The remaining candidates for the Lawrence City Commission differed Saturday on just how pro-business Lawrence is these days.
At a forum sponsored by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Voter Education Coalition, candidates were asked to rank Lawrence’s business environment on a scale of 1 to 10. City Commissioner Bob Schumm gave it the highest score possible, a 10, saying the city has “gone out of its way” to support businesses that want to grow and expand in the city. Other candidates ranked it as low as a 5.
Matthew Herbert, a Lawrence High School teacher, said he thinks that, through the use of tax incentives, the commission has given some businesses a 10, while giving other businesses a 1.
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“I don’t think the role of the city commission should be to pick winners and losers,” Herbert said. “Its role should be to provide the infrastructure that gives all businesses a chance to succeed.”
Schumm, a retired restaurant owner, said he thinks some candidates aren’t seeing the value of tax incentives. He said his businesses never received a direct tax break from the government, but his company did benefit when others received such breaks.
“My business grew and grew and grew because we did offer incentives, because the town grew,” Schumm said. “Businesses are a beneficiary when the town grows.”
The forum, hosted at Maceli’s, attracted a crowd of about 80 people. Among the other comments from candidates:
• Stuart Boley, a retired IRS auditor, ranked the business environment as a 7. He said he thinks “sales taxes in this community are really high.” He also said the City Commission could do more to facilitate a true discussion on the use of tax incentives.
“There has been a lot of divisiveness in the community on this issue over the last several years,” Boley said. “The City Commission has a leadership role to bring people together on that issue.”
• Stan Rasmussen, an attorney for the U.S. Army, ranked the community’s business environment between 6 and 7. He said the community needs to have better high-speed Internet service. He also said the inability of a development group to win approval of a major retail project for an area just south of the Iowa Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange was a sign that the community had more work to do on its business environment.
“That was a really bad message to send,” Rasmussen said. “They asked for nothing, and we told them to go somewhere else. I hope they do come back with another proposal, and I hope we support them as a community.”
• City Commissioner Terry Riordan, a Lawrence physician, ranked the business environment as a 7, up from 15 years ago, when he ranked the business environment as a 3, he said.
“We have a lot of opportunities, but we also have a chance to mess it up,” Riordan said. “I’m worried about that. I want to focus on what we can do. I hear way too much about what we can’t do.”
• Leslie Soden, the owner of a Lawrence pet sitting business, said the business environment is a 7 and improving with the new leadership at the chamber of commerce. She said she does want the city to consider a municipal project that would bring high-speed Internet to the community. She said the business environment is still facing a major issue, though.
“Everyone knows that Lawrence has some of the lower wages in the state, and that is a problem for the community,” she said.
The Voter Education Coalition will sponsor another candidate forum at 7 p.m. March 16 at Lawrence City Hall. Members of the audience will be allowed to ask questions at that forum, organizers said.
Election day is April 7. Voters will choose three at-large candidates to serve on the five-member City Commission.
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