Candidates running for the Yelm City Council in the November general election got a chance to voice their opinions at a debate this week.
The debate was held Tuesday as part of the Yelm Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon and forum.
The debate included Position 6 candidates Terry Kaminski and Joe DePinto; Position 4 candidates Jennifer Littlefield and Tad Stillwell; Position 2 candidates Joe Baker and Molly Carmody; and Position 1 candidate JW Foster, who is running unopposed.
Littlefield was unable to attend the debate, as it was the first day of school where she teaches. Her daughter, Whitney Littlefield, answered questions on her behalf.
The debate was moderated by Nisqually Valley News Publisher and Editor Michael Wagar.
The candidates started by stating why they feel they’re the best candidate for their positions. Kaminski said her experience on the city’s planning commission has given her insight into how the city works, combined with her connections throughout the community.
Littlefield cited her mom’s work on the planning commission, as well as her time on the council last fall.
Baker said his 12 years on the council gives him ample experience, and said he’d like to help see some of the projects he’s worked on to it’s fruition.
Foster, since he’s running unopposed, thanked the existing city council and planning commission members for creating “the Yelm we have here today and we’re all very proud of that.”
Carmody said she thinks Yelm needs a fresh perspective, and said she could help the city move into the future and accommodate new growth.
Stillwell said his military and business experience make him the best candidate for the position.
DePinto said growing up in Yelm gives him a good understanding of the issues facing the city, and his experience working as a legislative aid gives him an understanding of how the city interfaces with state government.
The final question, but perhaps the one that yielded the most diverse range of answers, was whether Yelm city government is supportive of local businesses and, if not, what would you do to improve relations?
About half of the candidates felt the city already does a good job of supporting local businesses, while the other half felt the city can do more to help businesses succeed.
“There’s a lot of people complaining about (the cost of) hookups and all the rest of it, and I agree,” Kaminski said. “It isn’t inexpensive, sometimes, due to the older infrastructure, but who should pay for the infrastructure? Should it be the taxpayers? Where does that all come from? So that is something that should be put on the plate that we will work through, but I don’t think that we are unfriendly to business. If I would just say yes or no, I would say we’re very friendly. If we have to change things, we will and if things have to be changed, there’s a process to change it.”
Littlefield said when her friends attending out-of-state colleges come back home for breaks, they’re always amazed by the new businesses in town.
“I think we are business friendly, because if we weren’t, those kinds of things wouldn’t be happening,” she said.
She said the city cannot play favorites when it comes to what businesses come into the city.
“We cannot just cut out businesses because we do not like them, we do not like their size,” she said. “As a city government — I’m not part of it, so I can’t say ‘we’ — they do not have the right to go and say, ‘You are not worthy of Yelm, we do not want you here.’ As a government, you cannot do that. And I think it’s important to remember the city serves 8,500 people, and the city government needs to take all of those into account and needs to be objective in that. And even if businesses have different competing interests, that’s the nature of the free market, so we need to remember that, as well.”
She also pointed to the results of a survey the city sent to local business owners. When asked what is the greatest barrier to improving the economy, the top three answers were the economy, capital, and space.
“None of them were the government,” Littlefield said.
When asked what changes to the city code would most improve business, the top three answers were nothing, the sign code, and other, she said.
“I think overall, we are business friendly,” Littlefield said. “I’m not saying we’re perfect. I think it’s important that we can constantly be improving. That’s always important.”
Baker cited a lower B&O tax for businesses under a certain revenue threshold, lowered property taxes, and a partnership with the Thurston Economic Development Council as ways the city is supportive of business. He also said the survey to business owners found that 56 percent were happy with the city’s codes.
“That, I can see, is great for our city and I think we’re doing a good job on that,” he said.
Foster said the number and diversity of businesses in the city is evidence of Yelm’s support.
“We have 7,000 people or so that are actually paying those taxes and we’re supporting tens of thousands of people who come through here, so everybody has to pay their fair share,” he said. “We only make 62 percent of our budget off of taxes and the rest has to come from other places, so the fees, yeah, they’re big and I like the idea of paying them in sections if we can do something like that, but we have to pay for the infrastructure to have the water and the sewer and of course the roads and the police officers to patrol them. So growth is painful sometimes when the businesses have to come in and pay their big share of it, but we need that diversity of businesses. Mom and pop businesses can’t run the city. We need light industry, we need bigger commercial, we need a diversity of businesses to come in. And Yelm’s job — and I think we’ve been doing a good job of it — is to provide that infrastructure and support.”
Carmody said Yelm is unequivocally not business friendly.
“It’s because when a small business comes to Yelm and says, ‘Hi, I’d like to do business here,’ the city doesn’t say, ‘Welcome. Here’s what you need to move forward, here are the licenses that you’ll need to apply for, here are the permits that you’ll need to get, here’s how to do your master business plan, your operating agreement for your LLC,’ anything like that,” she said.
The city should be encouraging small businesses over large corporations, she added.
She said the city needs “to encourage small businesses, not huge businesses like the multinationals coming in and taking our money and sending it back overseas or taking our money and sending it to New York, because every time that you buy at Walmart, that money goes away forever from Yelm. It goes to the Walton family or if you ... get your meal at Burger King, that money goes away from Yelm forever. So we need to keep our money here. If I go to Mr. Dougs and eat lunch, then the owners of Mr. Dougs, and the waiters and the waitstaff and the cooks and everybody of Mr. Dougs, they’re going to come to my business and maybe get an estate plan or whatever. The money needs to stay local and in order to do that, I think we need an ombudsman, maybe even just a part time, one or two day a week position, from the city, or even a volunteer, just to say hey, we’re here for you, we’re here to help, we can send you to the Thurston Economic Development Council, which has all of the work tools you will need to become a successful business. Right now I don’t think that infrastructure is in place and I think we really need to work on it. Otherwise we’re going to face a city of stripmalls.”
Stillwell cited the city’s B&O tax as an example of how the city is not business friendly.
Ice Chips, a company that was based in unincorporated Yelm before it moved to Tumwater, was another example Stillwell cited.
“We lost 40 jobs,” he said. “They weren’t great-paying jobs, but they buy insurance, they go to the lawyer, whatever. They spend money here, so we allowed them to go to Tumwater. ... That’s the type of business we need here. They’re local, their whole family’s involved, they have employees that, again, they’re not making a lot of money, but those people are all unemployed now, because they’re not going to drive to Tumwater. ... I think we have a long ways to go.”
DePinto said he thought Yelm was neutral in its support of businesses.
“We do support businesses, we try to make the effort, but we’re not really there yet,” he said.
Yelm has an industrial park many people may not be aware of, he said, and he’d like to see it revitalized.
“I’d like to make that park vibrant again and reach out to Boeing, reach out to Microsoft, and say, ‘Hey, what is it going to take for Yelm to get one of you guys to come into Yelm and build one of your small manufacturing plants out there?’” he said. “‘Is it going to take the infrastructure, is it going to take tax preferences? What’s it going to take to get you here in Yelm?’ And we’re not doing that. We need to be doing that — easy solutions to bring businesses into Yelm.”
The most important thing is for the city to reach out to local businesses and ask how they can help, he said.
“How many of you guys have had the council members reach out to you as owners or workers, employees of your business, and say, ‘Hey, what’s Yelm doing to make it tough or make it easier for you?’” he asked. “We need to reach out and really help them, help you guys succeed. Because government’s not in it to choose winners or losers. We shouldn’t be doing that. We need to just make the infrastructure up to date, we need to make sure that the red tape isn’t there so you get out and do what you do best: your business. We aren’t going to make you successful, you’re going to make yourself successful.”
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