Tonawanda News — Just a week before Election Day, City of Tonawanda candidates presented their platforms to voters Tuesday night at a debate hosted by the Tonawanda News and the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.
Mayoral, council and Erie County Legislature candidates faced off on issues such as the Little League Drive development, flooding problems, downtown development and Tonawanda Coke’s criminal actions.
With managing editor Eric Duvall serving as moderator, the 12 candidates offered a choice for voters, most notably on the proposed housing project contract — an issue that clearly broke along party lines.
The contract for the development, which has not yet been approved by the council, specifies a sale price of $192,000 for the 16.94 acres of land. Natale, the set purchaser, will pay for the infrastructure costs, valued at about $1.8 million, and at the developer’s request, the 53 homes will fall under the state’s condominium status. As a result, the homes will be assessed at about 65 percent of their construction value.
Put simply, homeowners whose properties cost $250,000 to buy will pay taxes as if the home was worth $162,500.
All the local Democratic candidates said they oppose the project as proposed. Although mayoral candidate Rick Davis said that he supported the development when he was on the council, he said Tuesday that he takes issue with the tax abatement.
“The original request for proposals indicated that the developer would bear the cost of the infrastructure ... and that a homeowners association was not preferred,” he said.
The Democratic council candidates — Paul Brunner in the First Ward, Jackie Smilinich in the Second Ward, Richard Slisz in the Third Ward and Jenna Koch in the Fourth Ward — all echoed his statements. Brunner said that the residents in the development who will receive a tax abatement will still receive many services from the city.
Slisz agreed with Brunner and said the project should be sent back out to bid, while Smilinich said she doesn’t think the city’s downtown area is in a position to attract home buyers to the property. Koch pointed out that the sale price is only a third of three assessments done in the 2000s. A more recent study done last year valued the land at $255,000.
But on the Republican side, Mayor Ron Pilozzi said that he completed his job successfully to negotiate a contract with Natale that was responsive to the council’s requests. He, along with his Republican cohorts, said the project will not cost the city anything, and that the homeowners association will be responsible for the upkeep of the property for years to come.
“We do not have to bond for this project at all,” Pilozzi said. “When things need to be replaced, that’s on their dime, not ours.”
Republican council candidates Charles Gilbert in the First Ward, Jon Juliano in the Second Ward, John Hall in the Third Ward and Brian Jopp in the Fourth Ward agreed.
Gilbert said the company’s bid was the best the city received, and he, along with the other Republicans, argued that the project is bringing in tax revenue without any cost to Tonawanda.
“I know the tax break is frustrating to a lot of people, but we are paying zero dollars for the infrastructure work,” Juliano said.
Hall did note that he is concerned about the neighbors near the property, and said that the city should be responsive to their needs.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on other issues:
Davis, who lost to Pilozzi in 2009 by just 150 votes, has taken issue with the city’s investment in the Niawanda Park Pavilion, a project the mayor spearheaded. While Pilozzi said the project was a success and that the debt service was paid off within just four months, Davis said the build shouldn’t have been a priority.
“I equate it to putting an underground pool in your backyard when your foundation is crumbling,” he said.
Davis said that the maintenance and utility costs need to be taken into account, and that the city needs a marketing plan for the structure to increase rentals during the week.
But Pilozzi argued it has been rented out 182 times until the end of 2013, and that the building serves as an asset to attract people to the city.
“It has been a big success,” he said.
Brunner and Gilbert discussed ongoing flooding issues in the First Ward, which, per the sewer revamping plan, won’t be completely corrected until 2015. Work is first taking place near Spaulding Fiber and the Little League Drive property to allow for the developments to take place.
“2015 was always the target,” Gilbert said. “Businesses create more sewage than a home.”
In response, Brunner said his basement flooded multiple times this summer and argued that the problem should be corrected.
“I’m definitely not alone,” he said. “This never happened before. Who’s been holding down the fort?”
Two newcomers, Smilinich and Juliano, debated People Inc.’s proposal to develop the former Highland Elementary School into 38 multi-use, low-income apartments. The city zoning board has denied a variance request from the organization.
Smilinich argued that a traffic study should be completed to ensure that nearby residents’ quality of life isn’t impacted.
“There are too many residents having to put up with it,” she said.
But Juliano said that the property is not providing anything to the city, and that the construction and redevelopment will benefit the city.
“The grass and trees will be maintained, and it will bring more people to the city, which is the goal. I’m for the project,” he said.
The district has recently sold another vacant school, Central, despite an effort to develop the building into a community center.
“We could have made it into one of the best community buildings in the area,” Slisz, the incumbent, said, noting that Tonawanda currently does not have a center for the residents.
But Hall said that the building needed too many repairs, including plumbing work, to be created into a center.
“It’s not handicapped accessible and there are no elevators,” he said. “To complete that construction on a building so old would be very expensive.”
Both Jopp and Koch said the city should be pressing Tonawanda Coke to stay in line with environmental regulations.
“We need to be staying on them,” Jopp said.
Koch agreed and said the potential fines from the sentencing of the corporation should go back to local residents.
“These residents need peace of mind that their health isn’t going to be harmed by Tonawanda Coke,” she said.
Erie County Legislature
Republican Incumbent Kevin Hardwick and Democrat Bill Conrad are facing off for the Erie County Legislature’s fourth district seat. Hardwick noted that during his watch, there have been no tax increases and the body has begun working together again. In response, Conrad said the legislature is in need of new, fresh ideas, and that the body should look more closely at the budget to eliminate wasted resources.
The candidates were also questioned about a lawsuit, in which Republicans attempted to get Conrad tossed off the ballot on an election law technicality. Conrad called the suit “frivolous,” and noted that judges decided that a postal worker mis-stamped the date on the late paperwork.
“They didn’t want opposition,” Conrad said.
But Hardwick argued that the challenge is part of the race, and said he has accepted the ruling and moved on.
Contact reporterJessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley