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Candidates vie for voters in political forum

City Council

Candidate for Williamsport City Council Liz Miele answers questions during the Lycoming County League of Women Voters forum which was done in partnership with the Williamsport Sun Gazette Thursday evening in Williamsport. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Four of six City Council candidates seeking three open seats in the Nov. 2 general election fielded questions Thursday night in a political forum sponsored by the Lycoming County League of Women Voters and the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

Questions leveled at Councilwoman Liz Miele, a Democrat; Councilman David Banks, a Democrat; Jeana Longo, a Democrat; and Bill Hall, a former council president and Libertarian Party candidate, were given by moderator Jason Fink, president and CEO of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce.

Fink interspersed wit and wisdom as he delivered the questions from the non-partisan League and Sun-Gazette editorial staff at the Trade and Transit Centre II.

Republicans Randall J. Allison, incumbent council president, and Eric Beiter, a former mayoral candidate, said they had prior commitments.

The event offered registered voters an opportunity to view candidates’ insights but also revealed some pressing issues such as the city’s financial scorecard going into 2022.

Watching in the audience were Mayor Derek Slaughter and members of the police administration, including Chief of Police Justin Snyder and Assistant Chief Jason Bolt.

Each candidate had two minutes to answer the questions, which were monitored by time keepers. The event was livestreamed on Facebook and is on the League’s site.

City Hall

The forum began with a question on City Hall, which has been condemned due to mold and structural damage caused by recent rainstorms. The condemnation led to the evacuation of the many employees, including the entire police force, Slaughter and administrative officials.

“How do you believe the issues with City Hall, such as the disrepair and lack of maintenance, should be resolved and what measures would you put in place to prevent this from happening in the future?” Fink asked.

Hall, who went first, said he recommended selling the building during his tenure on council and would again.

“We should get out soon as we can, put it on the market, get the money out of it,” Hall said.

Banks said the matter “was a little more complex,” referencing a decision by the council ad hoc committee tasked to explore options but noting the decision by the committee last year came prior to the damages caused by rain this summer.

“The rainy season,” Miele said, to the amusement of those on the dais.

“There are a number of legal issues we need to figure out with moving,” Banks said. “It’s not as simple as what I want. It is more fact-based, and we need more data on it.”

“Dave is right,” Miele said. “The city has a number of legal and structural issues to sort out to figure out what the best permanent home is for City Hall at this point,” she said.

“If I had to call it, I would say it is not likely to be our original building because that is the least-encumbered of the buildings that the city owns and could be called home.

“It (City Hall) was given to us — free and clear — and if we choose to get rid of it, we can.

“I know there has been some interest in the structure . . . I would never want to see that building standing vacant downtown. It is an incredibly important structure in a historic city.”

Miele also noted how the City Hall issue will likely take several months as officials in the administration and council sort through legal issues related to the two transit buildings (Trade & Transit centres I and II), their ownership, the level of state and federal government funding, those restrictions and the city’s obligations related to that funding.

Miele said the city would need to do an analysis of the upcoming infrastructure needs at the buildings, including City Hall, and that while she would like to do what is “fiscally best,” city officials don’t know that figure currently.

Longo was incredulous and chided the incumbents on their responses.

“This is not a complex issue,” Longo said, as her voice elevated in the Michael Ross Room.

“The building has been condemned,” she said. “The building has not had the repairs it needed to have in many years and now is condemned. That means you cannot be in there. The taxpayers should not foot the bill for this building that has been neglected — not for one more minute.”

Longo then made a reference to the levee certification, tying it to the decades of neglect and deferred maintenance of City Hall.

“We keep kicking the can down the road,” she said. “We have to stop. We have to set some goals. We have to come up with a solution. There has to be some finality to it. The taxpayers deserve that much,” Longo said, adding City Hall was an “incredible and important historic building” but adding how it should be sold.

“Let’s sell it. Sell it to a private owner, who can bring it back to its former glory … and put that money back into city.”

Taxes

“As a steward of taxpayer resources, what measures will you take to improve the delivery of quality and equitable services without increasing the tax burden on those residents?” Fink asked.

That’s when Banks and Miele indicated the upcoming budget would likely be a challenge to prevent a tax increase.

“We are facing severe budget issues coming up this year,” Banks said. “If anyone on this stage tells you that there won’t be a tax increase they are either lying or they are ignorant about the facts.”

