Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Four city council candidates discuss issues at forum

By Marjorie Kirk
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Four of the seven Midway City Council candidates debated the effects of economic development on housing costs, relations with other local governments, and several other issues Monday night at a forum sponsored by Woodford Forward and Spark Versailles, a youth group interested in downtown development.

The first question, about a hiring a full-time director of economic development for Versailles, Midway and Woodford County, brought Council Member Sarah Hicks to a momentary standstill. “I really wasn’t anticipating that question,” she said, adding later, “I’m not sure we need to constantly fuel development.”

John McDaniel said, “I’m for Midway having their own people. . . . Versailles has a totally different vision,” seeking large stores, for example. He said it would be difficult for an economic developer to serve both towns. Steve Simoff, the other non-incumbent in the race, agreed. So did Council Member Libby Warfield, who said her sister held such a job when Warfield’s son was on the council, and “That had very, very, very limited success.”

After that question, most of the discussion focused on how future economic developments would affect Midway residents, beginning with the possible expansion of the urban services boundary to include the Brown-Forman warehouse property near Midway Station.

All four candidates called for caution. Simoff said the current development of Midway Station is appropriate, but “We have to be very careful when It comes to expansion.” Warfield agreed. Hicks questioned why the company would have located outside the boundary, in an agricultural zone, instead of Midway Station, which she said should be developed first.

The warehouses will be built under a conditional use permit on the idea that they will house an agricultural product, whiskey made from grains. Billy Van Pelt, CEO of Woodford Forward, explained after the forum that the boundary expansion would qualify the property to be assessed as light industrial land, a characterization that would “more accurately reflect the use of the land.”

The moderators and audience member Helen Rentch raised concerns that housing costs will increase with the development of Midway Station. McDaniel said arrangements should be made for workers at the plants.

Simoff said he was no longer sure how to define affordable housing, and the council will need to look at options for these workers. He said Anderson Communities, the developers of Midway Station, could build affordable homes.

Warfield agreed that affordable housing is hard to define, and said more rental property is needed. But she said she opposes government housing developments, letting the free market accommodate housing needs.

Hicks said improvements could be made to existing houses in Midway, which could be repurposed for affordable housing. She said she would like to see a “multi-directional approach” to reduce utility costs.

Many Midway residents complain about the amount of their water and sewer bills. The candidates were asked if they would support sale of the city’s water and sewage system, which was debated by Midway’s Water and Sewer Task Force in 2011.

Simoff said he did not support a sale because owning the system gives the city options in negotiating with Kentucky American Water Co., its wholesale water supplier. He said Midway could buy water from Versailles or Frankfort. A pipeline would be required for that.

Hicks and Warfield said they were not in favor of selling even if it meant Kentucky American would improve the water system, because the city would lose its negotiating power the company, from which it buys its water.

McDaniel said he opposed a sale “in concept,” but there are “lots of unknowns” and more information is needed.

Simoff, Warfield and Hicks said they oppose the proposed Versailles bypass, which could funnel traffic onto Midway Road, but McDaniel said the project would have to be evaluated in six years, when he said it could be revived.

The four were asked if they would support a study of merging local governments into an urban county government. Warfield said she would not even consider a study, because Midway’s small size would always put it at a disadvantage. Simoff said he would be fine with a study but against merger. McDaniel said he would be OK with a study but “It would be a no, no and no for a merger at this point.”

Hicks said she would support a study as a way to help understand issues the governments face. Asked a yes-or-no question about merger in an earlier forum, she said she opposed merger but would like to see more cooperation on projects between the governments.

The last question solicited the candidates’ thoughts on balancing the county’s rural character with residential and economic development.

McDaniel said his opinion on that wouldn’t matter, but Simoff said “There has to be a balance.” He said he does not fear the sort of expansion in Midway that is being debated in Versailles. Warfield said the traffic south of Lexington shows the need to “be as extra cautious as we can be,” and Hicks said farmland is a precious, income generating-asset and should be protected.

Council Members Steven Craig, Kaye Nita Gallagher and Bruce Southworth did not attend the forum, which was held at Midway University. Woodford Forward plans to post video of it on its site.

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