On Tuesday, October 6, the Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce hosted a lunchtime Town Council candidate forum. Chamber board president, Rich Sanfilippo moderated the event.
After the introductions, Sanfilippo got into questions. The four candidates running for two open seats are Heidi Steenstra, Sarah Rea, Cyndi Myrold, and Bill Sauser.
What role do you see the Town Council playing in assisting the business community to grow a stable economic base?
Heidi: I believe it starts with housing. Without adequate housing there is no growth for businesses [because of no workers]. For our seasonal workers, the economic relief provided by the current council is great. Council needs to continue with the flexibility that has been shown to businesses during the pandemic such as easing up on tenant restrictions, signage and parking rules.
Cyndi: Council has to set the strategic priorities and set the plans in place for what the town manager and town staff are going to be working on. Of course we need a stable housing environment so that our businesses can hire employees. I’m super pleased that we’ve been able to provide the grant opportunities to help certain businesses through the Covid crisis.
Sarah: Growing a stable economic base means more than just investing in tourism; it means investing in each other. Expanding community housing, implementing municipal services enhancing our recreation-based economy, and investing in improvements in capital infrastructure … making Mammoth a better place to live, a place where people want to raise their children.
Bill: One of the biggest problems I’m hearing from the business community is the lack of workforce housing. This town council has aggressively allocated funding to this need and the hope is that shortly we will see some of the fruits of that labor. That being said the local businesses and the town council need to work more collaboratively than they have in the past to define what best serves the town of Mammoth Lakes. This includes giving direction on policies and ordinances or town rules that will allow businesses to take advantage of the ever-changing business landscape.
How would you involve, communicate and receive feedback from businesses on decisions that would impact them?
Bill: I believe the best relationships are in-person, one-on-one type relationships. I try my best to talk to a wide variety of business owners on a regular basis to find out what their thoughts are on things coming before the town council that may or may not affect them. I am somewhat concerned by the fact that not more business people contact me and the other council members when they have an easy way to deal with issues before it becomes a real problem for council. So I would encourage that communication.
Heidi: I love that the chamber is continuing with the hosted coffees and power lunches. I agree with Bill, checking in with businesses, going to them to ask questions. I would make a commitment to try to visit business owners quarterly to do a face-to-face check-in. What about a personal email, you know, just really checking in as things are getting closer regarding upcoming decisions that the town is considering. Does the chamber of commerce have a spanish-speaking liaison? Do all businesses really need to be a member of the chamber to voice their concerns? I don’t think so.
Cyndi: I would participate in roundtable discussions. I do think the chamber is doing a good job and i think they’re a conduit to the business community and provide a lot of information and resources. I would encourage every business to be a member as it is free this year. Like Bill said, I would want to be available for one-on-one conversations and discuss or talk about the things that are affecting each of the businesses or things they really want us to work on.
Sarah: Inclusive, interactive government is one of the cornerstones of my campaign. I will strive to be accessible as an elected official as I’ve said throughout my campaign please email me, text me, send me a facebook or instagram message (@votesarahrea). I do have a full-time job and I have a private life of course but I am running for town council to serve. I would like our council meetings to be streamed on facebook live. I’d like all of our events to be shared on all of the town’s social media platforms. I really want all of our communication to be translated into spanish.
Mammoth Lakes is a tourism-based economy, what role does the Town Council have in assisting MLT to be successful?
Sarah: I believe that the town’s support of MLT is most certainly sufficient. MLT has been given 9.5 percent of the town’s budget as well as TBID proceeds. I know that MLT is a little bit easy for people to hate on right now especially after this crazy summer but we need to remember that they are fulfilling the mission that we tasked to them, which is to bring tourism to town. They are doing their jobs, we can’t punish them for that. I don’t think we need to discuss what to do to make MLT successful, they clearly are successful. What I’d like to explore is how do we balance quality of life in our community with economic stability.
* Rea plugged Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership and recommended people submit ideas for sustainable recreation practices
Cyndi: First of all I’d say define successful because I think that MLT has done a tremendous job at marketing and bringing people here as our TOT revenues clearly shows over the past several years. The town provides funding to MLT and is getting better at participating in the budgeting processes requiring certain set of deliverables not only from MLT but also from the other NGOs (Non-profit Governmental Orientation) in recent years with the expectation that the NGOs/ MLT will live within that budget and provide a specific set of deliverables.
