BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
— TRAVERSE CITY — City voters could well determine the fate of summer festivals, firefighters’ jobs and the number and types of street improvements the city will undertake when they go to the polls Nov. 5.
Voters will choose a mayor and three commissioners from among nine candidates to join the seven-member commission, whose members will be asked to quickly resolve some of the city’s most pressing issues.
The new commissioners’ calendar indicates they’ll immediately address a new festival use and noise policy, followed by consideration of a study to eliminate the existing city fire department.
After that, they’ll weigh road improvements against what some prospective commissioners believe is a need for additional city employees.
“The fire department, furthering the bayfront, where do we go with the festivals, what do we do with staffing levels — those are big issues,” said city Commissioner Jim Carruthers, whose position is not up for grabs this year. “This is a big election.”
Neighborhood associations and other groups scheduled eight candidate forums, the remaining four of which are set to occur over the next two weeks.
“Every election is important because there’s always the opportunity to shape the direction the city will go, but there are big issues that need to be dealt with and the makeup of the city commission will help determine that,” said Doug Luciani, president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber will host a forum on Oct. 23.
“People really should be looking closely at the candidates and looking for a broad perspective on the city’s needs,” Luciani said.
Rick Buckhalter, a frequent commission critic, will challenge incumbent Michael Estes for the two-year mayoral term.
Those seeking four-year commissioner terms include: incumbent Jody Bergman; Jan Warren, Gary Howe, and Tim Werner, all of whom are current city planning commissioners; former county Commissioner Ross Richardson; Traverse City Light & Power board Chairman Patrick McGuire, and John Reid, a newcomer to city politics.
The candidates bring a broad range of experiences and positions on the various issues, including several that may surprise residents. Few favor any strict limitations on the number of festivals at the downtown Open Space, despite the recent public outcry.
Not a single candidate supports increasing taxes, but several want to expand the ranks of city staff, generally for the police and fire departments, while others want more sidewalks, bike trails, and efforts to slow traffic.
“We have a lot of people with ideas of how to improve the city, but the underpinning of it all is are you solvent enough to pay your bills,” said retiring Commissioner Mike Gillman. “I’ll be watching the candidates to see who is most interested in fulfilling that role.”
Gillman’s looming departure robs Estes of his strongest commission support in Estes’ cost-cutting effort to disband the Traverse City Fire Department in favor of Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, a primarily volunteer agency that serves three surrounding townships.
Of the commission candidates, McGuire indicated the most support for siding with Estes and embracing Metro Fire, but he’s voiced some reservations.
At the other end of the spectrum, Burkhalter, Richardson, and Reid oppose a fire merger or takeover. The other four candidates all lean toward opposition, but will wait for completion of a study on consolidation -- expected sometime in January -- to make a final decision.
The three candidates who win next month will still be in office in 2016, when one of two tax increment finance districts that fund the city’s Downtown Development Authority is set to expire.
The TIF district currently captures over $850,000 in property tax revenues from local taxing jurisdictions, including about $400,000 from the city’s general fund.
The new commission can let it expire, extend it for another 30 years, or extend but not capture additional money unless some new need is found in the DDA district.
Carruthers said the push is already on from some parties to extend the TIF, and Luciani listed it first among issues that face a new commission.
Regardless of the candidates’ current positions, Carruthers said the most important attribute he looks for in a candidate is accessibility: Can residents reach them, and as commissioners will they listen and respond to citizens’ concerns?
But Carruthers, often a lightning rod for public reaction, also offered a word of warning to candidates: “You also have the nut jobs out there and some of them are really nasty.”
Profiles of individual city commission candidates will appear in the Record-Eagle beginning on Tuesday.