Grand Junction council candidates debate business-related issues

Six candidates running for election to the Grand Junction City Council say the city government shouldn’t compete with the private sector when businesses can offer those services.

But at the same time, some of the candidates draw distinctions between operating a grill at a public golf course and providing ambulance service.

Six of seven candidates running for three seats on the city council participated in a breakfast forum hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Five of the candidates seek election to an at-large seat on council: John Ballagh, Jim Doody, Aaron Norris, Jacob Richards and Joshua Wussick. Sam Susuras is unopposed in his bid to represent District B on the council, as is Bennett Boeschenstein in District C.

City voters will receive mail-in ballots in March for the April 5 election.

Wussick didn’t participate in the chamber forum.

In addition to making opening and closing statements, the six candidates answered a series of questions, most of them related to business.

In answering a question about the roles of government and the private sector, the candidates called for separation between the two. Said Susuras: “I think the city should stay away from private business.”

Ballagh agreed and also called for transparency in the process in which businesses bid on city contracts.

Boeschenstein said a dispute over whether the city or a private business should operate the Pinon Grill at the city owned Tiara Rado Golf Course was handled poorly — a situation Doody dubbed “grill gate.”

At the same time, Richards and Boeschenstein said the city should continue to provide ambulance service in emergency situations rather than contract with a private business to handle that service. Norris said the issue of ambulance service should be considered carefully because one of the chief responsibilities of the city is to provide for the safety of its residents.

The candidates also were asked questions about the city’s role in promoting the arts and its involvement in the Avalon Theater downtown.

Boeschenstein said the city should promote arts and cultural activities in part because they attract businesses to the area. He also said he long has supported efforts to preserve the Avalon. He said a science and cultural district could be established to help fund such efforts.

A recreation center and riverfront park — the same amenities now available in Fruita — also are needed in Grand Junction, Boeschenstein said.

Doody said the downtown shopping park ranks among the top attractions for visitors. He suggested that nonprofit groups raise money for a proposal to further renovate the Avalon.

Depending on the specific numbers involved, Ballagh said the city might support a public-private partnership to renovate the Avalon, but shouldn’t lead such an effort.

Norris and Susuras questioned whether or not the city has the funding to participate in efforts to renovate the Avalon. Susuras also said the timing isn’t right to put a ballot measure before voters requesting funding for a recreation center.

The candidates also were asked about the city’s role in operating Two Rivers Convention Center. Most said they support continued city operation of the convention center, even if those operations must be subsidized.

Boeschenstein and Doody said the convention center is needed to bring regional events — as well as the associated business — to Grand Junction.

Others agreed, but said the city should continue to look for ways to run the center so subsidies wouldn’t be needed. “Is management a problem? I don’t know,” Ballagh said. “I’d listen to the community. I’m open to good ideas.”

The candidates also shared their ideas for how the city can promote job creation.

Susuras said three groups already are in place to do just that: the chamber, Business Incubator Center and Grand Junction Economic Partnership. City projects, such as the upcoming construction of a new public safety facility, also can help to promote business and jobs, he said.

Richards said Mesa State College promotes jobs growth through its degree programs, including a new engineering degree offered in conjunction with the University of Colorado.

While it’s important to attract new businesses to the area, Boeschenstein said it’s also important to create jobs by expanding existing industry sectors and businesses. Creating areas where people can both work and live also would help, he said.

Norris said the city might consider instituting a preference for local businesses in seeking contracts for work.

Faced with a prospect of additional budget cuts, the candidates were asked what they’d cut and what they’d retain.

Norris said he’d look first for cuts in services not related to health and safety. It also might be possible to find more efficiencies. Additional expenditures are out of the question, he said: “You don’t spend anymore. You can’t.”

Doody said he’s uncertain of where to make cuts, but agreed that he’d avoid cuts in health and safety. Ballagh said he expects the city manager to make budget recommendations.

Boeschenstein said the city might realize additional savings through so-called green initiatives, including solar panels. Richards said it’s usually possible to make a lot of small moves that add up to larger amounts — lowering thermostats in city buildings by 2 degrees, for example.

Susuras said the city already has made substantial budget cuts, including reductions in staffing that lower the ratio of city employees to residents to levels not seen in 30 years. But if additional cuts are needed, more reductions in staffing and employee benefits likely would be needed.

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