On Monday night, Lodi City Council candidates argued about whether Lodi has done enough to attract businesses over the years. That was one of several issues that the seven candidates debated at a forum the News-Sentinel hosted at the Boys and Girls Club.
About 50 people attended and listened to the candidates discuss pension reform, combating gangs in Lodi, redevelopment and even their favorite book and movie.
One of the big surprises from the debate is that incumbent Phil Katzakian announced that the council will discuss restructuring the water meter program, so that all property owners would only have to pay $300 to purchase the actual meter. The city had originally estimated a $1,200 price tag for some residences.
The decreased costs come after two different changes in the water fund, said Katzakian, who is the current mayor. The water treatment plant is estimated to cost $6 million less than expected, which frees up reserves that would have been used to repay that debt. Also, the groundwater contamination cleanup should cost less than expected.
The council will discuss decreasing the cost for property owners at Tuesday's shirtsleeve meetings.
All the other candidates agreed that it was good news that the cost for water meters was decreasing. However, some of them still had concerns about the accelerated installation.
Candidate Timothy Reed, a paramedic, questioned whether the property owners should have to pay at all, and said the installation should be delayed until the economy improves.
"We are putting more bills on people who can't afford them in the first place," he said.
The candidates agreed that pension reform will need to be a priority over the next four years, but disagreed on how it will happen. Some candidates, like John Johnson, advocated moving new employees to a private retirement system, while others, like Reed, said the city needs to invest in employees by contributing to their pensions.
While campaigning, all of the candidates have advocated increasing sales tax to pay for city services. But there is disagreement about whether the council has done enough to recruit and maintain new businesses.
Incumbent Larry Hansen said it is hard to attract growth, and used the example of it taking six years to get the Reynolds Ranch development to where it is now. He said the city has to comply with state regulations, and can't give away too many incentives because the city needs the money to make needed repairs to infrastructure.
"I think the city has really worked hard to find ways to improve economic conditions and stimulate growth," Hansen said.
Describing it as a "lost decade," local business owner Jay Patel said the council has not done enough.
He said the city needs more of a presence at statewide business events to actively recruit new business.
He also believes that if the city gave residents a break on impact fees, Eastside residents could afford to fix up their homes and would probably use local materials and business, which will stimulate the economy.
Tony Amador, a retired U.S. Marshal, said he believes the city needs to promote the wine industry, and the city needs to ask businesses what they need to come here.
"This is a destination city for people on vacations or on weekends," Amador said.
Former councilman, Assemblyman and physician Alan Nakanishi said that every council member needs to advocate for businesses to come to town, but he also thinks it goes beyond the council. He believes the city needs to encourage people to shop locally to keep the sales tax in Lodi.
Johnson, a financial analyst, said he believes the key is to hire an economic development director. He also said the city should decrease its utility fees.
"The easiest way is to decrease city fees to put more money in the citizens pocket," he said.