trimmed from the budget.”
Bibeau also pointed out that fire protection used to be paid on tax bills, but is now paid on the water/sewer bills to ensure that tax exempt businesses share fire protection costs.
“I will do everything I can to protect the most important financial investment for me and residents — our homes,” McComb said.
The forum ended on a light-hearted note, with the question “If a stranger came to town, what would you tell them they should do on Friday or Saturday night?”
In Bibeau’s opinion, people should check out the great restaurants lining Davis Street, or head to one of the many school events or meat raffles. He said he also enjoys driving through town to see what everyone is up to.
McComb said nothing is better than Ras’ fish fry and watching the euchre table in action, but noted the “library is the heart of this town. It’s the great connector.”