Banks said the city had “unknown variables,” and despite successfully negotiating (union) contracts, increasing cost of health care, and the minimum obligation to fund the pension system, were costs that would continue to increase.

Banks said he and Miele were among those on council working together to trim the prior budget, originally proposed at a $2.5 million tax increase in 2020 by the administration.

“We’re down to the bone,” Banks said.

Instead, he said, the city needed to focus on attracting new businesses, expanding its population, refurbishing the housing stock, establishing a land bank, which would enable the city Redevelopment Authority to go after blighting properties in commercial and industrial zones, and develop a strategic economic development strategy and marketing plan.

“If we don’t continue the steps and try to grow the tax base, we will keep on cutting without expanding, and we need stable growth,” Banks said.

Miele said a national labor shortage — which is largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic — might be reflected in the city. Miele said she had hope for an existing financial analysis between the city and E Consult Solutions Inc., a consulting firm making recommendations including the most efficient delivery of continuing to provide services and analsysis based on interviews with department heads.

“We have talked for as long as I can remember of how we need to grow the city’s tax base,” Miele said.

For the first time, the city has American Rescue Plan funds, which provide an opportunity to build on that conversation, Miele said.

The money could be put into the land bank to establish a revolving housing loan program, she added.

“It’s a remarkable time,” Miele said. “We are fortunate to be here for it and to be taking advantage of that funding.”

Again, Longo seemed aghast at a tax increase prognostication.

“Why?” she asked, describing how she was recently watching a council meeting and the discussion of funding a scoreboard took place, with the city officials not knowing what account to take the money out of because the city was being audited.

“I read in the newspaper that there’s an investigation over the possibility of misappropriation of funds,” she said. “Let’s not have another study unless we have one saying ‘where is this money going?’

“Once that information is found, do not arbitrarily increase taxes, but rather put money into fixing roads, get fast and efficient snow removal in every single neighborhood and invest in infrastructure,” Longo said.

Hall said the taxpayers paid for this fiscal year and furthermore paid for the American Rescue Plan by paying taxes into the federal government. He also was upset when hearing from the incumbent candidates that a tax increase was all but certain.

“The levee system ought to be sorted out as an Authority,” Hall said. He noted how the West Branch of the Susquehanna River impacted boroughs from Jersey Shore south to Montgomery. He said the swimming pool had been repaired at least three times while he was on council.

“Give it to the county,” Hall said.

Crime reduction

“What do you believe are realistic actions to reduce crime in Williamsport?” Fink asked.

“A number of friends migrated to other cities and Williamsport, frankly, while there’s no denying the city has crime . . . we are still looking pretty good when comparing ourselves to larger cities and other cities in the Commonwealth,” Miele said.

Miele said she was excited to share an initiative of the administration to look at using Rescue Plan funds to partner police with mental health professionals and combine those services.

Such a “pilot project,” she said, would accomplish two things. It would allow the city to provide better quality services to people making calls and people who are reasons for the calls, and it would save money because of the mental health professionals in the department who were not police.

Longo suggested it came down to public security.

“The primary expectation of the taxpayer is that they are going to be safe, they are going to be safe in their home, safe in the neighborhood,” she said.

The best way to ensure that is to deter crime from happening, she said, suggesting the addition of street lights in parts of the city that are dark.

“Guess what, if criminals can’t hide in the dark, they are less likely to commit a crime,” said Longo, an attorney with her own practice.

Longo said she wanted to see more of a police presence in every single neighborhood, utilization of technology such as surveillance cameras and bridging the gap between law enforcement and citizens through community policing and encouraging officers to live in the city.

When officers live in the city, they have a vested interest in the outcome of their neighborhood because they are part of it, she said.

Hall said more efforts should be made to decriminalize what ought not to be crimes to begin with and to lighten up the city with its own owned assets – street lights.

As a part-time driver for Uber, Hall said he occasionally sees block after block that are dark.

“I would rebuild the lights at least the first couple years I’m on council,” he said.

Banks said it was a balancing act to increase police force, because that would increase taxes.

“Cameras cost money,” he said. “Lighting cost money.”

“We have had talks about lighting.”

American Rescue Fund

“The City of Williamsport will receive $25 million from the American Rescue Plan; what projects would you advocate for within your role as a City Council member in the disbursement and use of these funds?” Fink asked.

