Tonawanda News — One candidate is seeking to reverse years of Republican control, the other wants to continue on to a second term.
Republican Mayor Rob Ortt, 34, who swept into power with a decided edge over a Democratic incumbent for his first term, will now face Democrat Janet Zehr, 73, a retired North Tonawanda science teacher who has had two unsuccessful bids for public office since 2009.
The two will faceoff tonight during a debate sponsored by the Tonawanda News and the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.
While Ortt has cited a volley of development projects in his nearly four years as mayor, a 17 percent reduction in the city workforce and a budget that held the line on taxes for three years, Zehr said she will seek to reduce the mayorship to a part-time position, use a portion of the city’s reserves for short-term tax decreases and push for changes at what she termed a City Hall lacking in transparency.
Ortt beat out incumbent Mayor Larry Soos in 2009 after winning a seat as the city’s clerk-treasurer and served in Afghanistan as a member of the Army National Guard. He has a background in financial advisement.
Zehr, who lost to Eric Zadzilka in 2009 for the city’s Third Ward seat and a seat on the Niagara County Legislature against Paul Wojtaszek in 2011, retired from the North Tonawanda Middle School in 2001, has had a stint on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, is active in her church and serves as an officer in a teacher’s sorority and as secretary of the Buffalo Astronomical Society.
In lengthy interviews conducted by the News this week, both touched on their views regarding development, the city’s $3 million fund balance, goverment control and the future of North Tonawanda.
Taxes and fund balance
While Ortt said he has held the line on taxes each of the last three years, with a budget proposal for 2014 heading to a vote after the Nov. 5 elections, the issue of a fund balance has come to the forefront in recent weeks as part of the Democratic platform and the release of Ortt’s 2014 budget proposal.
Ortt’s proposal to use $2 million of a $5 million surplus next year to keep taxes from rising was criticized by Zehr, who said she believes at least a portion of the remaining $3 million be considered for property tax breaks or a reduction in water and sewer usage fees. Ortt countered that the New York State Comptroller’s Office recommended the city keep at $1.5 million to $2 million in city reserves and that the city should be conservative on how it spends it surplus.
Zehr noted that in her view the city should better-prioritize how it spends its money, including more of a focus on the city’s antiquated infrastructure, though Ortt said that the city has paved the majority of its main roads during the last three years, and has introduced a 2014 plan to begin focusing on the city’s water and sewer lines.
Zehr attacked Ortt for taking credit for a rash of development projects completed during his first term that were launched during the Soos administration.
But Ortt said that while he agrees Walmart, the Remington Lofts and portions of the Webster Street redevelopment were started under previous administrations, the push to close the deals and bring them to fruition were largely his doing. He also cited the redevelopment of the Lumberjacks Patio Grill property and the surrounding marina just south of Gratwick-Riverside Park as entirely his initiative.
Zehr said the disheveled Oliver Street corridor has been largely ignored, and would require more attention from the city to draw business there.
“If you want to attract business you have to clean it up,” she said.
But Ortt said the city has applied for state funding to begin facade improvements, a venture modeled after the early resuscitation of Webster Street, which is now beginning to bustle. He also pointed to the development at the Buffalo Bolt Business Park, the use of Gratwick-Riverside Park for concerts and several new business in the downtown corridor.
Ortt said he has reduced the city’s workforce by 17 percent in under four years, saving the city $2.3 million in the process, though Zehr said he hasn’t gone far enough in addressing his own department, criticizing him for using both a personal assistant and secretary.
Zehr said she would eliminate at least one of those positions, instead dipping into a “secretarial pool” and look at reducing the mayor’s role to a part-time position, a charter once installed in the city but changed under Democratic control. Zehr said she would also not accept health care if elected as she is retired and already has benefits.
“You still have about a million dollars that could be used,” she said, of the potential to use part of the fund balance for tax and utility reductions.
Ortt, however, countered that at a time when the city is making headway, employees closely linked to the inner-workings of the city allow him to utilize what he described as a hands-on approach that requires him to “go beyond the desk” and become personally involved in “problem-solving and development.”
“I go all out,” he said. “I’m putting my heart and soul into this job. I love what I do. The proof is in the pudding.”
He added: “I never saw my predecessor take an active lead. He seemed content to lay back.”
Transparency and control
Zehr and her Democratic counterparts have accused Ortt and the Republican council of holding short public meetings, organizing backroom deals and relying on the financial and political prowess of state Sen. George Maziarz to gain control of city governance, a claim Ortt dismissed as a ongoing Democratic tactic of portraying “George Maziarz as the boogeyman.”
“They all work on the same page,” Zehr said of the Republicans controlling city government. “But there’s no debate. I think there needs to be another voice.”
Ortt said that Republican control of the council and the mayorship was more a product of “putting up good candidates who go out and work” than an organized power grab.
Zehr, however, said she would stand as conduit of opposition to the Republican Party, which has controlled both the mayorship and the council during the last two election cycles, while she would push for opening up government to lengthier public discussions. She also cited the Republican efforts to control minor party lines, including the traditional Democratic strongholds of the Working Families and Independence parties.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have only one party for any length of time,” she said. “If you do you eventually get corruption.”
Ortt said the work session meetings held biweekly in City Hall open to the public are where the bulk of discussions are held among he and the council, adding that members of the North Tonawanda Democratic Party rarely attended any meetings.
Police and dispatch
Zehr said she would look to add to the number of police officers on the city’s force and attempt to return dispatchers to the city after Ortt’s initiative to consolidate the department with Niagara County was successfully put into place. She also cited consistent crime along Oliver Street, and elsewhere, as reasons to bolster the number of officers and look to use the county’s not-yet-completed emergency backup center planned for a portion of the North Tonawanda Fire Department headquarters, adding that response times have slowed, a point that could not be independently verified.
“They need the tools to do their jobs,” she said.
Ortt said, like any resident, he would like to see more officers on the street but said with rising pension and health care costs and the desire to remain “fiscally responsible” as the focus shifts to infrastructure and business, the city must make due with what it has. He noted that one officer was added to the force last year to bring the department to a total of 47 employees.
“It works,” he said. “We could use the surplus to add officers. But when the surplus is gone, it’s gone.”
He added that the June 2012 move to merge the police dispatch with the county was an attempt to bring down costs at a time when the city would have to acquire an expensive new dispatch system.North Tonawanda debates WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tonight. WHERE: Spruce Elementary School, 195 Spruce Street. WHO: Mayoral, Council candidates.