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Candidates offer views on issues

Rising taxes.

The EMS crisis.

What to do with the property the city owns on the riverfront.

There’s no shortage to the challenges that face Warren City Council in the next several years.

In 2022 there will be three new members on the council. A total of six candidates — four Republicans and two Democrats — aim to occupy those seats.

Democrats Doug Hearn and Kim Exley will sail through next week’s primary to the General Election.

But only three of the four Republicans on Tuesday’s Republican primary ballot — Sam Harvey, Wendy McCain, Joe Michaels and Jared Villella — will make it through.

Council raised taxes as part of the 2021 spending plan and it’s been harder and harder to find savings in the city’s budgets.

What will these four candidates aim to do to address taxes?

“I would propose that council instructs city staff to model specific scenarios regarding staffing levels and programs for multiple years ahead,” Harvey said, acknowledging that union contracts “remove year to year flexibility on minimum staffing levels.

“We need a multi-year plan that incorporates the union contract negotiation calendar to make significant structural changes.”

McCain said she would bring business training that she has to the table and would emphasize “responsible spending.”

One has to make sure all operations are at peak efficiency before any cuts should be made,” she said.

An advocate of zero-based budgeting, McCain said that current council “decisions appear to be approved cart blanch without in depth evaluation. Part of my budget review will include looking into every decision made in the last four years.”

Michaels said his experience as an engineer performing cost-reduction exercises has taught him that “fiscal cuts require in-depth investigation into the drivers of the costs and the cost of the alternative.”

He said he’s reviewed the budget and wants to prioritize public safety, neighborhoods, parks and recreation and infrastructure.

“The best way to balance the city budget is by building our tax base and expanding business opportunities.”

Villella said he would focus on addressing “variable costs by continuing to negotiate to get the best deal possible on insurance, utilities, supplies contracted services and equipment purchases” in addition to pursuing grant funding.

“My commitment if elected would be to increase departmental accountability” through budget discussion “to work toward a budget that provides the citizens of Warren with the services they require without undue financial burden.”

He added he would “not support… jeopardizing the safety of our citizens by cutting or diluting emergency services.”

A proposed downtown hotel has driven discussion on the future of the riverfront.

Staff are seeking funding for a boat launch and Villella called that the “best starting point for building the riverfront into a more integrated part of the downtown economic environment”

He spoke in support of that proposal in part because it would take watercraft traffic away from the helipad at Warren General Hospital.

“I foresee vibrant use and activity such as art festivals, bringing the Ribfest back downtown and much more,” McCain said. “As our downtown is reenergized I see the bottom floors of the buildings facing the water as small cafe’s and shops. Small steps net big gains over time.”

That revival, Michaels said, is tied to “making improvements such as capitalizing on our proximity to outdoor recreation, promoting internet-based business and reviewing certain ordinances which are potentially hindering business development within the city limits.”

“In general,” Harvey explained, “my philosophy is that public property should either have a public use — park, municipal lot, etc. — or be sold to the private sector and put back on the tax rolls.

“This city has had enough half-finished and half-baked development projects that have resulted in blight.”

But what should the city be doing to promote development and business? Is enough being done?

“The city government should provide public safety services, paved streets, parks and parking,” Harve added. “Provide good government and the private sector will thrive on its own.”

Villella said council’s role to promote business is limited but said “we should continue examining lawful changes to ordinances that place constraints on existing businesses or make it difficult for new businesses to open and finding more ways to connect businesses with available grant monies.:

He described the city’s role as “one of a support capacity.”

“We could be doing more to promote the city and what we have to offer,” he said. “We need our existing businesses to thrive in order to attract new ones.”

McCain said promoting development is “one of our city’s responsibilities and the key to reviving our local economy. Our survival depends on it.”

She asked how much the city has prioritized these issues.

“Currently downtown merchants have no technical support on business issues,” she said. “We do need to ensure that our codes and zones make sense and to not prohibit residence and businesses from making improvements (and) cultivate the organic small business growth that is occurring and truly revive our economy.”

Michaels added that the city’s role is to “create fertile ground for businesses to start and grow.

“As businesses are leaving our area, we need to consider which contributing factors are within our control to improve such as taxes, regulations and aging infrastructure, as well as consider which businesses are succeeding and how we can support more of them.”

Along with riverfront and business development, perhaps no other issue has occupied as much of the city’s time as the EMS crisis. The city has drafted a letter that is going before council on Monday that would seek state permission to no longer respond to ambulance calls outside the city.

Harvey put forward the most unique solution.

“I would like to explore the idea of having adjacent townships kick in mutual aid and shift coverage so that, over time, the city could stand down from some shifts and rely on volunteer coverage from adjacent townships,” he said. “This saves city taxpayers funds by lowering staffing levels and may be more palatable to the township governments than direct payment.”

If not feasible, he said the city should “use all available means to make each township pay its fair share for EMT coverage.”

“No one in the City of Warren wants to deny EMS assistance to our neighboring municipalities,” Michaels said, “but the concern is that city taxpayers cannot be expected to bear the burden of costs for other townships.”

He proposed re-negotiating the pilot agreement implemented with Pleasant Township last year as a means to “help offset costs” and suggested offering similar agreements to other municipalities.

He said the city’s recent letter “could be a first step towards negotiating with other townships.”

McCain agreed with that sentiment, calling the letter a “good first step.”

If the city of Warren provides a service to residents outside the city, then that service must be paid for, just like anything else…. We have to be fully reimbursed.”

“If there was an easy solution, it would already be in place,” Villella said. “The hard facts are that any solution is going to require municipalities outside the city to be financially invested.

“We want to be good neighbors, but council’s responsibility is to the City of Warren whose tax money funds the city fire department. City taxpayers simply cannot end up being on the hook for all those calls outside the city where there is little to no reimbursement.”

None of the four candidates proposed any new programs or services by Villella said he’s like to bring his marketing experience to bear to develop a marketing campaign for the city and also to revisit the action items identified in a 2017 downtown strategic plan.

Michaels said his goal “is not to expand the roles and power of government, but to instead fulfill the city’s responsibility and obligations to the taxpayers efficiently”

McCain emphasized that “before we bring new ideas we need to ‘jack up’ the efficiency of the things we are currently doing and identify the full costs of each initiative.

Harvey was even more succinct: “No, we already spend enough.”

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