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San Angelo, Texas - For the first time this election cycle, San Angeloans heard from candidates for San Angelo City Council at a City Council Candidates Forum. The forum, hosted by the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Chamber CEO/President Walt Koenig, included candidates from Single Member Districts 1, 3, and 5. Tommy Hiebert, the incumbent in Single Member District 1, and Karen Hesse Smith, the incumbent in Single Member District 5, both participated in the hour-long forum despite running unopposed.
Harry Thomas, the incumbent for Single Member District 3, participated, as did his challenger, Michael LePak
Koenig, the moderator, asked several questions to all four candidates, from improving quality of life, assessing the City's current financial outlook, and recruiting and retaining city employees, to whether the City needed a new comprehensive master plan. Below is a recap of how candidates answered.
Tommy Hiebert, Single Member District 1
Tommy Hiebert mentioned his previous experience as a City Councilman and his service on the Chamber of Commerce Board and the COSADC Board. His top two issues for the next cycle included improving sustainability regarding water and further improving economic development in San Angelo.
In response to a question on the recruitment and retention of city employees, Hiebert mentioned the need to improve employee compensation to other comparable cities. Hiebert also said that a newer comprehensive plan could provide stability and comfort to the business community. Regarding the City's finances, Hiebert noted that he believed it was healthy and had more than 90 days of funding in its fund balance. However, Hiebert did mention the need not to rely on the sales tax and talked about how property tax revenues did not cover the budgets for the police and fire departments. He said that the budgets for police and fire are $48 million while property tax revenues only amounted to $43 million. Hiebert believed the City and City Council should prioritize safety, water, streets, and sewers.
Karen Hesse Smith, Single Member District 5
Hesse Smith echoed much of what fellow unopposed candidate Hiebert did in her remarks. She agreed that the core services should be City Council's main issue in the coming years. She also said that the comprehensive master plan needs to be updated. Hesse Smith was also the only candidate in the forum who mentioned TIRZ funding and that community development was as important as economic development.
Regarding recruitment and retention of city employees, Hesse Smith pointed to the work that the current City Council was doing in the past and future budget cycles to improve compensation. An urban designer, Hesse Smith was in her comfort zone when discussing the quality of life. Specifically, Hesse Smith spoke about the "gateways" to San Angelo, mentioning the border between Wall and San Angelo and the road leading from the city center to Foster Communications Coliseum. Finally, while she mentioned she was the newest to Council, she pledged to do her best serving SMD 5.
Harry Thomas, Single Member District 3
For Thomas, everything came from his accounting background working for Goodyear Proving Grounds. Thomas mentioned that the City relies too much on sales tax. He also said that his priorities were continuing to find long-term sustainability regarding water. He also said that Like the other incumbents, Thomas mentioned the need to focus on the core issues: water, safety, sewer, and streets. He also listed economic growth as an essential issue and that new sales tax revenue from the growth would help the City as a whole. Regarding a comprehensive master plan, Thomas said that the City and City Council needed to work with community partners and that it could take up to 18 months to get one done.
Michael LePak, Single Member District 3
As a challenger to Harry Thomas in Single Member District 3, LePak's priorities could be distilled into his riverfront development plan and a faith-based program that would fix the homeless problem, which he said would not cost any government funding. Regarding his riverfront development plan, he mentioned that the City could use lots along the river for food trucks and other similar businesses. Revenues from those lots, he said, could be put to improving the River Stage. Regarding the recruitment and retention of employees, LePak mentioned that the City should look to similar cities such as Abilene and Midland/Odessa and take compensation plans from them. LePak also said that Tony Villareal was advising him as one of many advisors, including from leadership at Conexion Hispana.
The election between LePak and Thomas will occur on May 6th, with early voting starting on April 24th. In addition to the SMD 3 race, San Angeloans will also vote on increased requirements for the Police Chief position.