Newton Mayor Mike Hansen and opponent Ron Bookout participated in a fiery back and forth Thursday during a candidate forum at city hall.
It was standing room only as the two discussed several topics including the Dangerous and Dilapidated (D&D) program, housing needs and allegations of waste, fraud and abuse within the city.
Bookout made the assertion of fraud running rampant within the city to which Hansen fired back at Bookout to provide specific instances the candidate was aware of.
“Mr. Bookout you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Hansen said.
Bookout also raised concerns about how much city employees are paid, specifically the Newton Public Library Director position, saying the pay scale of $90,000 per year is “kind of excessive.”
“If someone can justify why the librarian should get that much, it is beyond me and the citizens of Newton,” Bookout said.
NPL Director Nicole Lindstrom said after the forum that the director’s salary was set by the city council after evaluating the responsibilities, duties and education required for the position.
“This salary was set before my time and was chosen after comparing our library to similarly-sized libraries throughout the state of Iowa,” Lindstrom said.
Bookout also said city property is being sold in private sales. Hansen suggested if he had proof of that accusation she should contact Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess.
Bookout’s final point was about “city council changing the requirements of living in the city and education requirements.”
“You should meet the basic standards and live within the city limits,” Bookout said. “It just shows you don’t care enough to support the city, get their tax dollars but not vote or even pay taxes.”
Bookout did not say specifically what city positions he was referencing.
Hansen responded to Bookout’s claims with defense and pride for city leadership and staff.
“I work with some of the best staff members and city council people that go out there and put it on the line every single day,” Hansen said. “To accuse them of fraud, waste and mismanagement is beyond the pale.”
Hansen referenced a recent city audit completed as a checks and balances system to ensure the city is financially and fiscally responsible. He also voiced his opinion of the campaign Bookout was running — a position Hansen described as the “chief executive of the city” and a “leader who works with business leaders, organizations and development partners.”
“It is real easy to make outlandish statements when you are running for office, when you have nothing else and Mr. Bookout just proved to you that is the kind of campaign he is running,” Hansen said.
Another topic the two vastly differed on is the city’s use of the D&D program. While Hansen listed the opportunities which come from addressing dangerous and dilapidated buildings, such as improving curb appeal and bringing money back to the tax base, Bookout said he’s more inclined to revamp or discontinue the entire program
“I think we waste too much money, we don’t spend it properly. A good example — I was doing research on the D&D program. The Maytag motel (sic) is a good example. You buy it for $549,000 and you take a loss on it. It is not, per say, the city’s money, it is the taxpayers,” Bookout said. “If you start looking at all of the properties the city did buy, we are losing money on, we need to revise or scrap it. In the past programs like that haven’t worked, they definitely need to be revised.”
Hansen disagreed stating the D&D program is a model across the state of Iowa. He said while talking with other communities, many asked what Newton is doing, how it is doing it and why it is doing it.
“The D&D program returns, contrary to Mr. Bookout’s research, tenfold in that investment what we make dollar wise in addition to tax valuation,” Hansen said. “It also does one other thing, it takes the blighted homes that have been declared D&D — remember that stands for dangerous and dilapidated — it removes them from our community. People do not want to come and live in a community where you are not doing something to continue to upgrade your curb appeal.”
Housing in the city was also discussed with a question on what the city will do for established homeowners, citing the city’s current incentive program of a $10,000 gift given to new homeowners when a house that is valued at $160,000 or more is constructed. Bookout wanted to give every homeowner the opportunity to receive the incentive or an abatement the same as what the new homeowners receive. Hansen referenced opportunities through RDGB program grants which require a public and private match and directed inquiries about that program to the city’s development specialist.
To close the forum, the candidates were asked why they are running for mayor instead of city council. Hansen said he enjoys when citizens reach out to him with concerns and he has the ability to take them to city council to resolve the issues.
“I enjoy what I do because I have a passion for public service,” Hansen said. “We need to continue our positive direction and positive growth and I intend to do that when I am re-elected.”
Bookout said he thinks the city needs new leadership and a lot of people feel the same way. He also had another reason for putting his name on the ballot.
“The mayor, he was running uncontested, so he may as well earn it,” Bookout said.
The city election is Nov. 7.
Contact Jamee A. Pierson at 641-792-3121 ext. 6534 or firstname.lastname@example.org