OAKDALE -- In this city with financial troubles, council members Kathy Morgan and Tom Dunlop are challenged by three political newcomers who want to take Oakdale in a new direction.
Two four-year council seats are at stake in the Nov. 6 election. Morgan and Dunlop each seek a third term, while Ramona Howard, J.R. McCarty and Don Petersen are making their first bids for elective office.
Both incumbents said they want another term to complete unfinished business. Morgan said she's eager to put finishing touches on a new general plan. The growth document will designate land for commercial areas needed to stop the flow of sales-tax dollars to Riverbank and Modesto, she said.
Dunlop said he aims to continue with reforms of city government, such as reining in the costs of employee pensions. The general plan needs fine-tuning to make it less costly for commercial development and job creation to occur in Oakdale, he said.
One campaign issue is the council decisions this year to seek proposals for outsourcing public works functions such as parks, streets and waste water. Howard said she would support contracts with private firms only if the city would save a lot of money, but she doubted it would.
Petersen said city officials have the responsibility to evaluate the proposal, but he would need to see a savings of 20 percent to 30 percent before outsourcing public works.
McCarty said he's strongly opposed to privatization. "Those people who work for the city live in the city. And I can't promote economic development if I eliminate local jobs," he said.
Dunlop said he wants to review proposals and analyze the productivity of city employees before making up his mind.
Morgan cast the dissenting vote in the 3-1 council decision in July that authorized officials to solicit proposals. "I think we can make our city work with the employees we have, if we have proper expectations," she said.
Next month, Oakdale voters also will choose one of three candidates former Mayor Farrell Jackson, Cherilyn Bairos or former city Treasurer Mike Murray to complete the unexpired term of Jason Howard, who resigned in April to take a job in Grass Valley. Jason is Ramona Howard's son.
Howard said she didn't run for the two-year seat because she wants to commit four years to local government service. Oakdale needs new direction, she said, noting that economic development and public safety would be top priorities if she's elected.
"Unfortunately, you can't just do one thing to improve economic development," she said. It involves everything from cleaning up the city to lowering the crime rate to providing shovel-ready building sites and a designated high-speed Internet line to Oakdale, Howard said.
Howard and her son ran a software business for 12 years before selling it last year. She was a major supporter of the Measure O sales tax, which passed a year ago and is being used to maintain public safety, she said.
She said she's open to working with people of different political backgrounds to figure out solutions. "I feel I am a person who takes action," she said.
Petersen said he's offering his nearly 40 years of private-sector experience to city government. He worked in health care management and for 13 years owned a company that managed assisted-living facilities.
He said that getting the North County Corridor built on a route that's least disruptive to homes and businesses is necessary for the long-term financial viability of Oakdale.
Petersen gave a number of reasons why a person with business skills should be elected. The council is not getting state-of-the-art financial reports from top managers, it allowed the city's liability insurance to lapse and didn't ensure there were funds for paying the debt on waste-water facilities, he said.
"Someone with a strong business background would have challenged that decision (to self-insure the city) or paid closer attention to sewer upgrades and reserving appropriate funding for that loan," he said.
Petersen said building and development codes should be evaluated for unreasonable requirements that are holding back development and commerce. He noted the incumbents are airing the same concern, but he asks why it wasn't done years ago.
McCarty is dairy products manager and head clerk for the Cost Less market in Oakdale. In June, he was appointed city treasurer to complete a term that expires this year.
McCarty said the council should not have waited a year to hire a permanent city manager. An interim manager and two consultants are each costing taxpayers $75 an hour. The candidate said he favors using Measure O funds to add police and firefighting personnel.
Oakdale leaders need to revise ordinances so there are fewer restrictions on business development and they need to work harder promoting the city to employers, he said. "We have a ton of industrial land for new businesses."
Morgan works as a commercial projects specialist for an energy company. She said that soon after the election, the council needs to hire a city manager with a strong financial background. Oakdale needs to be more business-friendly in order to increase the tax base, which would put the city on a stronger footing for funding public services, she said.
A big problem, Morgan said, is paying for the debt on the waste-water plant. The city was short on funds when a payment came due this year, despite a rate increase that was supposed to cover the costs. "We are doing research right now on how that happened," she said.
The councilwoman said experienced leadership is going to matter in the next four years. She vowed to keep working for Oakdale with integrity and honesty and said she has no other political aspirations.
Dunlop, a feedlot business manager, said he wants to get the city back to balanced budgets. But there are obstacles to business development that need to be dealt with, he said.
The city has more requirements for landscaping in industrial areas than do Ceres and Modesto, and examples of excessive standards in commercial areas include 60-inch sidewalks and road medians that don't allow trucks to unload, he said.
As for pension costs, Oakdale owes $4.4 million to the California Public Employees' Retirement System for a 2004 agreement that boosted public safety pension benefits, he said. The city mainly has made interest payments on what's owed.
The city also has a growing liability from employee sick leave and vacation time. There's no limit on banking unused time off and he wants to talk with labor groups about setting a limit, he said.
Dunlop also favors changing the management structure after the new city manager is hired. The structure would include the city manager and two assistant managers for directly overseeing public works, parks and recreation and other departments.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.