City Commission candidate questionnaire: Leslie Soden

The Journal-World sent a 16-question survey to each candidate running for three at-large seats on the City Commission. Fourteen people filed for those seats. The March 3 primary election will whittle the field of candidates down to six for the April 7 general election. These answers are presented as they were received from the candidates.

Candidate profile: Leslie Soden

• 43 years old, the owner of a pet-sitting business and a former president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association

Do you believe a new police headquarters facility is needed, and if so, are you open to considering a property tax or sales tax increase to fund the facility?

We are a long way away from deciding funding sources for a new police headquarters facility. First we need to explore our entire “emergency services” system, and fill any gaps that exist now for our police, fire, hospital and county jail services, especially with regards to mental health issues. When we have determined these gaps, we can then look at collaboration and joint funding. We absolutely do need to address the deferred maintenance issues of our police facilities now, and perhaps explore expanding our current facilities at 15th & Wakarusa.

The city in 2014 approved a new registration and licensing program for apartments and other rental units in the city. It is set to begin inspections in July. Do you support the program as approved?

Yes I do support the rental registration and licensing program as approved. I believe that city staff has done an excellent job of addressing concerns on both sides of the issue. Safe rental housing is important for all people in Lawrence, especially for our low-income citizens and university students, and this program helps ensure that.

As part of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex, the city entered into a public-private partnership with Kansas University Endowment and a private development group. As part of that agreement, the city is paying for about $12 million worth of infrastructure that was exempted from the city’s standard bidding process. Do you support public-private partnerships that involve the city paying for work that was not bid?

No, I do not support partnerships that involve non-competitive bids for construction projects paid for by the tax payer. Perhaps we need to look at updating our policies to ensure that any future public-private partnerships require competitive bidding processes. We have a great opportunity now to learn from what went wrong with Rock Chalk Park, and prevent those mistakes from happening again with future projects.

In 2014 the city approved tax rebates for projects in East Lawrence, downtown and near the KU campus that were either wholly or largely for apartment development. Do you support providing tax incentives for apartment development?

The Poehler building is a great project that involved the positive elements of repurposing existing infrastructure, renewable energy and affordable housing. I have not seen those elements in other residential development. Public money that comes from tax incentives should come with strings attached, and these strings need to benefit the public good in positive ways. If there is no public benefit to a project, other than increased property tax and a hope for “trickle down” economics in the form of increased restaurant and bar sales, then it needs to remain a privately funded project.

The city last year opened Lawrence VenturePark, the new business park that was built on the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant site in eastern Lawrence. Do you support the idea of providing tax abatements and other financial incentives to attract businesses to that park?

Yes I am very much in favor of incentives we can offer at VenturePark, such as free land and property tax abatements, to companies creating permanent full-time jobs with benefits. Amarr and Grandstand in East Hills Business Park have been great example of incentives that have directly led to the creation of permanent, full-time jobs with benefits. I would be interested in how we can encourage “worker amenities” to locate at VenturePark and East Hills Business Park, such as daycare services and food trucks. I believe that would help attract large businesses and manufacturers to re-locate there.

In 2015, the city is budgeted to provide about $220,000 to the Lawrence chamber of commerce to lead the community’s economic development efforts. Do you support that arrangement with the chamber?

I do support the city contributing to the Chamber’s economic development efforts. As long as the chamber keeps those public monies received from the city & county separate from funds received from their membership and advertising sources, I am comfortable with this arrangement. Since the chamber receives taxpayer monies, I do have concerns with any direct political advocacy by the Chamber.

In 2008 voters approved a three-tenths of a percent sales tax to fund city-street maintenance and other infrastructure projects. How would you rate the condition of city streets today?

I think the city has done well with street improvements and maintenance. It seems our recurring street issues have more to do with foundational issues with the soil underneath, such as Kasold Street. I would like to see the city begin to spend more funds on brick street maintenance in the historic core of our city. Perhaps we can also use these funds to improve our sidewalks as well.

In 2014 the city built a new dual-lane roundabout on Wakarusa Drive, and is considering building more in the future. Do you support the use of roundabouts in the city?

I have mixed feelings about roundabouts. Some are successful, such as at 19th & Barker, but some were an unnecessary expense, such as the two large ones on Kasold Street, north of Peterson Road. I was very concerned about a two-lane roundabout on Wakarusa, especially in using eminent domain to purchase land from adjacent property owners. Let’s give ourselves a little time to learn from this newly built one, especially in terms of design layout and pedestrian/bike safety, before plunging into another 2-lane roundabout project.

