Five Oelwein residents turned in nomination papers for seats that are up for re-election in this year’s municipal elections to be held Tuesday, Nov. 5.
The terms are up for First Ward Councilman Matt Weber, Third Ward Councilwoman Lou Ann Milks, At-Large Councilman Darin Christensen, and Mayor Peggy Sherrets.
Incumbent Weber is running unopposed, although inquiries are being made regarding a possible write-in campaign. No one turned in papers for the Third Ward seat, however, there, too, may be a write-in campaign in the works.
Christensen is being challenged for his seat by Tom Stewart. Mayor Sherrets also has a challenger in Brett DeVore.
There were four questions posed of the incumbents and their challengers for a candidate preview leading up to Election Day. The questions were aimed at covering important current city issues, as well as give voters a little insight into the candidates themselves. Today’s story will cover the two mayoral candidates, Sherrets and DeVore with more previews in Friday’s edition.
Candidates were asked to tell about qualifications for public office and give reasons for running.
Mayor Peggy Sherrets:
I grew up in Oelwein and returned in 1993. Since that time, I have been very involved in the community. I have been on the board of United Way, OCAD, member of Rotary, President of the Fayette County Community Foundation and others. All of these organizations are geared to helping others.
I retired from Northeast Iowa Community Action, an organization that assists low income residents with housing, fuel, food, and some emergencies. In that capacity, I made many home visits to client’s home and was saddened at the conditions they were forced to live in because that was all they could afford.
No one, especially children who have no choice, should have to live in substandard and unsafe housing because of their economic situation. That is why I have worked for so many years to implement the Rental Inspection program.
I have always felt that public service and volunteerism was everyone’s responsibility. I didn’t set out to become the Mayor, but in the five years that I have been in this office I must say that I have loved it! We have a wonderful City Council that has been more aggressive than ever in ensuring delivery of service to all Oelwein citizens.
I know that if I am elected we will continue to clean up housing and focusing on the issues that are important to residents.
To be honest, what is a true qualification for running? Is it previous election success? If so, I don’t have that, as I have never run for office.
I can give you a little background on me and let you judge if that qualifies me or not. I moved to Oelwein in December 2002 when I purchased my home on 9th Ave SE by the hospital.
I am a graduate of Iowa State University with a BA in Mass Communication and minor in Marketing. I graduated from Upper Iowa University with a Masters of Business Administration. I purchased Cutting Edge Embroidery in Aurora in 2007 while working at UIU and transitioned to working at my shop full time in 2011. Since then, I have expanded from embroidery to include screen printing, direct-to-garment printing and promotional products. In addition to running the business, I also own rental properties in Iowa City and Oelwein.
I got involved in watching what the City was doing when they pushed out the Rental Inspection program. While I agree and support this program in general, as it will make the housing stock in town better, I had issue with how the City and the administration rolled it out. In particular, at a meeting in the summer of 2018 when the Mayor and Council were taking a lot of heat for their actions from residents at a city-wide meeting attended by landlords, renters and concerned citizens, the mayor made a snide comment about only getting $5,000 for doing the job. This was a burr in my saddle, so to speak. You don’t run for mayor for the money, it’s about making the town better.
After this meeting, I began to attend council meetings regularly to see what other things our mayor oversees and council seemingly rubber-stamp. I have watched how the City moves votes forward after receiving one bid – definitely not a wise business decision.
Some of the thoughts I have on what needs to be changed after attending meetings over the last year:
We need to establish a City-wide procedure on competitive bid process and moving forward when spend our tax dollars. A process needs to be put into place that unless 3 bids are received, no business will move forward. In addition, a review of the current system needs to be done to eliminate this possible wasteful spending.
Begin to develop a comprehensive plan to address our failing infrastructure. I have asked the City Administrator and Council Members twice at meetings what the City’s plan is – what I hear is crickets.