Heidi: I think they’ve done a great job at marketing Mammoth, maybe too well some would say. TBID and a portion of the TOT are sent to MLT; should it be revisited to look at if MLT really needs all the funds they are given? We could also require transparency and how funds are spent to get a clearer picture of this NGO. The community is very skeptical of MLT. Where does all that money go?
Bill: Perhaps as good a question as ‘what the Council can do to assist MLT?’ is to ask ‘what MLT can do to help the Town succeed as a resort-based community?’ Should marketing be its sole function? Or are there other purposes out there? We’ve already started down that path, [MLT has] put money into the host program, they have put money into the signage and wayfinding program, all very appropriate use of funds.
The TOML, over the last 5 fiscal years, has received approximately $25 million in excess TOT dollars over the budgeted amounts. What do you believe the excess TOT $ should be spent on?
Cindy: We need to increase our reserves. The town has been able to weather COVID-19 quite well because of our conservative budgeting practices. There’s always going to be highs and lows in the economy and we need to have reserves available in order to respond without having to cut core services. Restructuring and paying down long-term debts such as the unfunded liability. We are paying seven percent interest on over $20 million of debt. This year’s required payment for CALPERS unfunded liabilities was just under $1.9 million, with the current interest rates we think that we have an opportunity to address this issue and save the town dollars over time.
Sarah: I’m pretty socially liberal but I’m very fiscally conservative. I do not think that excess [TOT] should be spent at this time, especially when we’re unsure what our capacity to collect TOT will be in the next couple of years with the global pandemic slowing tourism across the world. Bulking up our reserve for economic uncertainty would be a very smart use of the money and of course I highly disapprove of using any more town staff time and spending any more of our visitors and residents money on developing a multi-use facility. Now is not the time. Right now we need to spruce up our current ice rink, pay the lease on our school district’s land and let our kids skate.
Bill: One of the things as a council member for the last four years that I’m the most proud of is how the budget has evolved and how we’ve continued to conservatively forecast our income streams.
*Bill started bragging and gave the ‘ol Mike Pence; not really answering the question. His point was they don’t want to touch those funds just yet.
Heidi: Again, it’s gonna go back to housing. Get it moving, put as much as we can towards it. Continue to build up our reserves making sure we can weather [another down year]. What if we have a winter holiday shutdown or a July shutdown – how long are we able to maintain our budget at the current pace? We also need to look at paying off our debt, we need to work on our parking issues, we need to work on alleviating that work on town transit to get our people out of their cars and to also continue working on our facilities and amenities
Over the next 5 years, what infrastructure projects should the TOML focus on?
Sarah: It’s always going to come back to developing The Parcel. If I’m elected, it will be my honor to fight for this housing development throughout my tenure and to see the heart of Mammoth Lakes turn into a thriving hub of residents and families who support their locally-owned businesses year round. But since you asked about other projects that are important to me; sidewalks, multi-use paths, and parks.
Cyndi: Moving The Parcel forward is always number one but … I am a supporter of the CRC (Community Recreation Center). I think we need the indoor recreation year-round for our children and visitors so I definitely would stand behind that project. I’d like to not see it reduced anymore. I think it needs to be built the way that we all intended. We tend to have champagne taste on a beer budget. Also, I think we need to continue to work on our trail systems and multi-use paths and continue with road maintenance which includes fixing potholes and paving streets.
*Myrold believes we should do the CRC project as intended assuming we have the budget. If we don’t have the funds to get what we want (a second story/ other amenities that are currently scrapped), then we wait until we do.
Heidi: Again it’s going to come back to housing and The Parcel … We have responsibilities to our roads, our winters are very hard on our machinery and we have to stay on top of that. We want a special event center, a place for arts and crafts shows, a new ice rink but can we afford it? All it means is working with what we’ve got.
Bill: I have an answer all written up here but I’m gonna start by saying at this point we have to be incredibly careful moving forward on a Five-year Plan because we just don’t know what Covid and the economy is going to toss towards us. So a lot of this is up in the air.
*Bill then listed off the MUF/CRC, multi-use paths, funding the airport capital program, underground fuel tanks, continue wayfinding signage project, and the Old Mammoth Road beautification project. I could go on and on forever, what we can and can’t do, but those are some of them.
*Edited by Hite with an attempt to highlight the main ideas from a candidates answer. Mammoth Chamber of Commerce has the entire meeting posted on YouTube for any interested parties.