Based on current city capital improvement plans, the city is scheduled to spend about $3 million in 2015 and 2016 on a project to rebuild a portion of Ninth Street as part of an effort to make the area into an “arts corridor.” As currently proposed, do you support the project?

More input and information is needed before the city fully commits to this project by diverting funds already budgeted to other infrastructure projects in our capital improvement plan. Does the city need to spend $3 million to rebuild East 9th Street in order to realize the “art corridor” project? Could we save money by using our venues & businesses that already exist downtown? Is this truly a “need”, or is it just a “want”? As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”, but the project does have the potential to benefit Lawrence.

The city has been asked to approve financial incentives designed to spur the installation of additional gigabit, super-fast broadband service in Lawrence. Do you support the idea of providing a financial incentive to private companies interested in providing enhanced broadband services to the community?

Our city absolutely needs to take an active role and prioritize fiber-optic Internet services. I feel we need to begin exploring the option of offering it as a public utility by the city. To me that is the safest, fairest and most secure option available. We need to look at what other cities are doing, and then learn from their successes and mistakes. We could make it cost-neutral by charging user fees, and by phasing in implementation, prevent a huge initial price tag. Incentivizing private companies should be more of a last ditch effort, rather than a first effort.

What is the biggest issue facing Lawrence neighborhoods?

The biggest issue facing Lawrence neighborhoods is having a limited voice in city government, and not being able to rely on the city to follow existing codes and city planning documents. Quality of life concerns are often marginalized when up against large investment interests. Too many exceptions are given to developers which has created a highly politicized atmosphere at City Hall. Projects greatly benefit from strong research, public planning and full transparency. Rock Chalk Park would have benefited from a more open and thorough process from step one, which would have avoided the ugly questions and need for audits today.

Given the other needs of the city, what is the likelihood that you would support additional funding for trails, bike lanes and other pedestrian-oriented projects in the community?

I absolutely support additional funding for pedestrian & bike oriented projects, but I do want to see clarification that these projects serve the nearby residents in their day-to-day activities, rather than for primarily recreational purposes. They are all good projects, but serving the everyday needs of all of our citizens should be prioritized. Sidewalks near schools and bus stops are a good example of projects that will have a direct and every day impact for our residents, and should be a high priority.

Given the other needs of the city, what is the likelihood that you would support the idea of city assistance for a new conference center in the community? (Full disclosure: Members of The World Company, which owns the Journal-World and have put forward a proposal for a downtown project that includes a conference center.)

The ultimate question is this: How many and what kinds of permanent full-time jobs with benefits will this convention center create? Economic development policies should be used to create those kinds of jobs as an immediate, primary outcome. Perhaps partnering with KU might be a fruitful partnership for the convention center developers to explore. I have been disappointed to see our current City Commissioners use public incentives to subsidize luxury student housing and hotels. We need to raise the bar higher when using tax payer monies.

In 2014 there were six homicides in Lawrence, the highest number in at least a decade. Is there anything the Lawrence City Commission can do to improve public safety in the community?

Absolutely City Commissioners can do more to improve public safety in our community. I truly believe that mental health issues are related to public safety and must become a major City Commission goal and budget priority. We must work in collaboration with the county and schools. Let’s talk about solutions: creating a “crisis stabilization center” with the county, fully funding the WRAP program in public schools, and actively investigating supportive housing alternatives with on-site case management. I am very excited to participate in this public safety conversation, as I see many potential healthy outcomes for our community.

A proposal has been made by a development group to create a major new retail area just south of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street interchange? Are you supportive of rezoning property for major new retail developments in the community?

I think it’s important to have a project fully on the table before rezoning property. Zoning changes may come into direct opposition to a neighborhood plan or city plan that already exists. New major retail development must also take into consideration the actual retail needs of the city and any potential negative impact on existing businesses and our historic downtown. We have a comprehensive plan already, and there would need to be very compelling and concrete economic outcomes to deviate from that plan.

What’s your vision for the type of community Lawrence will become in the next decade?

My vision for Lawrence starts with new leadership that will prioritize the people and businesses that are already here in Lawrence. The future of our city must address the needs of the 21st century in terms of infrastructure, jobs, health, safety, and education. Our community is constantly being infused by youthful energy and creative ideas with the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, so we can become innovators with 21st century solutions. So let’s stop being the caboose, and start being the engine for positive change!

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