“We need to make sure we spend this money responsibly and within the parameters of what is allowed,” Longo said, adding, “I don’t want to hear that there is another investigation for misappropriation of funds of this money.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could use it for the sidewalks, for the streets, for snow removal, for public safety, for infrastructure upgrades to benefit businesses that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

“Let’s replace those trees in Newberry that we sat on when (state Department of Transportation) (PennDOT) ripped them out of the ground,” Longo said.

“But I think the elephant in the room is the levee. The levee is still not certified after all of these years. If that doesn’t work properly, that could devastate the city. I don’t know that we could recover from that.”

“It is not government officials’ play money,” Hall said. “It belongs to taxpayers who have paid double this year.”

Hall valued its use as money to get back to those homeowners and taxpayers through such programs as paying for sidewalk repairs and replacement for those residents who live outside of the Community Development Block Grant area.

“I live on a street that hasn’t been paved since 1972,” he said of Monroe Place.

He said the street light inventory should be reviewed. He said the fire trucks cost millions and that the city ought to buy one or two trucks without borrowing.

“Find way to move line items to pay off bonds and interest and replace that and look at the legality of doing that,” Hall said.

Banks reminded residents that the public works committee was looking at allocating some of the American Rescue Plan funds toward replacing trees in Newberry.

He said the city estimated allocated $2 million ($1.7 million) to repair levee pump stations and would favor using some of the funds for the land bank to give money to the Redevelopment Authority to go after blighted properties and increase revenue.

“We have to grow out of this,” Banks said. “It is not a problem that will be solved with magic accounting. We have to actually fix the holes in the ship.”

Miele noted the expense of big ticket items such as fire department vehicles but said that it can pay for items that otherwise would have to be done through financing.

“We can use a small amount to replace lost revenue in city coffers . . . use it to ease the tax burden. It is not likely to take the form of tax decreases, but we are likely to be able to avoid or limit tax increases,” she said.

For Miele, the more “exciting” use of the funds would be to see the city become more livable, bikable and walkable.

“That’s the economic development pieces,” she said, adding the land bank would help the city to direct its development and “create the best bank for our buck.”

Another idea is to use it for a revolving loan program from homeowners, helping them to afford homes and for improvements in recreational facilities,” Miele said.

Infrastructure

“What improvements on infrastructure, such as transportation systems, communication networks, sewage, stormwater management and electric systems will you focus on during your term?” Fink asked.

Hall said infrastructure meant streets, alleys and lights.

“That’s where I would be focused,” he said.

“I would not be spending money on consultants nor marketing the city — which he said was the chamber’s job, not the taxpayers’.”

Banks said he would focus on City Hall behind the levee. He said he recently met with county commissioners and government officials who were trying to figure out what the administration of levee will be going forward.

Banks said how, as a youngster, he would take “midnight lunch” to his father who was working in one of the pump houses along the levee in the 1970s.

“Dad took care of them,” he said.

A recent inspection of the levee cross pipes indicated to Banks they were in bad shape.

“We are focusing on the levee and City Hall, unfortunately,” he said. The levee certification and pump house problem needs to be fixed post haste with winter season when snowmelt and rain come and they need to be operational.

Miele said there was no “unimportant area of infrastructure within the city.”

“We need to figure out what we need to prioritize and what we can prioritize given the funding sources available to us,” she said. “We are fortunate to have a large pot of money to use,” she said, adding that Grafius Run flood mitigation, which is separate from and contributing to some issues with the levee, should not be overlooked.

Miele said she would want to refocus on a complete streets ordinance that included bike lanes, accessibility to buses, pedestrian-friendly access and sidewalks.

Such an ordinance has “fallen by wayside” due to a lack of funding, but that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t have its share of citizens in cars, on bicycles, on foot and in need of fully accessibility.

Longo, a resident of Depot Street, said she looked into a storm water basin recently and said, “it looks like a rain forest in there.”

“I don’t know the last time it was cleaned,” she said.

In her working-class neighborhood, she noted, residents who work full-time often share one vehicle. Longo said when she walks her dog at 5:30 a.m., she sees these hardworking taxpayers heading to work. She said the residents deserve to have roads that are paved, fast and efficient snow removal and passable roads.

Business rebounding

“How can the city government help businesses thrive in a manner that would allow them to contribute to the local economy and create good paying jobs?” Fink asked.

Banks said such initiative as a resident and commercial local tax abatement need to be revisited, and marketing.

