The four Burlington city council and two mayoral candidates discussed several of the same hot-button issues in Burlington during a candidate forum Tuesday night at the Paramount Theater — public transportation, economic incentives, and East Burlington.
Challenger Ian Baltutis and Mayor Ronnie Wall also talked entrepreneurship, creating business and downtown Burlington during the forum cosponsored by radio station WPCM and the Times-News.
Baltutis, who started his own business and is president of the board wanting to bring Burlington Beer Works downtown, said the outdated policies of our local government have "stifled" growth from startups, and the city needs to encourage that kind of business instead of always competing for big-name corporations.
Wall said he doesn't disagree with Baltutis about making Burlington more business friendly for existing and future companies, but he's not aware of any business being stifled by the government.
In talks about economic incentives, Baltutis said, "Our first tool when attracting new business should be looking at how that business ... will be able to succeed in our specific local environment," which he said Burlington should foster and promote to the point where businesses that fit the community come looking here — and not the other way around.
Wall said he's always open to exploring alternatives to economic incentives, but reminded the audience that of the projects to which Burlington has given incentives, "all of them have been positive cash flow," and ultimately benefitted the city.
He said part of attracting new business also means making sure sites are industry-ready so interested businesses can relocate or build immediately.
Council Incumbents Jim Butler and Celo Faucette, and newcomers Julie Budd and Charles A. Carter also answered questions about incentives, and how they could be restricted in the future.
Faucette said the city's current policy means Burlington distributes a certain percentage of incentives as a business returns on specific outlined requirements, which has worked well for the city. He and Butler both said incentives are part of the business-attracting game. Butler said instead of cash incentives he prefers tax breaks.
Budd's opinion was similar to Baltutis. She said Burlington needed to work to be an attractive place to live and work and "create our own game that will attract new business," without necessarily depending on incentives.
Carter said incentives could be restricted by requiring a certain number of new hires by the new business, which should also prepare the local job market by informing the city what kind of jobs it will create.
"I need to be able to have the citizens be able to match up to the jobs," and receive proper training before the business opens shop, Carter said.
Council candidates also weighed in on public transportation, and were asked if the city should pursue a bus system even if nearby municipalities weren't yet ready to commit to a countywide plan.
"As the largest city, Burlington has the opportunity to take the lead in this important issue," said Budd, adding that the issue is so important and has grabbed the attention of so many locally, other municipalities will follow in Burlington.
Faucette agreed Burlington should take the lead. The issue is how to pay for the system. In addition to federal funding, the city could implement a tax on cars or rental cars, he said.
When Carter mentioned a feasibility study, Butler said three had already been done.
"If we have these studies, we're dragging our feet," Carter said. "If we've done all the necessary legwork ... then we should bring it before the public for a vote."
Baltutis also referenced the three studies and said the issue has been on Wall's desk for the last six years and said, "Inaction is a vote against public transportation."
Wall said some of the studies had been done outside the staff or the council, but he agreed the issue needs to be put to a vote. He denied that the studies have been on his desk for six years.