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City council, mayoral candidates discuss economics, keno at forum

  • FROM LEFT: Mayoral candidates Linda Rae Banfill, Jim Bouley and Roy Schweiker and at-large city council candidate Fred Keach attend the “Monitor” candidates’ forum Tuesday. Jonathan Van Fleet / Monitor staff

  • FROM LEFT: Mayoral candidates Linda Rae Banfill, Jim Bouley and Roy Schweiker and at-large city council candidate Fred Keach attend the “Monitor” candidates’ forum Tuesday. Jonathan Van Fleet / Monitor staff

  • FROM LEFT: Rob Werner from Ward 5, Rod Forey and Keith Nyhan from Ward 7, Gail Matson and Dennis Soucy from Ward 8 and David Sky and Elvir Zulkic from Ward 10. Jonathan Van Fleet / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How the city of Concord spends its money took center stage Tuesday night as city council and mayoral hopefuls came together to talk about issues facing the city in the upcoming election.

A three-hour forum hosted by the Monitor at Concord High School faced city candidates with everything from keno to the refugee community, but money – and how the Concord city council has spent it – bubbled up throughout.

For mayoral candidate Roy Schweiker, the answer was clear – things need to change, and soon. He stuck to his motto of Concord being “more than a Main Street,” and frequently criticized the amount of money the city spent on revitalization downtown. He said any increase in tax base revenue is captured by the city’s Tax Increment Finance district and does not benefit the rest of the city.

“We need to help the neighborhoods, because that’s where people live and that’s what they care about,” he said.

Concord’s $14.2 million project to update the downtown was completed in the fall of 2016. The city came in more than $1.1 million under budget.

Incumbent Mayor Jim Bouley and incumbent City Councilor at-large Fred Keach disagreed. Both said the revitalization of the downtown was already paying dividends and acting as the gateway to addressing one of the city’s biggest issues – increasing the tax base.

“If we’re able to grow the tax base, it takes the pressure off everyone in the community,” Bouley said.

Ward councilors were mostly on board with the Main Street revitalization project. Several, like Ward 8 incumbent Gail Matson, saw the project as paving the way to more interest in the city, either by attracting more businesses or event planning.

“It’s not simply about Main Street,” she said. “It’s set the stage for us to be in a position to capitalize on the gains we’ve made and build up that momentum.”

And Ward 7 incumbent Keith Nyhan said the downtown project is the result of important investments made into the city years before, like the Storrs Street garage or the Smile block. “All of these things have been critical factors,” he said.

But Ward 10 candidate Elvir Zulkic said that while downtown was beautiful, it did not offer much for young people. He said if he wants to go shopping or see a movie, he heads to Manchester.

“The investment we made was nice, but there’s not much to do,” he said.

And Ward 7 candidate Rod Forey said the downtown project will not provide much financial benefit to the city in the long run without a citywide development plan in place.

“I don’t think we’re going to get Amazon to come here,” he said. “But we can attract small businesses, which is the basis of the American dream.”

Perhaps the question that caused the most division among the mayoral candidates and the at-large candidate was whether the city council should have veto power over the school district’s budget, which accounts for $12.70 of the current tax rate of $27.67 per $1,000 of assessed value. Concord is somewhat unique in that its school board is autonomous from its municipal governing body.

Keach said the idea was worth exploring.

“There needs to be some sort of formal coordination between the two boards,” he said, “although I’m not sure what that would look like.” Keach clarified he did not believe the city council should be involved in the school board’s affairs.

But Bouley felt it would be incredibly difficult for the council to have final say over the two school districts within the city. He said the council and the school board often coordinate when there’s big spending project on the horizon.

Schweiker suggested the best way to check spending on both the municipal and school sides would be through a tax cap, which voters would approve through a referendum. “That way we let voters decide what we spend,” he said.

Keno

Candidates fell into three camps on keno in the city: for it, against it, or ambivalent.

Bouley, who has worked as a lobbyist for the gambling company Intralot and has previously stepped down from discussion about keno in the city during council meetings, was of the camp who seemed to not mind the idea one way or the other.

“Truthfully, it’s up to the citizens,” he said. “Whatever you choose is fine by me.”

And mayoral candidate Linda Banfill, who arrived late, said it would be difficult to stop people who want to gamble from doing so.

But others, like Ward 10 candidate David Sky, were strongly against the idea. He called keno a tax on the “desperate and destitute” and said other revenue sources should be found for additional funding for full-day kindergarten.

Refugee population

A majority of candidates agreed Concord’s refugee population was a boon to the city. They also said more state and federal aid should be provided to help the population transition.

In the past seven years, Concord has taken in a total of 1,513 refugees from countries all over the world, most notably Bhutan, according to data from the state.

Many, like Ward 5 incumbent Rob Werner, said the population has enriched the city and that their integration has been “very positive.” He said the city has done a good job in responding to any negative instances, saying it’s been made clear that “those kinds of actions are unacceptable in our community.”

Schweiker said the refugees should be more distributed throughout the state and that “when refugees come in, they come with money so that the affected community doesn’t go broke.”

Missing voices

Those who did not attend the forum included Ward 10 candidate Dan St. Hilaire and Ward 5 candidate Shawn Riley. At-large candidates not in attendance included Amanda Grady Sexton and George Jack.

St. Hilaire provided the following statement: “I am sorry I am unable to attend tonight’s forum as I am out of state on business.

“As a member of the council for the last 12 years, I have been fortunate to work with other like-minded officials who want Concord to provide the best service to its residents at the lowest price possible. Concord has changed for the better over the last decade or two. If residents like what the City has done ... then I ask for your vote on November 7th. Thank you.”

Grady Sexton also provided a statement: “I’m deeply sorry that I was unable to join you tonight. Please feel free to reach out to me any time by phone or email if you have a question about my stance on an issue. I always welcome and appreciate questions and feedback!”

Both statements were read out loud during the forum.

Concord TV will be rebroadcasting the event. For a schedule, visit yourconcordtv.org.

The city’s election takes place Nov. 7.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmon itor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)