City Council Place 4 candidate questionnaire: Paul Christenson
Waxahachie City Council candidate Paul Christenson answers questions for the June 5 runoff election
Name: Paul Christenson
Current profession: Chief Financial Officer
Elected office sought: City Council Place 4
Previous political experience: None
Family: Married 20 years to my best friend Leigh.
Why are you seeking this office?
I am running for Waxahachie City Council because we need to change our approach to growth and spending. There was likely a time in our history when any growth was good for Waxahachie. But today, unchecked growth is destroying the character of our city, and its affordability. The rapid growth we are experiencing is threatening our culture, our values, and our quality of life. Just as alarming, it’s used to justify raising taxes.
Residents are acutely aware that the city council has increased property taxes by ten percent a year, on average, for the past few years. But our city is only growing at a rate of roughly 3.5% a year. The council has failed to justify these tax increases to the people, much less has it solicited any meaningful feedback from the people it serves.
In order to get a sense of things, I started attending pre-council and council meetings, researching various agenda items, offering comments, and asking questions. It appears the council is increasing our taxes every year simply because it can. The council then crafts a budget to fit those numbers.
But there is needless, wasteful spending in our budget, and these tax bills are hurting so many people, especially families and people close to retirement. Numerous long-time Waxahachie residents tell me they are fast discovering they cannot afford to keep their houses and stay here when they retire.
To make Waxahachie affordable, we must actively manage our growth and cut the fat in our budget through vigorous oversight of city services. With all due respect, some council members appear to lack the foresight needed to properly plan for our growth, and the financial and operational acumen necessary to streamline and manage our city. My strong suits are in helping businesses and governments improve services by listening and responding to their customers and in managing their departments and functions. And I will serve as a frugal manager of our tax dollars, spending your money where you see fit. We need to stop these endless tax increases and make our city government responsible to the people that it serves.
But the short answer to the question is that the ever-increasing tax burden on our citizens without any improvement in city services prompted me to take immediate action and seek the seat for City Council Place 4 in this election year.
What distinguishes you from other candidates for this office?
I bring over 25 years of experience advising state and local governments and businesses on how to cut waste and improve their service delivery without spending more money (and in most cases, cutting their expenses). On the Council I will put those same skills to work so we can make our great city affordable and deliver equally top-notch services to everyone.
I have sat through enough of our city council meetings and waded through enough jargony, hide-the-ball agendas to see that our council struggles. In my opinion, it is challenged in its ability to effectively plan for, and manage our city’s growth.
For instance, the council has added over forty new positions to city government just over the last four years. While I absolutely support boosting our police and fire departments, some of these new administrative positions on our payroll come at a high cost to the taxpayers. Yet the council added these permanent positions without any discussion or analysis of how, if at all, these extra positions would enhance the services we are already providing to our residents. Moreover, salaries for some of the positions are far above the average that other cities pay.
There are even plans to build a new City Hall Annex for a cool $11 million or more, to house just one department. The annex will also include space for retail and restaurants on the taxpayer’s dime. But these stores and restaurants will compete with our existing businesses. This is wrong.
Expansions to our city government, like the addition of this annex, must be truly necessary as well as affordable, or they should not be done at all. I will inject discipline into our operations and put new planning processes in place to ensure we are making sound investments in the things that are truly necessary for city government.
Transparency in our city government is vital. The council never sought input from us before embarking on this $11 million dollar capital expansion. As things stand now there is virtually no transparency. The council passes important new rules and significant decisions before citizens are even given a chance to ask questions.
When I am on the council, we will publicize and hold town halls and public forums well before we consider adopting a new budget or passing important new laws. The people will know in advance what items are up for discussion on the agenda and they’ll be able to ask us questions in a give-and-take setting. We have nothing like this now.
Our goals, strategic plans, and budgets will reflect the priorities of an informed citizenry. We must set clear budget objectives and devise a strategic long-term growth plan to guide our council in executing what the citizens have chosen.
Once the city council starts conducting meaningful oversight, with careful spending and informed planning, we can stop the constant expansion of our city budget without lowering the quality of our services. After extensively reviewing our existing budget, and our budgets in past years, I am confident we can then accomplish our goals without constantly raising taxes and taking ever more money from our hard-working people.
There are also a few things I do not bring to the table. I am not a home builder, a real estate agent or an attorney. I serve only one master: the people of Waxahachie. My allegiance runs directly and exclusively to the people. We, the people of Waxahachie, need representation on city council, and I do not believe that we have that now. City council is out-of-touch with us, we need to change that.
What do you consider the key issues of this election?
In short, growth and growth-driven taxes are the overarching issues we face as a city. As I’ve walked the streets of Waxahachie these last several months, I have met close to two thousand residents and business owners. They have really educated me about the problems that are top of mind.
Rising property taxes are the biggest problem by far. And even with continuing increases to the city’s revenue, people have seen no improvement in their services. Waxahachie citizens are waking up to what is wrong in city government. They see it in their inflated property taxes, and they see the wasteful spending.
