VALPARAISO — The two men vying to become the city's next mayor, Republican Matt Murphy and Democrat Bill Durnell, took on the tough questions Wednesday before a packed house in a forum at the Memorial Opera House.

A tone was set in opening remarks as Murphy portrayed himself as a lifetime resident and someone who values and will protect the city, its safety and other qualities of life now part of Valparaiso, while Durnell said he's not a member of the "Good ole boys network" but moved to the city after deciding to establish his roots there.

The pair agreed the first thing they would do when taking office is consult with the management team on the city's goals. They agreed on the need for a healthy Rainy Day Fund and that replacing the recently closed Kmart will be a matter for the shopping center owners to determine.

While both said they support the city's public transit systems and public transit in general, they differed on what each needed. They agreed aging infrastructure was a major challenge but differed on what needs to be done about it.

The issue Durnell said is the biggest difference between them is the issue of sports tourism and the idea of the city building a sports complex similar to what is being done in Crown Point and Hammond. While Murphy supports a major complex with soccer and other sports fields, Durnell said he prefers to invest in neighborhood parks rather than a project on the edge of the city with a big parking lot. He called for more support of the neighborhoods.

Both supported attracting jobs and bringing in economic development, but Durnell said he would concentrate on helping smaller businesses in the city grow, while Murphy said it is important to send the signal to all businesses that the city is open for investment.

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Durnell said the city's transit system is not sustainable and survives only on federal and state grants. He said he would look for ways to make it more effective. Murphy said the system is running a surplus and is in good shape and is a key option for bringing jobs and money from Chicago.

Murphy said the city's use of tax abatements and other incentives to attract new businesses to the area have made the city's unemployment rate the lowest in the area. Durnell criticized their use in cases where the companies already intended to move to Valparaiso even without the incentives and said abatements lower the taxes going to other entities, which increases the overall property taxes to make up for it.

On the issue of housing, Murphy said the city has a good mix of houses for people of all income levels and the availability of houses under $200,000 is much higher than the national average. Durnell claimed the city is subsidizing the higher end homes and needs more homes for young couples and senior citizens.

On the Rainy Day Fund, Durnell tongue-in-cheeked the city's $4 million fund should pay off the $3 million in improvements to city hall, but then said he's fiscally conservative and would favor keeping the fund. Murphy said he would like to boost it to $5 million because the city is able to use it to fund operations until the semi-annual tax draws are issued by the county, avoiding short-term borrowing and saving the city $35,000 a year in interest.

Another major difference was on having an elected school board. Durnell said the schools have an enormous budget and it should be under an elected board. Murphy said he came through the schools, which are among the best in the country, and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The questions were from the audience and read by a panel of three representing the area media, including Marc Chase, executive editor of The Times.

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