City Council candidates share views on finances, services

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Williamsport Sun-Gazette continues a weekly question-and-answer series with candidates seeking nomination for City Council in the May 21 primary election. The series runs on Sundays and concludes next week.)

As city voters plan to elect three people to City Council this year, the May 21 primary election will see four people vying for three Republican nominations, while three Democrats are nearly certain to secure those nominations and move forward to the fall contest.

Seeking the Republican nominations are incumbents Randall J. Allison, of 1308 Elmira St.; and N. Clifford “Skip” Smith Jr., of 835 First Ave.; plus challengers Scott Miller, of 822 Tucker St.; and Joel E. Henderson, of 1010 Elmira St.

On the Democratic ballot are incumbent Liz Miele, of 525 W. Fourth St.; Kelly Anderson, of 533 Seventh Ave.; and Alison D. Hirsch of 423 Rural Ave.

Each candidate was asked the following question:

“As a member of City Council, your biggest responsibility will be to pass a budget to support city services. What approach would you take toward city finances and the implications finances have on taxes, public safety and other city services?”

The Republicans

Allison: “My preferred approach toward city finances and budgeting is to attempt to look ahead at least two or three years in order to have enough information to formulate a budget policy. While we work on only one fiscal year at a time, the reality is what we do or don’t do in the current year will affect what we can or can’t do in future years. We need a plan that identifies our priorities and how to best address them financially.

“There are some certainties: If everything stays the same, expenses will increase because more than 70 percent of that total is personnel costs and the amount of money required by the state law and formula that mandates the funding of our pension obligation. On the revenue side, we know that homeowners, particularly those on lower or fixed incomes, cannot afford to absorb continual tax increases.

“Our job will be to have a plan that identifies ways to increase growth, jobs and other sources of income to take pressure off the property tax stream of revenue and in the short term prioritize the services we can afford to provide.”

Smith: “The 2014 budget will require much thought and creativity as state and federal dollars may be further reduced. Medical and pension costs for the next year are still an unknown factor. Union contracts are not negotiated by council, the administration does the negotiating and council has only a yes or no vote. A no vote practically assures the issue going to arbitration while costing the city many dollars in legal fees. Medical costs are dictated by these contracts and by the industry. Until pension reform is initiated in Harrisburg, pension issues and costs in some areas cannot be controlled locally.

“I will continue to scrutinize each line item in the budget for necessity and ways to keep the expenditures in check as there has to be a balance between what the taxpayer can afford and what essential services are to be provided.

“I will continue as I have for the past five and one half years to be very diligent in working with taxpayer dollars to fund the operation of the city.

“As city leaders, council and the administration must work together to find ways to increase income without raising taxes as consistently reducing costs will only lead to a decaying city and none of us want that to occur.

“We consistently see development in the eastern part of the county but very little in the city. We need to seek the answers as to why this is occurring.

“When you look at public safety expenses, the only way to keep these areas in check is to continue to look at regionalizing police and fire services … The lack of volunteer manpower in the nearby boroughs and townships has become a critical issue while the city’s cost to maintain these services continues to rise.

“Williamsport must take the lead in providing these services with the outlying areas assisting with bearing the associated costs. Laying off of police and fire personnel and downsizing is not the answer as future business and residents look to relocate and will look at fire and crime statistics and the protection of their employees and what their families will receive.

Miller: “I worry more about long-term costs like pensions and health insurance. Are our new contracts really addressing the long term expense of pensions? Would a few extra dollars into the pension fund today generate a favorable return, such that we as a city don’t become distressed in the future?”

“I am very frugal and would look for cost-saving line items for the city. Most of these have been achieved already, though. However, we do need to work smarter and avoid mistakes of the past. For example: Sealing the cracks in streets would lessen and prevent potholes somewhat. That, in turn, adds to the life of our streets which in time saves on resurfacing. It cost a few bucks more today, but it saves huge money in the future.”

“Next, I am not in favor of borrowing any more money, but would consider refinancing our current debt, to take advantage of lower interest rates. As Jonathan Williamson has said, ‘You don’t borrow money to buy groceries.’

