Most voters are looking forward to Election Day, but four candidates for Huntsville City Council are looking far beyond that.
Candidates for at-large positions 3 and 4 took a stab at what Huntsville will look like in 10 years. The central theme in all the answers was, to no surprise, growth.
Incumbent Councilman Don Johnson says growth is inevitable, so how the city’s leadership acts now will determine how prepared the city is for what’s on the horizon.
“In 10 years that growth will have arrived, and ready or not, how we choose to prepare for and manage it will determine our living quality in 2024,” Johnson said late last week. “I want us to enjoy a strong infrastructure and strategic new industries that don’t detract from our natural beauty.”
One way to get there, Johnson said, is by community engagement. He said volunteers can help Huntsville ISD provide “exemplary public education,” and that more collaboration with Sam Houston State University can keep graduates in Huntsville longer.
Johnson said during his four years on Council, the members have planned strategically for future growth.
“We have secured a reliable water supply for the next 50 years and are addressing major infrastructure improvements,” Johnson said. “More than $7 million is budgeted in 2015 to improve and expand water and sewer lines, improve roads and address sidewalk projects.”
City Manager Matt Benoit has said in Council workshops that city roads will become a major issue in the near future. Johnson said monetary reserves and the balanced budget will “(prepare) for a bright future,” as well as a new alliance with the Greater Houston Partnership.
Johnson said a 10.5 percent tax increase that Council enacted two years ago sounds large, but that context helps.
“...but understanding it was three cents on a (41-cent) rate, the first in 10 years, helps perspective,” he said. “We have the second-lowest tax rate of 12 comparable cities, ranging from 78 cents to 33 cents per $100 valuation, and we are striving to reduce that. Good management in 2014 allowed rolling it partially back toward the previous level.”
The best way to reduce taxes in the future, he said, is to increase revenues by expanding the tax base and increase sales tax revenues.
Johnson’s opponent, Karl Davidson, said the future is a combination of what citizens want and what happens at City Hall.
“The key to making Huntsville a better place to live and work is strategic planning,” Davidson said. “For over 15 years, I have been an observer of City Hall. During that time, very little actual strategic planning has taken place. No one seemed to be able to ask the critical question: What do we want for our city?”
Davidson said the community must get involved in order to adequately answer that question.
“It is time we ask the talented and committed individuals of this community to help make our city a better place to live,” Davidson said. “We can create a better future by creating a concise plan that will benefit all citizens in our community rather than special interest groups.
“Who better to provide input than those who are impacted the most, the citizens who work and live in Huntsville.”
Davidson poses four “critical” questions to citizens.
1. What do citizens want, and what do they want the city to look like in 10 years?
2. Why do they want it?
3. What has to happen to get what they want?
4. Who are they in the process? In other words, what is the citizen’s responsibility as an individual in the community?
Davidson says Huntsville will look like “whatever we make it” in 10 years, but that it will be a better place by following those four questions.
In their second battle for an at-large seat, City Council member Keith Olson and challenger Kendall Scudder also say that growth is coming to Huntsville whether the city is ready or not.
Olson says how and where the city grows are the keys to a flourishing city.
“It is ridiculous to think you can keep taxes low without creating revenue through growth,” Olson said Saturday evening. “If you aren’t growing, you are dying. Knowing growth is evident, I can only hope that in the next 10 years we have taken a comprehensive look at all of our very old infrastructure and have a plan that has been in place, as well as ongoing, by this time.”
He said the City Council has already started working on a top-down infrastructure plan.
“This is critical to have a very strong understanding as to what must be done in order to be able to welcome the growth headed our way,” Olson said. “No matter what is coming, you cannot receive or service any of this opportunity if the pipes aren’t in the ground.”
Olson also said the rewrite of the development code currently underway is “imperative” to the growth process.
“This defining document will ensure that our existing citizens, together with our perspective growth, whether it be residential or commercial, will stay within guidelines that will keep our city looking vibrant,” he said. “Nothing is more disappointing than building something nice or making upgrades to your property when your neighbor could care less what their property looks like.”
Scudder says the biggest challenge over the next 10 years is preparing the city’s infrastructure and managing the growth. He also wants to see some different workforce solutions.
“In 10 years, I would like to see a Huntsville with more diverse employment opportunities — employment opportunities that will allow us to maintain SHSU graduates and see our community’s population and tax base grow,” Scudder said. “We attract that kind of growth by keeping our property taxes low while providing high-quality services to our citizens.”
Scudder said a large portion of that growth rests in city planning.
“Instead of excessive taxpayer giveaways to multinational retail conglomerates, I see that money being better spent preparing our infrastructure for the growth coming our way,” he said.
Scudder also hit on one of his campaign’s main issues, which is a “more transparent” city government. He said in 10 years, he’d like to see the city filming and archiving all official activity of the Council. Not all meetings are currently filmed and broadcast like Scudder would like.