Republicans Sheldon Barnes, Danny Niederberger and Ryan Locke are running for the Carmel City Council’s Northwest District seat in the May 2 primary election. Incumbent Republican Councilor Laura Campbell is not seeking re-election.
The candidates answered the following questions from Current:
Carmel is often criticized for its debt load. Do you believe Carmel has too much debt? Why or why not?
Barnes: The City of Carmel has retained its S&P “AA” credit rating. This means that a debt obligor has very strong capacity to meet its financial commitments. If our city owed too much debt, this would be reflected in our ratings. Beyond that, I would encourage voters to read our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Specifically, the statistical section that covers our financial trends, revenue capacity and debt capacity. Wall Street utilizes financial ratios to compare similar size companies operating in the same industry. Our legal debt margin and ratios of outstanding debt show that our financials are healthy.
Niederberger: Too much debt is relative to how much you can pay off. Carmel has been able to pay off and refinance its debt while maintaining a AA credit rating. In this sense, no, Carmel does not have too much debt. I would however be in favor of prioritizing paying down debt.
Locke: While excessive debt can strain city finances, reasonable and strategic debt is a necessary tool that acts as an investment in the city. Projects funded with well-structured debt can increase the present value of properties which in turn increases tax revenue for the city. Debt service payments are often more than covered by this increase which results in a net gain in revenue for the city. If we can ensure that our debt is appropriately structured and that we maintain adequate volume cap to pivot for future needs, our debt load shouldn’t be a burden on present or future taxpayers.
How should the city balance redevelopment with maintaining the character of surrounding, well-established areas?
Barnes: First, our city leaders should listen to the concerns of citizens, property owners and business owners that our redevelopment plans might impact. Mixed-use developments are a great way to bring new investments while preserving the character of existing areas. Senior communities are a great way to provide affordable options for our senior citizens who want to stay in Carmel to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Niederberger: I believe constituent input is critical. When different projects go in front of the city council, you have to break down the cost versus the utilization and benefit to the constituents.
Locke: Preserving the safety and value of our neighborhoods is essential for the future of Carmel. Redevelopment should be targeted on areas that are draining resources or not generating economic value in an effective way without threatening the surrounding community. The community must be involved in the decision-making process. Seeking input from residents, business owners and stakeholders to understand their concerns and priorities will help identify what aspects of the city’s character demand preservation and what changes should be made. Our homes are central to the lives of Carmel residents, and it is necessary to ensure they remain safe and valuable.
The city has devoted 1 percent of its general fund to supporting local arts. Is this an appropriate amount and funding source? Why or why not?
Barnes: Indianapolis spends one percent on the arts. According to Jeff McDermott, president and CEO of the Center for the Performing Arts, nearly 50 percent of ticket purchases came from outside Hamilton County. The economic impact of the arts industry is undeniable. Our Palladium is 13 years old, and I believe there are years that we should double our funding to support diversity and inclusion and capital improvement projects in the Arts and Design District. If we do not support the arts, the economic impact will go to other cities.
Niederberger: I would not tie supporting the local arts to a percentage of the general fund. I believe you should evaluate each project on its own merits.
Locke: Based on looking at national trends, 1 percent seems reasonable. However, the key question to any government spending, specifically those based on percentages, is what is that money being spent on. Funding the creation and maintenance of actual local art and paying for administrative overhead for art-related expenses are very different things. Both are necessary, but these taxpayer investments should result in local art that increases the quality of life for our residents. This is likely best accomplished by specific review and approval of art project funding that includes analysis of the impact the investment will have on the community.
The city has had a couple of failed starts in implementing diversity training and initiatives. How do you think the city should handle diversity training?
Barnes: The city’s failed start was due to a need for proper vetting and due diligence. Our city hired a consultant who failed to see their own unconscious bias. I would have recommended a company like Pope Consulting to our city leaders. Moving forward, our city should challenge the narrative that our city and law enforcement officers are biased and develop well-defined goals for these types of training with input from the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations and the broader community.
Niederberger: I believe the diversity initiatives have failed because the scope has been limited to identity. Diversity is deeper than just skin color and gender. Diversity is everything in your background, your childhood upbringing, the challenges and adversities life has thrown at you and your personal beliefs. You cannot “train” diversity.
Locke: I believe that gaining knowledge and context is essential to improving our understanding of and interactions with others. Shared life experiences create a strong community, and anything that promotes kindness, empathy, and awareness is valuable. Diversity training and initiatives can foster a more inclusive and understanding community by providing knowledge and context through exposure to more perspectives. Our continuous mission should be to create a community that welcomes, respects and celebrates diversity. The more we know, the better we listen, the better we can be.
What should be the city’s role in supporting its senior citizen residents and their needs?
Barnes: A few years ago, I served as an election official for my precinct at Fire Station 46. My fond memory was seeing our senior citizens come together to vote. Our senior citizens are the cornerstone of our community. They supported our city leaders at the ballot box during our city’s growth and development. As our city grows, we should support our senior citizens by supporting organizations such as PrimeLife and partnering with development firms to offer affordable homes.
Niederberger: Carmel has a responsibility to improve the infrastructure to create a walkable city. This encourages senior citizen residents to maintain physical activity and promotes active aging.
Locke: Carmel’s role is to create an environment where our seniors can continue to live comfortably and happily. They made this city what it is today when they chose to live here. We need to protect their investments in their homes and our community so they can move into the next phase of their lives confidently with financial stability. Building, providing and attracting amenities, services and businesses that cater to our seniors should be a constant endeavor, and we should continue to strategically develop a broader variety of attainable housing options for them so that they can remain residents of the city they love.
What is Carmel doing well? What is its area in need of most improvement?
Barnes: Carmel is doing an excellent job as a great city to raise a family. Our city leaders can do a better job of being transparent about the debts that are outside of our 2 percent constitutional limit. If elected, I will work with our city leaders to better educate our citizens about our responsible use of debt.
Niederberger: Carmel is doing very well at attracting great people, great paying jobs and respected developers. Carmel’s biggest focus now is maintaining balanced growth while also keeping fiscal responsibility.
Locke: Carmel is a destination city for people seeking an excellent life because we do an exceptional job of preparing for the future. Our roads, parks, trails and schools meet our current populations needs and have been strategically built to support continued growth. Our police and fire departments are world-class because their voices are included in their funding and support. If we remember who we are and plan for where we are going, and strive to include our residents in those conversations, we can protect the things that make Carmel the place that our residents have chosen to build our lives.