Candidates for city of Tomah mayor described a prosperous, growing city during a forum Thursday at Best Western Hotel.
The four candidates — incumbent Mike Murray and challenger Remy Gomez, Brett Larkin and Nellie Pater — will appear on the Feb. 18 primary ballot. The top two finishers advance to the April 7 general election.
The only issue that divided the candidates was a proposed building that would combine the city’s ambulance and fire services. Larkin, a senior at Tomah High School who will enroll at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse this fall, said “our local first responders was a huge reason as to why I’m here tonight … they feel forgotten by the current city leadership.”
Murray defended the city’s decision to back away from an ambulance building on the new Tomah Health campus. He said a combined site to house the Tomah Fire Department and Tomah Area Ambulance Service will save the city “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Gomez, a former city council member, said ambulance and fire personnel share many of the same needs and that a combined building “is awesome; it’s long overdue.”
“If we don’t start to plan for the future, we’re going to be caught with our pants down,” he said.
Pater, who served one term as mayor before losing re-election to Murray in 2018, said a new facility is something the city needs.
“What we have now is small and not enough,” Pater said. “We are at 10,000 people, and we are going to grow. We have to find the money to do it. We have to get this building built.”
Larkin said a shared building has its advantages but warned against “shortchanging” the project.
The only other criticisms leveled during the forum came from Pater and Larkin.
Pater questioned whether elected officials are responsive to citizen inquiries. She said phone calls and emails are often left unreturned.
“Their biggest complaint is that they do not have representatives they can talk to,” Pater said. “They feel there is no one to talk to.”
She said it’s important that citizens “believe they can come to us when they have issues, and they’re not feeling that right now.”
Larkin questioned the wisdom of the city constructing a bathroom across the street from Gillett Park, which he said cost $400,000.
“That goes back to why I’m running — for the forgotten people, our first responders,” Larkin said. “They are the ones we need to spend more money on instead of wasteful spending.”
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All four candidates said it’s proper for the city to use tax incentives to attract and maintain private industry.
Murray said a small incentive can result in a large payback. He recalled former Burnstad’s Market owner Vic Burnstad telling him, “Sometimes you can’t be afraid to lose $10 in order to make $100.”
Murray said incentives have a proven track record and cited the recent $30 million Toro expansion. He said the facility will generate $2 million annually in payroll.
“There comes a time when a little bit of nudge gets a project done,” he said.
Larkin said any incentive package must be subjected to a “cost-benefit analysis.”
The four candidates also supported Tax Incremental Finance Districts, the most common form of local tax subsidy.
“TID development is a good thing if done properly” Pater said. “They don’t bring in revenue right away. It takes time. I do believe they work.”
On the issue of city streets, Larkin said the city should be more aggressive in getting money from the state. He recently worked in the office of the state Legislature’s majority leader and said his connections would be beneficial to Tomah.
“I believe this is an issue far beyond just the city,” Larkin said. “The mayor needs to work as an activist to the state Legislature.”
Gomez said winter is always going to take its toll on Tomah streets.
“We’re in Wisconsin. Roads freeze and they unfreeze, and they freeze again,” he said.
Murray said it’s important for the city to consider water and sewer so that newly paved streets aren’t torn up again a short time later.
“This isn’t just about roads, it’s about infrastructure,” Murray said. “You have to take into account what’s underneath.”
The four also agreed that transportation options are limited for those who don’t drive or lack access to a vehicle. Pater said the problem disproportionately impacts Tomah’s substantial population of military veterans.
Murray said the city’s options are limited by state laws that restrict the hours that taxi drivers can operate.
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.