The one answer I did receive from our City Administrator is the start of the City’s mission statement – that is not a plan. It appears we have no plan, in fact, it appears current council members up for re-election have no desire to create a plan – what I was told after the fact is “we have no money, so why do we need a plan,” to paraphrase.
Better accountability of the City Administrator for his actions and the actions of the city employees. Case in point, at one council meeting, one city employee withheld information regarding a bid after direct questioning by a council member. This, quite simply, is inexcusable and the city administrator needs to be held accountable for actions of his direct reports. This is just one time where the mayor needs to step up and demand answers.
Better communication between the city leaders and its residents. At several of the last meetings, the mayor has brought up the issue of volunteer board positions. With the current social media platforms, why isn’t the City utilizing its home page and other avenues to get the message out, in addition to mentions in the newspaper? While some residents get the paper in town, many more follow the various Facebook pages regarding the City.
This was mentioned to the mayor as a viable source to utilize, but currently, I have seen no mentions on the various Oelwein Facebook pages I am a member – Perhaps they are there and I have just missed them, perhaps she has not moved forward to utilize all avenues available. Bottom line, you can’t lead a city if the residents are in the dark on its actions.
Q: Citizens’ major complaints seem to be focused on failing infrastructure such as streets and watermains. Do you have a plan to help address those issues and how to finance them?
DeVore: As stated above, since we have no current plan and the City Administrator wants to refer to the City’s mission statement as our plan, we need to develop a comprehensive long range plan. In business, you may not have funds available to do everything you want immediately, so you have to plan.
We need to create a task force to start this process. It definitely won’t be easy or quick. With the estimate of a former council member of roughly $1 million per mile to do the infrastructure correctly – meaning redoing the sewers and the water mains simultaneously, it won’t be cheap, which is why we need a long term plan to tackle the issue rather than continual band aid fixes in the same spots year after year.
We need to look to see what type of federal and state assistance is available while looking inward at our budgeting process to see how we can shift more funds to infrastructure improvement. Once we have some of this information, we can develop a 5, 10, 20 and 30-year plan to improve and keep the improvements up-to-date.
Bottom-line, as I stated to Council – we can have the nicest homes in the area, but who wants to move to Oelwein when we can’t or won’t maintain our roads.
Sherrets: The City has been focused on infrastructure for several years. It takes years to save for any infrastructure projects and takes over 10 years to pay off loans for just one project.
The City has funds planned in Road User Tax, Water and Sewer to tackle many of these projects. We recently brought the 42 Well back into service and used regional funds to complete load road at the Industrial Park.
Council has included infrastructure improvements in their goals and mission as a city. The Council reviewed the Capital Improvement program that spells out large purchases and lists street improvements.
The issue with infrastructure improvements is that the City does not have the money to combat them all at once, or even aggressively. Council, I, and the staff work each year to identify needs and create a balance of service.
If we used all of our funding for roads, we could no longer provide crucial services to the City effectively, such as public safety and clean water. Broken streets frustrate me just as much as any resident and I can assure the community that we are working on them as funding allows. Unfortunately, we cannot plan for everything. This past winter was incredibly hard on our streets and we had many, many frost boils that needed to be taken care of. That cost $160,000 of our funds just for the chip-seal. We just have to keep at it.
Q: Young people continue to move out of the area. What can you, as a city official, do to keep youth from moving away or convince them to return?
Sherrets: Every town and city loses young people every year. Oelwein has been very fortunate to be able to give our students the help they need to be successful. Oelwein was the first in the state of Iowa to have a Regional Academy for Math & Science. These college classes can be taken by high school children at no extra cost. It is not unusual for a student to graduate from high school with an AA degree already in their pocket. A partnership with NICC and the Oelwein Community School District made that possible.
Now we also have the Regional Tech Complex. Every student does not necessarily want to attend college. Many of them are good with their hands and creative with their thought processes to be able to gain a great knowledge in welding, CNC, drafting, etc.