One example of waste several people mentioned is the expensive new parking lot a half-mile away from downtown. It is rarely used and does not justify its expense; and it has yet to yield any financial benefit. Some people have mentioned taking some of the parks apart, and then putting them back together without any major improvement, and the purchase of expensive new vehicles are just some of the numerous examples I have heard.
As for downtown, we are pouring taxpayer money into Kaufman Street. The work will certainly inure to the benefit of builders and developers and it may indeed be a worthy project. But should costly projects like this be our first priority, especially when so many of our streets are in dire need of replacement or repair?
Not only do people notice wasteful projects, they tell me the astronomical property taxes are really taking a toll on their personal budgets. Because the cost to live here only keeps going up, many families have had no choice but to cut back on other important needs, like health care and educational enrichment. Residential and commercial tenants feel the pinch of higher taxes on their budgets too, in the form of higher rents. Our local businesses are hurting badly under the ever expanding tax burden.
The bottom line is this: ever-expanding government driven by unplanned growth, financed by higher taxes on our existing residents, takes money straight from the pockets of our working people and our cherished local businesses. It results in higher rents, more expensive housing, and depressed economic activity. The effects of our current “grow and spend at any cost” are felt by everyone in our community.
One current council member recently remarked that taxes and spending will keep going up every year because “the streets keep coming.” But it is a false choice to say we can only keep our current services by raising taxes. Our quality of life and our services need not suffer because we don’t raise taxes every year. We can do much better at managing spending. There are contracts with vendors we might renegotiate, and quantities of scale we can leverage. An operational assessment will help the council better understand how our city services are provided and identify what services can be delivered in a better way and at lower cost, such as better EMS dispatching.
Clearly growth is the main driver of our infrastructure costs. Growth requires more streets and additional support for our police and fire, to name just two, in addition to maintenance and operating costs. Some of our council members talk as if rapid growth is inescapable; it’s a foregone conclusion. And many look like they’re chomping at the bit for more. “We must raise taxes and offer abatements so we can compete for more houses and more businesses – give us more growth!” seems to be the mantra. But is this vision shared by the citizens of Waxahachie? Has anyone asked the people?
In all my travels throughout the city, I have yet to meet one person who said they want Waxahachie to become an affluent suburb of Dallas.
That said, if our projected and target growth rate is five percent per year for the foreseeable future, as some on the council say it is, then yes, we will become an expensive bedroom community. And our budget will be consumed with paying for more government, more infrastructure, and streets that just keep coming. Worst of all, we will drive our lower-income residents out of town. Surely this cannot be the council’s goal.
Speaking of development-driven infrastructure costs, it is the developers who are responsible for some of the costs to build out new roads, water lines and wastewater pipelines. But our council gives deep discounts to developers for these infrastructure costs. The taxpayers pick up the difference. We are told we must give these discounts so Waxahachie will be competitive with other cities in attracting new development. But would it be so bad if a developer chose to go elsewhere? Why must constant growth be the inevitable outcome for our city? Yet we are told to “buckle up!” because growth is coming whether we like it or not. I disagree.
We need a paradigm shift in our thinking. It is time to hit the pause button and re-think our goals. The frenetic pace of growth in our city is not inevitable. It may not even be desirable when it burdens our taxpayers and ruins our infrastructure.
Many people have said we have already lost much of the charm of our city. “I don’t want for us to become another Plano or Frisco,” many long-time residents have exclaimed. People worry that we’re losing the attributes that make Waxahachie so desirable, like our integrated neighborhoods, populated by people who come from all walks of life and different economic backgrounds.
These concerns are understandable. There is a perception broadly held in the community that our council has failed to adequately prepare and plan for our growth, including the speed and size of our growth, and specifically what kinds of growth we want to attract. Consulting our citizens is long overdue.
Another major concern for many is our streets, so many of which are in dire shape. One of the first things I will do is set up a street fund and develop a formal street maintenance plan, like so many other cities do. My plan will focus in particular on maintenance and repairs that will keep the streets in good condition for years to come, versus choosing whack-a-mole band-aids that will only cost us more in the long run.
What are the greatest challenges facing the city and how do you plan to address those challenges, if elected?
Without question, the city council must address growth head-on, and the council must work to gain the community’s confidence and trust that we will grow at a pace that doesn’t diminish the quality of life for our existing residents or impose new financial burdens on them. Suffice it to say, the council needs to reorient its approach to growth. Instead of asking, “how can we best compete with other cities to keep growing?” we should be asking how much growth is desirable.
What do you most want to make sure voters know about you?
I am a fiscal conservative; I favor small government and I’m a free-market fan. I have learned how to improve business performance through my education and from years of hands-on experience, working alongside some of the best people in the business. One of my greatest strengths is my ability to help everyone, bring people together, and to work with people from all walks of life. I will do this for Waxahachie. I have the skills and experience our city needs to carefully manage taxing and spending, improve city services, and plan for affordable, incremental growth that preserves our beloved city for all of its citizens.