Taxes, blight and city expenses focus of Oswego mayoral debate
This isn't your typical mayoral election.
Oswego's incumbent Mayor Tom Gillen, who was elected as a Democrat in 2011, didn't receive his party's endorsement this time around. So, he's running as a write-in candidate. Oswego County Legislator Amy Tresidder is running on the Democrat line. If Tresidder wins, she would be the first female mayor in Oswego history. The Republican candidate, Common Councilman Billy Barlow, would be the city's youngest executive ever at age 25 if he wins in November.
More than 200 people were in attendance at a debate Wednesday night as the three candidates discussed a range of issues at the Oswego High School Faust Theater.
The Palladium Times hosted the debate and mixed in questions from the public and their staff. They touched on a number of topics, but hot button issues were addressed repeatedly.
The city of Oswego's departments are racking up overtime expenses, an issue that then inflates the cost of paying out retirement benefits years later. Barlow, who has spent almost two years on the Common Council, said those payments totaled $325,000 in the fire department, $646,000 in the police department and $227,000 for the public works department. Recently, Barlow sat down with the fire department to address those expenses, cutting some costs by hiring a floating firefighter to fill in the gaps. He suggested revising the vacation policy as well to ensure multiple workers aren't gone at the same time.
But, Gillen said the real issue is rooted in staff shortages.
"We're asking fewer people to do more work," Gillen said. "The problem is that we don't have enough staff."
Gillen said reducing overtime expenses starts with rebuilding city departments and attracting younger people to work there.
Tresidder, who has served on the county legislature for six years, said she would review department practices like staffing and emergency response protocols.
Although the candidates didn't agree on many issues, each rallied around the idea that rundown homes and a lack of code enforcement is damaging Oswego's ability to attract new residents and business.
In 2013, Gillen shut down the city's code enforcement department and absorbed its duties into the fire department. He said they weren't doing their job. Now, Gillen wants to bring back the department under new management. But, he attributes part of the city's blight problem to a diminishing and aging population. In order to fix that, he said the city needs more quality housing and businesses need to self-invest.
Barlow said he would also bring the department back, but with some notable differences. He wants to implement a "quality-of-life hotline" through which residents could report blight problems. The new code enforcement team, he said, would be aggressive with landlords, issuing citations or even taking them to court. In addition, Barlow said developing neighborhoods is key which is why he initiated a home improvement tax incentive while on the Oswego Common Council.
Tresidder agreed that landlords are creating an issue with housing.
“When you live in a city that is almost 50 percent rentals, that’s not the recipe for growth," Tresidder said. "It invites crime and it does not invite for pride in our community.”
She said she would also go after landlords. Tresidder wants to promote positive efforts in neighborhoods, like the county legislature's home improvement tax incentive.
“People in this city cannot tolerate higher taxes," Tresidder said. "People have reached their limit. They can’t take it anymore. We have to find another source of revenue that is not going to burden our people.”
That other source should be sales taxes, Tresidder said. To boost those numbers, she said the city needs to develop the waterfront area, promote small businesses and streamline bureaucracy.
Barlow, who is a business owner, said the departments at city hall that deal with the private sector can be unfriendly and wasteful. He wants to cut down on bureaucracy and waste.
“It’s like we go from one emergency to the next," Barlow said.
One of those emergencies, he said, was the proposed 82 percent property tax increase. It later passed at 43 percent.
Once again, Gillen went on the defensive.
“What we did two years ago was we had a reality check," Gillen said. "You know we can all talk about let’s all get together and pull together and do something, but we were in trouble. Real big trouble.”
Under his administration, Gillen said Oswego has seen dramatic change. He said sales tax revenues are up and the city is now off the state's distressed municipalities list.
"It’s kind of like you’re on the line of scrimmage," Gillen said. "You go one yard at a time. That’s what we have been doing. It’s a running game and we’re trying to get in the end zone and we’re there; we’re making first downs.”
But Jennifer Banta, who was in attendance at the debate, said she doesn't want to wait for Gillen. Banta said she is ready for change. Although she is undecided on who will earn her vote, Banta said she was most surprised Wednesday by Barlow.
"Councilman Barlow had more poise than I expected and a little more depth on some of the issues than I was expecting," Banta said.
Republican Christina Chamberlain agreed, saying Barlow hit it out of the park.
"He had ideas and a specific plan for every single question he was asked," Banta said. "The other two candidates repeated the questions over and over and didn't say one thing that they were going to do."
Democrat Dick Atkins said Barlow, as a member of the Oswego Common Council, should answer for poor road conditions in the city in the wake of recent tax increases. Atkins said he plans on supporting Tresidder, who he said has been effective on the county legislature.