When it comes to local elected officials, Gerry Ethington worries mostly about how they affect her soaring real estate tax bills. The Manassas resident spoke out at Tuesday’s debate at Grace E. Metz Middle School.
The debate, sponsored by the Old Town Business Association, comes prior to the May 4 election when residents will vote for mayor and three council seats.
Ethington enjoyed seeing a wide age-range of candidates and hearing their opinions on local issues.
“I was very impressed,” Ethington said. “I thought they did a very good job of presenting themselves and answering questions.”
About 175 residents watched as Douglas S. Waldron (R), 47; Charles E. Strums (D), 65; Steven W. Grimes (I), 24; and Councilman Ulysses X. “Xerk” White (I), 73, discussed their candidacies for mayor.
Jackson H. Miller (R), 36; Vice Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R), 53; Steven S. Smith (R), 50; and Clyde D. Wimmer (I), 66, are competing for city council.
A panel of local business leaders created questions for the candidates on real estate taxes, transportation, council relations with the School Board, residential overcrowding, parking in Old Town, commercial development and a 10-year vision for the city.
But the panel’s questions didn’t challenge the candidates enough, said resident John Hayward, 49.
“I think they asked a lot of very safe questions,” Hayward said.
The candidates agreed on supporting the schools and recreation, and wanting to find ways to raise revenue aside from real estate taxes. Miller would put all city departments under scrutiny for possible budget cuts, except the Police and Fire Departments and the schools. Grimes wants to lower or eliminate the meals tax to retain the business lost to Prince William County and attract more residents with a water park.
One of Parrish’s highest priorities was to get the most for taxpayers’ dollars, and he said his 10-year voting record on the council provides proof.
Attracting new businesses to the city to lower the burden on residents sits atop Smith’s priority list. White wants to see professional buildings with residences on the second and third floor in the Mathis Avenue/Centreville Road corridor, and Waldron said that area should be developed into a “downtown,” while Old Town would be preserved as a historical district. Sturms and Grimes want to develop south of Va. 28, closer to Wellington Road and the Manassas Regional Airport.
White wants to give residents back some of their real estate taxes if revenue collected exceeds the revenue forecasted and budgeted for spending.
Sturms’ vision for Manassas’ future includes a people-friendly city that’s free of congestion. Waldron wants to expand beyond the city’s 10 square miles.
Sturms and White said a parking garage would be a priority if the city were given a hypothetical $5 million transportation grant. The businesses currently suffer in Old Town because of the lack of parking, they said.
“They’re really the lifeblood of the City of Manassas,” Sturms said. “Once that area starts growing, it brings in more business.”
Grimes said a parking garage would detract from the historic feel of Manassas, and Waldron suggested building a new Virginia Railway Express station west of Center Street, along Prince William Street. That would open up many parking spaces and bring commuters into Old Town to shop and dine, Waldron said. As a resident, Hayward said that was the best original idea brought up that evening.
When asked about residential overcrowding and how to accommodate the city’s growing diversity, Miller and Parrish both were proud of the city’s diversity, but residential overcrowding remains a problem. Smith wanted to reach new city residents of varying cultures through education, and he said these residents are often invisible to the system.
On the issue of relations between the city council and School Board, Wimmer agreed with the other candidates that the boards need more communication. Wimmer pointed to his 30-year history in local government, noting he has served stints as acting city manager and utilities director.
“Most of the projects throughout this city have the fingerprint of Clyde Wimmer,” he said.