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Nine of Duluth's mayoral candidates attend forum

Camaraderie still exists among the large pool of mayoral candidates as they joked and agreed with each other on many points Monday night during a candidate forum.

Camaraderie still exists among the large pool of mayoral candidates as they joked and agreed with each other on many points Monday night during a candidate forum.

Nine of the 12 candidates showed up for the forum held by VFW Post 137 in the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood, where questions focused mostly on West Duluth issues. Robert Wagner, Don Ness and Todd Gremmels did not attend.

Crime and an abundance of rental housing in Lincoln Park/West End and West Duluth were a concern.

Sunny Helbacka talked about effective recreational programming of the past in those communities, and how cuts to those programs added to problems because kids had less to do.

"Communities used to have pride," he said.

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Charlie Bell said residents need more opportunity for home ownership and living wages, and a grant writer needs to be hired by Duluth police to write grants to hire more officers.

Greg Gilbert said transients moving to Duluth from Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis cause problems, and more restrictions on those searching for subsidized housing could alleviate some issues.

"We should reduce the number of people allowed to be living in rental property," he said. "It makes the property less profitable."

To create a business friendly environment and fix the city's building permit process, Meg Bye would reorganize City Hall, "so we are no longer trapped in the 1940s-style bureaucratic structure," she said. "We have for 20-some years taken the approach that we should cut people. I want a team approach."

Most candidates agreed the building inspector's office was short-staffed, and reorganization and evaluation of the department was needed.

Mayor Herb Bergson said the office dealt with $750 million in new construction permits this year, the highest ever, and asked if he should hire people when health-care costs are so high.

"I can't commit five people times $2 million in health-care costs and damage our children and grandchildren 20 years from now," he said.

Each candidate agreed that the role of city government in light of limited resources is to ensure core city services, including police and fire departments, road maintenance and libraries.

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Bell said the city needs to give up running certain properties, such as the Lake Superior Zoo, and allow it to be run privately. "At the zoo, we should be ashamed of ourselves, the city should, for negligence," he said.

Joanne Fay said grants need to be sought to help in areas where funding isn't available. "There's no reason we can't have corporations adopting our parks," she said.

Bergson said $3.5 million is needed to fix the zoo. "I'm not ashamed of losing accreditation there," he said. "Should we take it out of police, fire ... maybe we should raise taxes 30 percent. Federal grant money isn't out there like it used to be."

Reiner Nelson suggested building homes on golf courses to increase the tax base. "Put the money into a trust fund, have interest and pay for services we need," he said.

Jim Pratt said the city needs to fix problems that already exist, and listed several recreational areas that needed work. Kids playing baseball at Stowe Elementary have to play with "32 lights burnt out," he said.

In response to a question about how to spread the tourism money from Canal Park to West Duluth, John Socha said it should instead be used to help the city get back on its feet. Helbacka would use it to develop a skate park at the bottom of Spirit Mountain and develop Skyline Drive. "We have potential recreational attractions that other cities would dream to have," he said.

Bye called the banks of the St. Louis River in western Duluth "the new Gold Coast," and said money should be invested in developing that area for outdoor ventures and family vacations.

"Monies will get spread around because there will be more," she said.

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