Meridian City Council members talked growth and business in a Meridian Chamber of Commerce forum that often times appeared to be a matter of incumbents versus newcomers, as City Council President Treg Bernt and non-council candidate Mike Hon each urged voters to select a slate of current councilmen or challengers.
Five of the six candidates were in attendance Tuesday to discuss issues like affordable housing, community growth, downtown parking and local option taxing. Many deemed Meridian on the right track, for the most part, but others were looking for change.
“There’s so many reasons why we love Meridian,” said City Councilman Joe Borton, whose opponent for seat 2, Hunter Wolf, did not attend. “I feel a great sense of responsibility.”
There were some technical difficulties in the virtual stream, and at one point, one of the candidates laughed and said “What does that mean?” while City Councilman Luke Cavener was answering a question.
Meridian Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sean Evans declined to say who had issues with inadvertently unmuting their microphone. He added more then 100 people had been watching the stream through the chamber’s social media channels.
The forum can be rewatched at IdahoPress.com.
The city’s recent growth has thrust Meridian into “continual change,” according to the City of Meridian Comprehensive Plan, and many of the questions posed to the candidates focused on how to deal with the issue.
Candidates offered multiple perspectives, including Adam Nelson, managing partner at the Meridian Speedway. Nelson said he didn’t want the city to fold under a push to build high-density housing quickly.
“I think it’s just important to keep evaluating that comprehensive plan and making sure that housing initiatives aren’t exceeding the infrastructure needs,” Nelson, who is running for seat 4 against Bernt, said. “I don’t want Meridian to become a high-density city like San Francisco or Portland.”
Nelson and others emphasized the importance of housing diversity, citing townhomes, condos, apartments, and single-family homes as options. Cavener added there are options in the city code to possibly allow tiny homes.
His opponent for seat 6, Mike Hon, said Meridian is a victim of its own success. The area has become a desirable place to live, creating a supply-and-demand issue, he said. Hon questioned how much the city itself could do to affect the market and said it was up to the private sector.
“I’m a capitalist like everyone else,” Hon said. “I’d love to build smaller homes for individuals who can’t afford a big home on a one-acre lot...but there’s still going to be demand for those smaller homes and demand is going to dictate price...the more people that move here, those prices are going to go up to.”
Businesses are facing a labor shortage in the Treasure Valley, in part because of a lack of housing for workers, Evans said.
When questions delved into the specifics of how to deal with growth, like using reserves to advance road projects, the incumbents touted their experience.
“My opponent mentioned that that was not possible,” said Bernt, who is running against Nelson. “It is possible. We’ve done it in the past, we’ve continued to do it.”
But the challengers maintained they would provide a change from the old guard, pointing out they have been a part of and served the Meridian community for years.
“I could be an asset to the people of Meridian,” Nelson said during his closing remarks. “The citizens of Meridian have a right to their freedom of choice...I really am looking forward to being able to defend the citizens of Meridian as far as any government overreach.”
One of the issues that seemed to bring unity was parking downtown, which all candidates seemed to agree was a problem.
“While there is sufficient capacity for parking downtown, there’s also focused and orchestrated plans to add additional parking, which is going to include some parking garage components,” Borton said. “Those will help facilitate the ongoing challenge of parking.”
Finally, the candidates addressed local option taxing. Idaho counties and cities have been pleading with state lawmakers for decades for another way to pay for local services and projects, the Idaho Press previously reported.
Local-option sales tax works by cities asking residents if they want to impose a local sales tax. Previously, the state legislature passed a bill allowing a half-cent local sales tax to pay off debt for a jail. The law required a two-thirds vote of county residents, among other restrictions. Only one county was able to use the law to build a new jail and the law expired in 2009.
Again the group was split between incumbents and challengers – Hon and Nelson both said they were opposed to any tax increases. Bernt, Borton and Cavener all said cities should have the option, even if Meridian residents don’t use the option.
“It’s important to note that local option isn’t imposed by a heavy hand of local government,” Bernt said. “I’m not for raising taxes but I do believe that having the ability as citizens, I think we should have the right.”