Debate Attracts Few W-B Candidates
WILKES-BARRE — The audience at what was billed as a debate for candidates running in competitive primary election races for city council and controller got to hear from less than half the candidates on the issues Wednesday night.
Council candidates present in Burke Auditorium at King’s College were Mark Shaffer for District B; incumbent Beth Gilbert and challenger Linda Rowe for District C; and Tony C. Thomas for District E.
Absent were Harry Cropp and Eugene Wallace for District B; Jeff Thomas for District C; and John Marconin and Jessica McClay for District E.
Incumbent Darren Snyder was the only candidate for city controller to participate; Charlie “Toot” Majikes and Patricia Unvarsky did not.
All of the candidates are seeking Democratic nominations.
Gilbert’s sister and public relations coordinator Lois Grimm, who organized the event, said she mailed invitations to all candidates on May 3 and invited them via social media and email two weeks before that.
Event moderator Andy Mehalshick, an investigative reporter with WBRE Eyewitness News, referred to the event as “impromptu” and said it would be more of a “conversation.”
After providing background on each candidate, Mehalshick first questioned Snyder, asking how he saved the city $1 million as Snyder touted in his biography.
Snyder said one of the first things he looked at when taking
office was the city’s insurance coverage and noted the city had the same carrier for several years.
“I felt we could save a lot of money in premiums if we were able to shop around. My goal was to save the city about $100,000 a year. Once I started looking into it … we received three different quotes and were able to lower (premiums) by $250,000 a year,” Snyder said.
Snyder also explained his responsibility of auditing the city’s books.
Mehalshick asked each council candidate their views on Mayor Tony George’s unsuccessful request that the state declare the city financially distressed, the city’s public safety structure and the biggest issue facing the city.
None of the candidates supported the city receiving financially distressed status.
Shaffer said studies have shown that budget cuts won’t improve city finances. The best way to avoid financially distressed status is to improve roads and housing stock and “do things that will spur business and attract business.”
Shaffer said he would support a “police oversight board” or a committee to help improve relations between police and the community. He said the police chief told people, “If you see something, say something,” after a rash of shootings. “If people aren’t calling in, you have a problem with your relations with the community,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said fixing roads and the opioid crisis are the two main issues in the city that must be addressed. Poor infrastructure will deter people from living in or visiting the city, and the opioid problem is not a crime problem, but a “health crisis,” he said.
Gilbert said she was the only council member to openly oppose distressed status for the city. She said the administration must be “more responsible with taxpayer dollars” and suggested asking the colleges for higher payments in lieu of taxes.
Gilbert said the city budget should include more funding for police and fire. She questioned “where the extra money is going” because the mayor has not replaced 10 retired firefighters for which funding is budgeted.
Finance is the major issue facing the city, Gilbert said, and money must be found for more police, fire and code enforcement.
Rowe said greater care is needed with the money being spent in the city, as well as collection of delinquent fees, due both during the current and past administrations. She said city officials should be taking better advantage of available grant opportunities.
Rowe said she’s satisfied with the police department and glad to see police in neighborhoods, but she wants to see police and fire departments “fully staffed,” with more eyes and more boots on the ground.
Increasing the tax base is the most important challenge facing the city, Rowe said, adding that infrastructure must be addressed so people want to move into and remain in the city.
Thomas said distressed status is “an excuse for a lack of fiscal responsibility in this city.”
He said officials must be “fiscally responsible in our own house. We start that by having city council do their job, which some have been doing, but we need to have more council members willing to hold whoever the mayor is accountable for their budget and for their administrative decisions.”
Thomas also criticized a lack of manpower and resources in the fire department.
Addressing a shrinking tax base and improving finances is the biggest issue facing the city. He said the same investment efforts made in the downtown should be made in “the forgotten neighborhoods” of the city.
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