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Matt Paxson makes his opening remarks as Mary Katherine Greenlaw and Fred Howe III listen during a mayoral candidates debate at James Monroe High School on Wednesday night.
The three candidates running to be Fredericksburg's next mayor put their differences on display Wednesday at a candidates debate at James Monroe High School.
Vice Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, City Councilman Fred Howe and political newcomer Matt Paxson offered differing views about the city's financial status, the decision to build a new courthouse and the type of leadership Fredericksburg needs.
Paxson, associate pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, making his first foray into politics, criticized his opponents' track records on the council and promised to "take Fredericksburg to the next level."
"The results of their leadership and experience is the very reason we need a change," he said.
Throughout the debate, both Howe and Greenlaw took opportunities to cite Paxson's inexperience and tout their own accomplishments.
Howe, who owns a utility service business, has served on the council for two years. Greenlaw, a real-estate broker, has been on the council for four years and was on the Planning Commission for eight years before that.
"I've had the good fortune to work within government for 12 years, and much of the progress the city has seen in those years I've had a part in," Greenlaw said.
"I'm the only candidate with more than three decades of leadership and business experience," Howe said.
The candidates fielded questions from panelists and the audience.
They were asked if it would be too late to reverse the decision to build a new multimillion-dollar courthouse. Howe and Greenlaw were on opposite sides.
Greenlaw said that while the council could turn around and take another look, it would likely wind up with almost the same conclusion and the possibility that the construction would cost more.
Howe emphasized what he called a 10 percent tax increase that residents will face because of the debt the city will incur from the project. He said the city needs to find a way to increase other revenues to prevent that.
Paxson said that if he were mayor, the council would reconsider the decision and look at other locations.
They did agree on some issues.
All said the council needs to improve communications with city staff and the community.
In response to a question about transparent government, all three said that they would be willing to accommodate residents who asked to be copied on emails between council members relating to public business.
On the topic of the new public-nuisance law, the candidates agreed that the city has made good progress combating the problems with loud parties and issues with renters.
And all three said that they wanted to see the City Council make performing arts a priority in the city.
But there was a sharp divide in the way the three candidates view the city's financial situation.
Greenlaw repeated her stance that the city is in a "very sound financial position." She said the city's revenues are up due to increased meals and lodging tax collections.
Howe said he is worried that the city is compiling too much debt. He said the city needs to figure out its priorities and it needs to ask residents what they want to see tax dollars spent on.
Paxson said that as a whole, the city is not doing well. He said Fredericksburg is lagging behind Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and needs to increase incentives to attract business.
After Paxson said the city needed to work with other localities in the region, Greenlaw and Howe both pointed out that the city is already involved in several regional organizations such as the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the George Washington Regional Commission.
Paxson said city residents have not benefited from those relationships.
In their closing statements, the three candidates stuck to the campaign messages they have touted in previous forums.
Howe emphasized his leadership and business experience. He said he wants to lower taxes and create an environment that will attract businesses and people to the city.
Greenlaw said she is the candidate who has built strong working relationships with other council members and various organizations, and will use that to find solutions to the issues facing Fredericksburg.
Paxson said his inexperience is an asset because it is time for new leadership in the city.
The debate was sponsored by Fredericksburg.com, the College Heights Civic Association, the College Terrace Civic Association, the College Hill Civic Association, the Maury Neighborhood Association and the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
The election is May 1.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413