Concord City Council candidates debate city priorities
City council candidates shared ideas for managing Concord’s budget, revitalizing Penacook and prioritizing upcoming city projects during a candidates forum at the Penacook Community Center last night.
The forum included at-large, Ward 1 and Ward 2 council candidates. Mayoral candidates were also invited, though only Mayor Jim Bouley attended the event hosted by Concord Patch and the Merrimack Valley Voice.
Five of the six candidates running in a citywide race for two at-large seats on the council spoke about their priorities and plans.
Fred Keach, who has served as the Ward 10 councilor for the past two terms, said he would like to work to keep taxes low by bringing new economic development to the city.
At-large candidate Scott Welch said he is running because he has concerns over delays in the Sewalls Falls Bridge replacement project and the city’s use of pay-as-you-throw trash bags.
Samantha Clattenburg said she is running for city council because federal spending is too high, and the city should reduce its reliance on federal grant money.
Amanda Grady Sexton, the current Ward 4 councilor, said she has been a strong advocate for her ward, and now wants to serve citywide to promote a vibrant community.
Timothy Willis said he is running for an at-large council seat to advocate for road improvements. He would also like the city to offer a “work for services kind of program” to help homeless or low-income residents.
Josh VanBuskirk, the sixth at-large candidate, did not attend last night’s forum.
Asked about the city’s acquisition of an armored BearCat vehicle, Keach and Grady Sexton – the two incumbents – said they stand behind their votes to accept a federal grant and purchase the law enforcement vehicle.
Grady Sexton said she heard from many constituents on both sides of the issue before the council voted last month.
“At the end of the day, my decision was to provide the police with what I believe was a tool that is necessary for them to protect themselves and the public,” she said.
The three other candidates present last night said they would have voted against the BearCat.
“Nobody wants to think about ‘what would happen if,’ ” Clattenburg said. “However, I also don’t believe that a BearCat necessarily is going to change the outcome (of an emergency situation).”
Candidates had different views last night about the upcoming redesign of Concord’s Main Street, which will reduce traffic to two lanes, widen sidewalks and add landscaping downtown by 2015 with the help of a federal grant.
Willis said he is worried about having enough downtown parking, and the potential impact on traffic once Main Street is reduced from four lanes to two lanes with a crossable median.
“I’m just worried it’s going to create . . . more gridlock,” he said. “The beautification part of it, making it look a bit nicer, okay, maybe.”
Keach said the project is necessary to improve downtown and attract new businesses and visitors.
“There needs to be an environment that draws you to the downtown, not because it’s the cheapest price for materials, but because you want to go down there and you want to have an experience with your family,” he said.
Welch said he was worried about the first bid from a construction company for the project, which was double the project budget. That bid has been rejected; officials have said it was high because it was issued during the middle of construction season. Welch said he also has concerns about widening sidewalks and adding parallel parking to Main Street.
“So I think another look at the design might be beneficial, but we need to keep it in budget if we’re going to do the project,” he said.
Grady Sexton said she supports the project, but recognizes business owners have concerns about construction. It is important to shop downtown and “keep things alive” during the construction, she said.
On the reconstruction of Route 3 through Penacook, Clattenburg and Willis said they were not familiar with the plans approved by the city council earlier this year. Welch, Keach and Grady Sexton said they support plans to build a roundabout and bury utility lines in the center of the village.
Asked about a potential extension of the Langley Parkway from Pleasant Street to the intersection of North State, Boutin and Penacook streets, Grady Sexton said she is against the project because residents have expressed concerns over a new roadway in their backyards. Keach and Welch said the new road should stay in city plans, even if it is delayed several years.
Willis said he thinks the right answer is “somewhere in the middle” between building the road or not.
Clattenburg questioned whether the Langley Parkway project is moving forward because Bouley works as a lobbyist for Concord Hospital, which has paid for portions of the project because it improves access to its campus on Pleasant Street. (Bouley told residents at a meeting last week that it is not one of his priorities and that the parkway extension will likely be delayed or removed entirely from city plans.)
Asked whether the city council should have final say over the Concord School District budget, each of the five candidates said they would not support such a change.
The three candidates running to represent Penacook agreed last night that the village must be revitalized, but offered different ideas about how to do it.
Adam Czarkowski, who lost a close race for the Ward 1 seat in 2011, said he would support market-rate apartments at the former Allied Leather Tannery site if a grocery store were not feasible for that location. He said increased daytime traffic and activity is necessary to bring shoppers and lunchtime business into the village.
Cassandra Rasmussen, who noted that she is not a politician and wants to listen to her neighbors, said she would like to hear residents’ ideas before voting for any proposal.
Brent Todd spoke of his experience working with the Penacook Village Association to revitalize Penacook and said he would like to bring mixed-use development to the tannery site.
The three candidates are running for the open seat left by retiring Councilor Liz Blanchard.
They all said they support the city’s plans to reconstruct Route 3 through Penacook. But Rasmussen added she was concerned about upkeep of a roundabout at the corner of Village and Washington streets.
“You’re going to have to try to squeeze that BearCat around that,” she added.
Allan Herschlag and Tim Bauman both said last night that they would listen to their constituents if elected to represent Ward 2 on the city council.
But the two candidates presented different views of how the city might manage its budget in the future. They are running for the seat left open when redistricting moved current Ward 2 Councilor Jennifer Kretovic into Ward 3.
Asked which city services could be expanded or scaled back, Bauman said he would like to focus on core services. He said he would like to keep the tax rate low by reigning in costs for departments such as recreation and the library. Once the Main Street redesign project is complete, city government should step away from “effectively taking the role as a real estate developer,” he said.
“So I would expect that probably would decrease in about two years, or the timeframe that the project is undergoing,” Bauman said.
Herschlag said he is concerned that the city has already added user fees to recreational activities, and would like to increase attention to maintenance of older city properties.
“I think what’s important before we start shifting costs and asking people to start paying out of pocket . . . that we have some sort of philosophy that defines what it is that we want user fees to accomplish,” Herschlag said.
Asked what skills he could offer to the council, Herschlag said he has long been a follower of city government and is willing to ask questions and hear from constituents. He would also like to add more public input to the council’s decision-making process.
Bauman said his experience working as a commercial real estate property manager would bring an important business perspective to the city council.
Mayor speaks to voters
Bouley, who is running for his fourth term, was the only mayoral candidate to attend last night’s forum. Mayoral candidates John Cook and Chris Booth were not present, though Concord Patch editor Tony Schinella noted that all three candidates were invited.
Bouley did speak last night and answered a few questions from residents.
The mayor said he has worked six years as mayor to lead the city through an economic downturn. He noted that Standard & Poor’s upgraded the city’s bond rating this year from AA to AA+.
“I think we have a lot to be proud of in this city for how we’ve managed our fiscal resources,” Bouley said. “We’ve still been able to accomplish a whole lot of capital projects.”
Asked about outreach to Concord’s refugee population, Bouley said the city tries to provide a welcoming community. The potential to build a new community center at the former Dame School on the Heights could offer additional services, he said.