by Sean Byrne | The Breeze
On Monday, eight candidates running for Harrisonburg City Council all came together for one of the first times to inform the public of their views.
The candidates hosted a forum at Memorial Hall where about 100 students and Harrisonburg residents listened to the candidates answer questions about important issues.
“We are here for at least four years of our lives,” said Anna Davis, a senior social work major who attended the forum for her macroeconomics class. “Although we don’t live here permanently, they decide what we do.”
The eight candidates are vying for four of the five council positions. Council members serve for four years before they are up for re-election.
Members meet every second and fourth Tuesday of the month.
Questions posed to the candidates were predetermined but dealt with topics like diversity, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, public education, the city budget, expansion and tourism.
One of the top issues from last term, pedestrian safety, carried over again this year.
“I find that projects move quickest when they are backed by pedestrians,” said Kai Degner, a current councilman seeking re-election. “Last term, it was definitely pedestrian safety, especially to and from school and around JMU. “
With the bus-accident related death of JMU student Jane Hwang last November still present on the JMU consciousness safety, was the predominant topic for the students who attended.
“A lot of students ride their bikes everywhere and drivers aren’t always aware of what’s going on around them,” Davis said. “It’s very pertinent to us.”
Christine Johnson, candidate for City Council, a JMU graduate and owner of the the University Outpost Bookstore, was concerned about student travel.
“The more traffic we have, the more safely I would want [the students] to be able to travel from point A to point B,” Johnson said.
One of the proposed plans was creating the North End Greenway: a 2.5-mile long walking and biking path that will connect all the popular destinations in Harrisonburg.
Katherine Sheffield, a senior social work major and attendee, was thinking of her friends and the rest of the JMU population with the bike paths.
“While I do not have a bicycle, I know many people that do, and more bike lanes would only make this city safer for the cyclists,” Sheffield said.
Along with transportation safety, the candidates discussed issues concerning the city budget as well as an increase in the meals tax.
In a session earlier this summer, the council voted to increase the meals tax from 6 to 6.5 percent on top of a 5 percent sales tax. The raise took effect July 1.
Meals and sales taxes are some of the primary ways of gaining revenue, according to the candidates. Harrisonburg has the third highest meal tax in Virginia and the second lowest real-estate tax, according to Deb Fitzgerald, another candidate for council and professor at Bridgewater College.
Supporters of the raise said it will hardly be noticeable, yet Johnson and students feel the tax will take a hard hit to the JMU wallet.
“I have JMU employees that frequent downtown,” Johnson said. “I know the way the economy is with their budget. I think it will absolutely affect them and in turn, affect the business.”
Abe Shearer, a candidate for City Council and JMU alumnus, argued that the tax will be counterproductive to businesses and their profits because JMU students and their families will stop eating in the downtown area.
“If [the businesses] have to pay more for food, they’ll bump up prices, and then one day, you’ll notice your burger is $2 more expensive,” Davis said.
Fitzgerald explained that the tax was needed and probably won’t be noticed by JMU parents or other tourists.
“They don’t know what the taxes are, they’re going to come, they’re going to eat and they’re going to have a good time, and we’ll make that revenue,” Fitzgerald said.The changes and issues discussed at the forum will have a direct impact on JMU students, and Kate Kessler, a senior social work major who attended the forum, thinks JMU students should get involved.
“Students should care about what is happening in this city because we are just as much a part of it as other Harrisonburg residents,” Kessler said.
When students return to JMU, the population of Harrisonburg grows by nearly half, according to the Census Bureau. It brings in more money, business and responsibility.
“The student body brings in a huge amount of economic business to both retail and restaurants,” Kessler said. “JMU has also given back in huge proportions to the community through service and volunteering.”
The candidates also realize that JMU students will play a large role in the Harrisonburg area when it comes to voting. Shearer said students are the future of this area.
“We need to make our students feel included and active in our community because one day they’ll be the leaders [here],” Shearer said.
Another public forum is scheduled for Oct. 2 and will allow questions from the audience.