“The mayor has these ‘grand visions’ of what he would like, but we can’t afford them and I would not be willing to add to our debt to realize them … Campana said in his first term that, ‘I want the city run like a business.’ Well then, run it that way and show me hard numbers of where we would get a nice return on our investment. Just like if a business went to a bank to borrow money.

“Lastly, we have a duty to ‘Provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.’ To me this means having a sufficient complement of police officers and firefighters. I for one am not happy with the reductions in those departments. In the past I have suggested that instead of the police writing parking tickets we expand the Williamsport Parking Authority’s domain to include the entire city.

“If we had 52 officers we would have been able to take advantage of the last grant for an additional three officers, bringing us to a 55-man force. Also, we should have some volunteers in our fire department. There are a number of functions that volunteers could perform without risking their or the public safety. I still want ‘professionals’ though. And why can’t we have fund raisers for our fire department?”

Henderson: “My philosophy would be to prioritize. The purpose of the government is to protect its citizens. I would want to make sure that those protective services, such as the police, fire and codes would get taken care of first and we would go from there.

“I think it’s important that we keep taxes as low as possible, especially for businesses because they create jobs. As jobs are created, I think we will see more people employed and when that happens we will see more tax revenue, eventually.

“As for city services, I think all the services we offer must be evaluated every year we pass a budget. just to carry on a service may not be to our advantage, so constant evaluation is needed.”

The Democrats

Miele: “I’ve participated in four years of budget discussions within the city, and been on the Finance Committee for three years. It’s a highly charged time for everyone in city government – perhaps best remembered for the back and forth of tax increases versus service cuts, and heated discussions about items that would seem unimportant – unless you’re trying to trim just a few thousand dollars to add to the bottom line. And yet the city has been extremely fortunate so far, thanks, in large part, to the actions of our past city government officials and department heads.

“While other third class cities in the state are declaring bankruptcy, Williamsport is fiscally sound, with a general fund balance at the end of every year, even thought it may be smaller than it could be, and a very limited amount of debt.

“The biggest challenge in a city that spends almost 80 percent of its budget on personnel is how to slow our ever-increasing costs without cutting our services, especially when it seems as though much of our annual state and federal funding is being cut back, more with every passing year.

“There isn’t a trick to it, it just takes hard work, and it takes strong watchdogs on City Council. Council’s role, after all, is to act as a check on the mayor’s office, especially in fiscal matters – and we do our best to examine each financial decision and make changes where necessary to protect the city’s resources.

“Looking to the future, the city needs to work harder to bring a diverse and sustainable network of businesses within the city limits, but we need to stay particularly vigilant against taking risks with taxpayer assets. And we on city council need to help city government walk that fine line.”

Hirsch: “City Council must act responsibly to ensure that the people’s money is spent wisely on the services that the people want and need the most. To that end, I will advocate for more public hearings and public access to council’s debates on budget matters. Everyone wants low taxes and good municipal services, but the job of council is to balance those two desires, based on what the citizens tell them. Do we raise taxes or reduce the police force? Keep taxes down or keep the city pools open?

“Of course, there are always choices to be made among services. Do the police put more resources into community outreach or into minor drug offenses? The mayor says one of two city pools has to close, but why does it have to be the Memorial Park pool that serves such a large number of the city’s residents, both adults and children?

“Why not close the East End pool, which is just a few blocks away from the Loyalsock Township pool? Citizens should have a voice in decisions like these, and council needs to provide that voice.

“Voters and taxpayers also need a say in whether the city takes on more debt or not, and how that debt should be funded. They also need to be involved when major changes are proposed for the city’s landscape. Residents of the hospital neighborhood where I live felt shut out of the process when dozens of houses were torn down to make room for hospital expansion, and the same thing is happening now with the demolition of the old Brodart building on Memorial Avenue.

“These are changes that can devastate people’s lives, and these decisions need to involve more inclusion.”

Anderson: “I would find a way to increase revenue without raising taxes. Review banking services to reduce fees, interest and other cost and go to the private sector and increase fines that penalize poor choices, for ways to increase revenue.

“We would need to protect public safety by targeting the most violent offenders, identifying and monitoring high risk youth, and supporting city-wide public safety initiatives and local law enforcement.”