“Other cities are marketing themselves, and we are not,” Banks said, adding how the administration wants to work hand-in-hand with council on that.

“The best thing you can do for local businesses is provide them with an environment in which there are other businesses offering good-quality services and quality products,” Miele said.

“Provide them with a thriving business community in which to do business and incentive economic development,” she said.

She supported the land bank to allow the city to acquire particularly attractive properties and market them for the right fit for that property instead of simply allowing the market to drive growth.

“To direct our own development and to find what is best for a given neighborhood,” she said. “It is something you want government to do in certain limited instances and want the business community to do for itself most of the time.”

Miele clarified that she was not advocating total marketing control by the city.

“We can provide local businesses with a good local business community that draws in spending and bolsters all our businesses.”

Longo said when she has a client come in to her office, he or she often has to be consumed with the parking meter.

“We have to do something less hostile to business owners,” she said.

“Let’s revamp the parking. Is the amount of time on the meters enough?”

Longo also noted how the downtown needed more trash receptacles and addressing blighted commercial properties downtown by discussing with those property owners who do nothing with the buildings.

Hall said the first responsibility of any level of government is securing the public safety.

“You want to make sure people can feel comfortable getting out of their cars and safe and secure in getting to whatever stores and restaurants they are going to and coming back.”

“Marketing is not the taxpayers’ responsibility,” he said.

Instead, Hall suggested reexamining the business privilege tax, first written in 1953.

“Cuts in taxes always result in increases in revenue because businesses increase,” he said. “I don’t know if that has been looked at in decades, but it ought to be.”

“The city population has seen decline over the past decades, which is challenging on a number of fronts,” Fink said. “What do you think should be done to address this?”

Miele said population decline is not soley a city issue but rather one that involves the county and in many ways the state.

She said she believed the city’s lower population held a benefit in that it helped to preserve its historic buildings, farmland to prosper and wildlands around the city remain in easy reach.

Miele has borrowed an idea from the Realtor’s Association to use a portion of the American Rescue Plan funds to create zero-interest loans for new homeowners.

“The government has no role in keeping people here,” Longo said. “What keeps people here is improving our quality of life,” she said.

“We have to invest in the city. We have to stop increasing our taxes unless there is something to show for it. The only way we can do that is if we get our act together.

“If look at our finances, know how much money we have, know how much money we can spend, how much money we have in the future. The way to do that is not misappropriating funds and being responsible with taxpayers’ money,” Longo said. “People will stay, the city will thrive and people will not just pass through.”

Hall said a hard look at the housing stock and reintroducing UPMC and hospital leadership with the promise it made 15 years ago when establishing an institutional zone to provide housing for doctors and other upper-level professionals.

Banks said an economic strategy that promotes incentives to work here and live here is important, and that includes a marketing plan incorporated into the mix.

“You need reasons for people to come here,” he said.

Regionalization

“We are a Commonwealth. We have a lot of municipalities. We all are fiercly independent that way. What would do in efforts to regionalize any of our services, if you choose to go that route, what would you work on with other municipalities to be able to do that?” Fink asked.

Longo said regionalization was not realistic financially or in practical sense.

“First responders, our police, some are union, some aren’t. How are we going to pay for that?

“Are they all trained the same? Everything we do needs to be balanced with the impact it is going to have on the taxpayers. Regionalization absolutely does not make sense,” she said.

Hall said he would regionalize the police and look at a countywide police agency to spread out costs on salaries, health care and pensions. He also did not believe it would happen because of what essentially he described as parochalism.

Banks said once every other day he sees Loyalsock Township Volunteer Fire Department truck go up Grampian Boulevard to Bloomingrove Road to a call.

“It is cheaper to regionalize services,” he said, adding the city had a shared agreement with Old Lycoming Township.

More officers on every shift could decrease the cost to taxpayers and increase the amount of officers on patrol, he said.

Police and fire were departments Miele said were areas in which to explore regionalization, as was recreation.

In response to a final question of champion issues other than what was addressed, Hall said he could not think of any not covered in the forum. Banks, meanwhile, said he’d like to see the city certified to manage autism community and addition of wayfair signage for tourism promotion.

Longo said without getting a handle on the fiscal picture, nothing could move ahead and taxpayers deserved that financial deep dive.

“I’d like to see us bolster the urban canopy,” Miele said, a reference to growing the population of trees.

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