October 3, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 24

Economics challenges in mayoral elections

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three that will profile candidates in the upcoming West Plains elections Nov. 5. We picked the mayoral candidates to kick things off, although only one race is contested -- Medical Lake. While they are running unopposed, we have also included inside profiles of Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove and Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing. Next week the Cheney Free Press will feature candidates for city councils and the following candidates for school boards.

Leadership of Medical Lake comes down to two people in the Tuesday, Nov. 5 election for the city’s Mayor position. The two candidates were asked a series of seven questions each, focusing on some of the hot topics surrounding Medical Lake.

John Higgins

Higgins, the incumbent in this year’s race, is a lifelong resident of Medical Lake and said he has always been concerned with the issues facing the city, ensuring it provides a good place for families.

“It’s a good place to raise a family,” he said.

The city does have its challenges in attracting retail businesses, he said, but residents can walk around town without worrying about being assaulted or having other violent crimes committed against them.

Among Higgins’ priorities in his last term included maintaining a balanced budget, a priority which the city has kept for the last eight years. Making sure the annual items, such as passing audits successfully and doing the best job possible with a small budget, were also key to making City Hall run efficiently for residents.

Street projects were funded through successful grant applications during Higgins’ current term, including the recent SR 902 sidewalk construction.

“We made some changes, particularly with the billing system,” he said. “We changed our computer system to make things easier for the public.”

While the budget has been strained, Higgins said the city has done its best to keep utility rates low for residents over the last several years.

“Garbage rates continue to go up, but we’ve never passed that on to residents,” he said.

Attracting new businesses is important for any city to survive, and Medical Lake is no different. Higgins said he understands the city’s difficulties in getting businesses to come set up shop in Medical Lake, given its distance from Spokane and other amenities in surrounding West Plains cities. The businesses serious about opening in Medical Lake, like the recent Subway restaurant, have been welcomed with open arms.

“It’s a priority, but not a major priority,” he said.

Instead, Higgins said the city ensures it spends money on improving streets and other services like the fire department and its contract for police services with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Ensuring those run smoothly for residents is right at the top of the list.

“We always improve our services,” he said. “There are always things that need to be improved.”

Higgins said the city’s outlook is a bit different than others, given the zoning within city limits.

“We’re at a disadvantage because more than half of our city limits are owned by the state,” he said.

A hot button issue lately has been doing something with the vacant and increasingly dilapidated buildings in the older part of Medical Lake, something Higgins is well aware of.

“In any city, the old part of the city falls by the wayside,” he said, noting the great growth in the past decade to the northern side of Medical Lake. Grounded by a new Denny’s store, the area has filled in with a bank, restaurants, new apartments, health care offices, car wash and the new Subway restaurant. And there’s room to grow.

Higgins also praised the parks and recreation department for its recent work, citing record high numbers of participants in various classes and sports.

Mikeal Suniga

Suniga, employed as a police officer in Airway Heights, is seeking to empower the citizenry.

“What I’d like to do is get everyone involved in our city,” he said. “One of my main goals, if elected, is to empower the citizenry to feel as though their elected officials are working for them.”

Already looking to the future, Suniga has a 90-day road map that includes sending a survey to residents to gauge their opinion on where the city could improve.

“It would ask what are we doing great and what can we improve upon,” he said. “And we’d use that for the next four years.”

Another item on his agenda would be to create a monthly town hall meeting, something that’s a little less formal than a full city council meeting, allowing for residents to interact with council members in a discussion-style setting.

Suniga is also a proponent of using social media to reach out to residents, particularly when extreme weather strikes the area, such as a snowstorm.

Attracting businesses to Medical Lake is another priority for Suniga, if elected.

“We should explore those options so we can entice those businesses to our community,” he said. “I would also reach out to the West Plains Chamber of Commerce and Greater Spokane Incorporated to see what those hot demand items are.”

The city is currently a member of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce.

Having shovel-ready projects is another way, he believes, to entice businesses to set up shop in Medical Lake. Suniga said he supports new development while ensuring that those businesses aren’t encroaching on Fairchild’s flight training area.

When asked, Suniga said providing recreation opportunities for youths after school was also something to look at. He said pursuing grants from the USDA was one way to help fund potential programs.

“We need to foster that younger generation so there’s not just sports after school,” he said. “When kids get bored, they tend to do stuff they’re not supposed to do.”

Suniga said Medical Lake is starting to see signs of economic recovery, after seeing Fairchild’s population reduced by Base Realignment and Closure, and the closure of Pine Lodge. He points to the new Subway restaurant as a sign that things are slowly picking up.

“I want to empower businesses to look at Medical Lake,” he said. “Whether it’s our zoning restrictions or other items, to attract other businesses to the area.”

James Eik can be reached at james@cheneyfreepress.com.

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