By Billy Crosby
Money is the key issue in Buena Vista’s mayoral race this fall.
Candidates Thomas Keiser Jr. and L.F. Hogan and write-in candidate Mayor Mike Clements are all worried about the millions of dollars the city still owes from its golf course development fiasco.
“This is the worst I have ever seen it,” said Keiser.
In 2003, the City Council borrowed $9 million from ACA Financial in New York to build a municipal golf course. As collateral, it put up the course, City Hall and the police station. The hope was that the golf course would attract tourists to the area and give the community an economic boost.
When the economy soured in 2008, demand declined for playing golf and for purchasing home lots adjacent to the course. When the city couldn’t make its debt payments, ACA agreed to pay half of each installment for the next five years and said the city could repay that money without interest in 25 years.
Thomas Keiser Jr.
Keiser, 46, the city’s volunteer fire chief, was raised in Buena Vista and has never left. He works for Advance Drainage Systems. A former City Council member, he wants to get the city back to where it was before the recent financial downturn.
His priority would be selling the residential property around the golf course, as originally planned, by starting a committee to help market the property to investors.
“We need to sell this property without costing the taxpayers anything,” he said. He also wants to assure voters that he doesn’t plan to increase taxes.
“We certainly can’t raise the taxes anymore,” he said. “They are already very high, and we can’t afford that.”
Hogan, 70, formerly worked as a volunteer for Buena Vista’s rescue squad. He is now the vice mayor and has served on City Council for 15 years. Hogan has no specific plan to fix Buena Vista’s economy, but he said everyone needs to talk through it.
“It’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting our heads together and figuring out what the best thing to do is,” he said.
Since nearly defaulting on its golf course loan, Buena Vista has been in an economic slump.
Hogan believes that repairing rundown property around town will make it seem “more attractive to prospective industry.”
Clements is the current mayor of Buena Vista. He never planned on running for reelection, but some of his loyal supporters have said they would write in his name on today’s ballot. Clements would not reveal any of their names.
“I would take a write-in,” he said this week, although on Oct. 7 he had announced that he would not run for reelection that way.
“I’m not running a write-in campaign,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of folks call me, and they will do a write in for me.”
Clements said he didn’t want to run for reelection because there is nothing left for him to do.
“I guess you get to a point where you feel like you’ve done everything you can,” he said.
Clements helped refinance the deal for the golf course. He also went to Washington D.C. with Lexington Mayor Mimi Elrod and Hunt Riegel, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, to help secure a $7 million grant for broadband in the Rockbridge area.
If reelected, he said, he wants to continue to work with Lexington and Rockbridge County to keep money coming into the city. However, Clements doesn’t think he will win the election.
“I guess my first hurdle is to get elected,” he said. “With a write-in my chances aren’t that great.”
If the city needs substantial budget cuts, the candidates differ on where the ax would fall. Keiser said he would “just take a look at each department and make small cuts to each one. That way you don’t jeopardize or crush one single department.” However, he doesn’t believe that the city will have to make cuts.
Hogan said he would cut aid to nonprofit service agencies and that he would look at other agencies’ budgets for possible cuts, based on their importance.
Both candidates would like to bring in more business, so that new property tax revenue could be used to upgrade Buena Vista’s schools. Keiser and Hogan also agree that the city’s sewage treatment plant needs to be redone.
Keiser has put out signs since last week to spread the word about his campaign.
Hogan said he has spent no money on this campaign. He has been going out and telling people about his plans, he says.
“I’ve lived here for 70 years,” he said. “If people don’t know who I am now, then I don’t know what to tell them.”
Clements also hasn’t done anything to campaign.
All the candidates agree that there will be no animosity toward the winner, regardless of who it is.
The mayor in Buena Vista serves a two-year term and participates in all City Council votes. The mayor makes $275 a month with no benefits.
Others on the ballot
Elections for City Council and School Board are also being held today. Six candidates are running for three open city council seats: Jane Armstrong, Steve Baldridge, Lisa Clark, Billy Fitzgerald, Lewis Plogger, and Bob Thomas. Armstrong and Plogger are running for re-election. Three candidates for school board should have no problem being re-elected for the three open seats. They are Margaret Byers, Teresa Ellison, and Wayne Flint.