There are also manufacturers in Oelwein who will pay for those classes in order to hire qualified employees.
The Tech Complex was also collaboration with the City, Oelwein School, and NICC. We have already seen young people return to Oelwein. They can be seen in real estate, pharmacies, contracting companies, jewelry stores, etc. I believe we are setting the stage for new homes and better homes for years to come.
Oelwein is turning a corner and young families are not going to want to miss out. As for employment opportunities, there is really no reason that someone can’t find a job in Oelwein if they want one. Our unemployment rate is only 2.1%. That’s phenomenal!
DeVore: Unfortunately, this is an issue facing all of rural Iowa, heck all of the rural Midwest. I’ll be honest – there is no easy quick magic pill and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you.
I think the answer to this actually ties into the next question to a degree. What we need to do as a City, not just a city official, is to work to increase availability of good paying jobs.
I constantly hear that Oelwein has plenty of openings. That may or may not be true, but tell me this — yes, McDonald’s is hiring and I believe they start at $10/hour as does Casey’s (I believe), but can you survive on $10/hour to feed your family of four? Will you get 40 hours a week or do you need a couple different jobs to survive? (Not picking on either McDonalds or Casey, just stating facts as I understand them).
We need to continue to strive to attract new companies to town. The battery plant was a feather in the cap of City, but we can’t stop and rest on our laurels. That complacency is what helped get us into this mess, so to speak.
We need to continually look at what the City can offer – in terms of educated work force, tax incentives and other incentives to get business to want to make the investment here. (Again, our aging infrastructure will hurt us in this respect)
Q: Empty downtown storefronts are waiting for tenants. Do you have ideas to revitalize the downtown?
DeVore: Sadly, our downtown is falling into disrepair. I had my shop in a location downtown while trying to sell my building in Aurora. The condition of the building and skyrocketing high utilities coupled with the failure of my building to sell, made for business sense to move back to Aurora.
If you read through a Facebook page regarding Oelwein, you see that people have ideas on what to bring to town. A big hurdle tends to be financing. What I mean by that is, residents mention chains like Target, Walmart, and Walgreens – a sad reality is those will never happen.
We simply do not have the population base to interest the large chains to our community. What we need to focus on is developing small business entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to take a risk on Oelwein.
While ideas get bandied about on Facebook, we need to create possible series of open forum meetings to explore these ideas and help direct those who are interested in creating new business and job opportunities to the resources that exist.
That being stated, we, as a community, need to support those small businesses in town.
Sherrets: “No one wants to walk down Main Street and see empty store fronts. Our Economic Development Director Deb Howard, works tirelessly every day to bring not only industry, but to fill those empty store fronts.
The OCAD Office has even purchased one of those empty store fronts to renovate. They will move their office to that building, which will have other office space to rent and apartments upstairs will be refurbished and rented.
The Council and staff have implemented a program that helps fund new business ideas in the downtown and helps local owners make much needed improvements to their buildings. Our Downtown Revitalization Program captures TIF revenues in the downtown and gives them back to the people paying for them. Some buildings are getting much needed roofing and some are getting new windows.
The revolving loan fund that I worked on with the Council has helped many local businesses with several located in the downtown.
We have a wonderful, progressive Council and City Administrator who are determined to work to keep Oelwein moving toward the future.
Local residents who wish to voice support for a candidate are encouraged to do so with a letter to the editor. There are a few rules of the road: All letters must be signed and include the hometown of the writer. A writer must include his or her phone number, which will not be published, but will be used to confirm the letter. The Daily Register will not publish libelous pieces or those written by a third party but signed by someone else. Although not a rule, a good guideline for a letter is to keep it under 300 words. Mail letters to 25 1st St. SE, PO Box 511, Oelwein, IA 50662 or email them to: email@example.com. If you have questions, call Managing Editor Chris Baldus at 319-283-2144 or contact at the email listed above.