TWIN FALLS — As Twin Falls grows, it continues to face the challenges of recruiting and retaining a workforce, maintaining its infrastructure and keeping its people safe.
City Council candidates weighed in on these issues and more Thursday night at a candidate forum hosted by the Times-News. Nine candidates competing for three seats appeared enlivened by the city’s growth as they talked about ways to foster pedestrian and bicycle safety, develop a recreation center and improve roads.
Beginning next week with early voting, Twin Falls residents will choose which three faces they want to represent them on the seven-member City Council for the next four years. Unlike in many other city elections, Twin Falls’ candidates run for a specific seat — although every seat represents the city at large.
In Seat No. 1, incumbent Suzanne Hawkins faces local businesswoman Liyah Babayan, former county commissioner Leon Mills and recreation center committee member Eric Smallwood.
In Seat No. 5, incumbent Greg Lanting is challenged by Air St. Luke’s helicopter pilot Tim Allen and fourth-generation Idahoan Larry Houser.
And in Seat. No. 6, Christopher Reid — who was appointed to the City Council earlier this year — is running against Brian Bell, a network and controls administrator for Amalgamated Sugar Co.
Seat No. 1
Candidates are split on the city’s tax philosophies, especially over the foregone balance — tax increases it has not taken in years past but could tax citizens for in the future.
Hawkins was one of the Council members opposed to taking any of the foregone balance this year.
“We don’t have the manpower to take on another project,” she said.
If the city considered taking foregone balance later, Babayan said, it needs to be more conscientious of how even a gradual increase affects those who are living in poverty. Landlords pass on the additional property tax to their renters, she said.
Smallwood thought the foregone balance should have gone into roads this year.
“Our roads took a beating last winter,” he said. And the cost to repair them will only increase, he added.
Mills, however, didn’t believe the city should have the ability to take money it hasn’t in years past. The shock to taxpayers, he said, is not fair.
“I don’t think we should put it into a savings account to tax the people later,” Mills said.
The candidates also talked about a future recreation center and other amenities that bring the city’s residents a sense of place — which could go a long ways toward workforce retention.
Smallwood saw trails and recreation as ways the city could improve life while addressing obesity and health problems.
“I see the recreation center as probably the biggest thing the city could do to attract talent,” he said.
Hawkins said she’d support a recreation center that addressed needs and fit within a city’s budget. But her personal dream has been to bring minor league baseball back to Twin Falls.
Babayan is running her campaign on the message that the Council should represent the people and their desires first. The members need to reach out to groups that aren’t being represented and get them on advisory committees, she said, while considering needs for better walking and biking routes throughout the city.
Mills noted his past involvement in a bike park, skate park and dog park — as well as his personal enjoyment of recreation.
“My past involvement will also be my current and future involvement,” he said.
In summarizing their strengths, Hawkins and Mills brought up their past experience in government and their forward-thinking. Babayan focused on bringing diversity to the City Council — she arrived in Twin Falls as a refugee 25 years ago. Smallwood said he would aim to fill in the city, verses spreading it out further, and would push to reroute Highway 30 away from downtown.
Seat No. 5
Lanting, Allen and Houser had different goals for how they could help make the city a better place as it grows.
The incumbent, who was on the City Council when the city recruited Chobani, now favors helping existing businesses grow in a time of low unemployment.
“Workforce development is definitely something that we’re going to need to talk about,” Lanting said.
The city could also do better on its streets as far as pedestrian and bicycle transportation, he said.
Houser thought the city should embrace the hemp industry to expand its tax revenue and pursue policies that would eventually allow marijuana establishments for medical use. He also proposed cleaning up and developing Rock Creek Canyon, and combining a future recreation center with an event center.
Allen hopes the city will keep expanding its parks and trails.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said.
In considering a potential pathway for pedestrians along Canyon Springs Road, Allen understood the cost would be great but recommended looking at other ways to make the grade safer.
In closing statements, Lanting said this would likely be his last term on the City Council. Allen, who looked forward to getting more involved in the city — win or lose — hoped he could help make it a better place to live. Houser felt as a Council member, he could help the city re-evaluate its policies.
Seat No. 6
Another question at the forum asked candidates about the city’s recent pay increases for retaining police and firefighters — and what the ultimate solution is.
Reid, who works for Zions Bank, agreed that the city should consider what other communities are paying those employees and ensure it is competing fairly. But he also looked at making sure the community itself is livable and affordable.
“Money’s the easy part,” Bell said about the city changing its compensation rate for employees. “… The hard part is keeping them.”
Workers need to feel like they are a part of the community, he said. That could be difficult to address, but the city needs to find a way.
Regarding the city’s foregone balance, Bell did not support surprising taxpayers with larger increases later on.
“If we don’t use it, don’t tax it,” he said. “And leave it at that.”’
Reid said he would have voted to use foregone balance if the city had had any specific projects in mind for it. This year, he didn’t see the emergency-type projects — such as water line fixes and road repairs — that may have warranted using it.
On the topic of the recreation center, Bell said it would be a step in the right direction to get people off their phones. But Reid was highly concerned about the center’s costs.
“It’s a lot of money not only now but for our future generations to pay,” he said.
This is Reid’s second time running for City Council after losing a bid he made six years ago soon after moving here. He was appointed by Council to Don Hall’s seat.
Bell has not run for election before, but is a lifelong Magic Valley resident and “unabashedly a geek.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated Oct. 24 with a correction to Larry Houser's comments.