Candidates carve out positions at city forum
Almost 200 people attended a Fredericksburg City Council candidate forum last Wednesday at the Hill Country University Center.
The Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event brought out onlookers to hear candidates’ views on a variety of subjects during the hour-and-a-half forum.
During introductions, mayoral candidate Bobby Watson said, “it was time for new ideas and experience and a change in leadership.”
Watson served on the Addison city council and runs a third-generation food services business. He moved here 18 years ago and has served as a councilman for the past four years.
“The people here … take pride in the community. Fredericksburg has gone through many changes and will continue to change. Fredericksburg needs new leadership and experience with new ideas for today, a leader that can recognize opportunities for growth and still maintain our German heritage,” he said.
Linda Langerhans, who has roots back to the founding settlers, recently closed her business after 14 years running a bookstore. She served as mayor from 1992 to 2000 and was re-elected to the post in 2014.
“I am amazed at the number of people who have made all we have possible,” she said, citing local services and attractions. “I love the variety of businesses we have in Gillespie County, but we lack certain services.
“There are many things we lack in the community — some that we want and some that we need,” she said of affordable housing, childcare options and a relief route for traffic, and adequate sports facilities.
She said there were four visioning groups that will plan a course for the future.
Tim Lafferty, a political newcomer and former hotel professional, moved here in 2004. He said he held senior management positions in hotels in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
Lafferty said he was dismayed by “rising taxes, deficit spending and a city that struggles to work within an annual budget of $47 million.”
He took a swipe at the city’s $14 million in debt and spending on consultants. “If anything, with rising prices, the property tax index should be reduced,” Lafferty said. He also claimed the city was “putting together a list of winners and losers” through its policies.
Tom Musselman served as a councilman and mayor over seven years and will retire from Fredericksburg Independent School District in May. He also ran restaurants on Main Street during the 1980s.
“It’s important to realize that change is essential to our town’s success,” he said. He praised the town’s hospital, schools, restaurants, art galleries, B&Bs and wine businesses. “We must keep what makes this town special, and we must retain our German heritage and architecture.”
Mo Saiidi, who immigrated to Texas in 1970, was an engineer with the Boeing Company. Saiidi has been active in the Adopt-a-County Road program.
“I have developed a very good relationship with the city offices,” he said. “One of the reasons I’m moving into this position is I’d like to take this activism higher. I have no reasons not to trust anyone in this town, but … public confidence in this town is eroding.”
Jim Bennett served a lengthy tour in Vietnam as an Army pilot and officer. He started a Houston chain of ceiling fan stores, and electrical and mechanical services business. He recently located permanently to Fredericksburg.
“I believe that our well-meaning mayor and council have failed to address the concerns of the citizens or don’t really understand what our concerns really are,” Bennett said. “While we appreciate their service to the community, their decisions seem poorly thought out or with little regard to the unintended consequences.”
He cited Main Street gridlock, new taxes and fees, and “giving away assets to private developers.
“Let’s manage growth with a welcome sign at our city limits, but also with some reasonable regulation,” he said.
Charlie Kiehne seeks to hold onto his seat on the council he won in 2016. The lifelong resident of Fredericksburg, gas station owner and now realtor said he had seen a lot of change in the town.
“I’ve gotten to see a lot of change here in Fredericksburg, some I agree with and some I don’t,” Kiehne said. “We have accomplished some things — we redid the sound ordinance and completed a traffic study. We have addressed B&Bs (STRs) so people can enjoy the quietness of their neighborhood and not be subject to party houses, as some of them have become.”
Kiehne said he also had served on the Fredericksburg ISD school board, and served as a Justice of the Peace.
Asked what role the city should play in “attainable housing,” candidates’ answers varied.
Watson said the city should take a lead role, saying the city should not rely solely on developers. He said the city could waive fees, provide land and explore available grants. “If we don’t have housing for the employees who live here, it will hurt us,” he said.
Langerhans agreed, adding it had been a subject for the council for many years. “We have growth, no matter what. We need to determine how we are going to house people who want to live in this community,” she said. She said it can be hard to find services with many service workers choosing to live elsewhere.
“I support the city in helping get these housing developments done,” she added.
Lafferty said in a free-market system, developers “will step up to the plate.” He said contracts should be written in a way that sees developers beholden to the agreements if they receive utilities or other incentives.
Developers of the apartments on Lower Crabapple Road attempted to get tax credits to develop affordable housing as a part of their project, but were turned down by the state.
Musselman said he “was having déjà vu.”
“We were talking about this same issue 10 years ago,” he said. “We had an affordable housing task force and we looked at options. In the 10 years, land prices have skyrocketed, the labor force has tightened up, and the service workers in this community cannot find a median-priced home, which is about $316,000.”
“What the city can do is partner with the private sector,” he said. “There are fees, impact fees, involved. But one thing we need to do as a council is that if we give a subsidy, the cost of the build doesn’t go away. I’m in favor of giving impact fee reductions or maybe even waiving them for certain kinds of housing. Our construction industry has a big part in whether we’re going to be able to build houses that people who work in this community can afford.”
Saiidi said the issue was affecting other cities. “Some people may see $260,000 or $280,000 as affordable, but to some it may not be,” he said. “We would like to control the price in a controlled area. I would like to see options at $200,000 or less.”
Bennett said affordable housing has been tried “over and over and over” around the country and he said he had yet to see it work successfully. “The only time I’ve seen it successful is when the community is subsidizing to the level that is ridiculous. I don’t think social engineering is the answer to our issues here,” citing zoning concessions instead of giving away tax dollars in any form.
Kiehne said land costs and development costs are extremely high and material costs continue to rise, so it can be difficult to even think about affordable housing.
“Prices like $240,000, $260,000 or $270,000 can be attainable if you bring in about $70,000 per household,” he said. “Teachers typically are in the $40,000 to $45,000 when they are starting out. Police, fire department, nurses — that can be our target today.”
“The people in the service industry are the backbone of our community and we’re not serving them,” he said. “We’ve been approached by several types of developments. We haven’t decided which is the best type. But it will cost money — it’s not free.”
STRs, historic district
Asked about the proliferation and regulation of short-term rental properties, Musselman said many former rent houses had been turned into B&Bs, resulting in a negative effect on rental supply.
“I’m generally in favor of the STR ordinance,” he said, but said the city could revisit areas that were onerous or not working.
Saiidi said ordinances are good, such as tightening up on fire and safety rules, but “when I listen to B&B owners, there is a perception out there that they feel the city is forcing them out of the business. Comments about limiting B&Bs are causing concern.”
He said sometimes the city rushes through ordinances, pointing to recent proposed changes in the sign ordinance (which were tabled).
“What you can hang in the window or put on the window is, frankly, government overreach,” he said.
Bennett said he was in favor of expanding the historic district with workshops and input from residents, though it provides little benefit to property owners.
With regard to STRs, Bennett said STRs pay commercial property taxes and lose homestead exemptions, and in some cases, they are the best-maintained properties in the city.
“The ambiance and character of the city is, in part, because of the short-term rentals,” he said. “People come to our city to stay. Some find them too expensive and go to the hotels. Hotel owners deem STR owners to be their first-cousin. They drive business to our hotels.”
He said the recent ordinance implementation had caused a lot of consternation as many owners found themselves suddenly out of compliance, “though they had operated for years with no enforcement and the premise that the city was OK with what they were doing.”
Kiehne said the ordinance came about to combat the B&Bs which regularly disturbed residential neighborhoods. “I have not heard any talk about shutting anyone down, and I don’t think there is any thought from the council to run people out of business,” he said.
He said the STR ordinance did not affect zoning. R-2 allows multiple properties, while R-1 allows for lease of a home.
“It’s a good ordinance. As time passes, we probably need to make some adjustments to gain favor with those folks,” he said.
The council also answered questions on the proliferation of tasting rooms on Main Street, annexation, regulation of STRs and if a committee should direct Hotel Occupancy Tax funds.
Early voting will be held at City Hall, 126 West Main Street, on Monday, April 23, through Tuesday, May 1 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Expanded voting hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. will be held Tuesday, April 24 and Tuesday, May 1. There will be no early voting on Saturday or Sunday.)
Election day voting on Saturday, May 5, will be held at the Fredericksburg Middle School Cafeteria, 110 West Travis St., from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.