OSWEGO, NY – The three Oswego mayoral candidates faced a nearly full house Wednesday night at Oswego High School’s Faust Theatre.
Incumbent Tom Gillen was flanked on stage by Amy Tresidder, the Democratic candidate and Billy Barlow, the Republican candidate, as the trio fielded various questions about their age, economic development, housing, code enforcement and more.
Barlow replied to a question about his campaign failing to abide by campaign contribution guidelines. He admitted that some supporters had sent in donations that were too large. They were returned and the whole matter was disclosed, he said.
“We were notified by the State Board of Elections that the checks were in excess. I wasn’t trying to hide anything,” he explained. “We refunded the checks immediately. We disclosed that we refunded the checks.”
Gillen, who is running as a write-in candidate, was asked why he didn’t seek to force a (Democratic) primary.
“I don’t have a lot of time to do that. This position, despite of what people may think, is a full-time position and I mean seven days a week,” he said.
Collecting signatures puts you in a position where you kind of owe certain people, he added.
“Quite honestly, that’s why this city is in the position that it’s been in for several decades now,” he said. “I’m trying to change that. I really don’t want to play politics. And, I don’t have to.”
Tresidder was questioned about what meaningful change she has brought about as a legislator.
When the county is looking to purchase new vehicles, she asks whether it is more cost-effective to buy a new vehicle or continue to maintain current vehicles.
No one had really looked into it that way, she noted.
“I requested that vehicle maintenance records and repair records be included in all purchase requests for all new vehicles,” she said. “Some of those records are quite thick. But, I think it’s important when you’re spending taxpayers’ dollars that you know exactly why you’re spending what you’re spending.”
If elected, Barlow would be the city’s youngest mayor. He was asked if at his age he had the experience to be mayor.
“I hope that instead of just looking at the actual number 25, take a moment and think about who I am as an individual,” he replied. “I started my own business in the state of Arizona (while attending college). That business was successful enough; I actually bought my first house in the state of Arizona before I graduated college.”
He returned to Oswego and expanded his third-generation family business into Western New York. He was elected to the Common Council and also works with state lawmakers.
“We need to get past this whole age issue,” he said.
The city’s population has dipped slightly while the tax rate has risen about 55 percent. The candidates were asked how they’d fix the problem of fewer people paying more taxes.
“The greatest source of revenue for the city of Oswego is sales tax revenue,” Tresidder pointed out. “That is where we need growth. We need to support our businesses. We need to get people coming here. We have to support our businesses, our small businesses because that is the future. The people in this city cannot tolerate higher taxes.”
“You can’t tax your way into prosperity, you grow your way into prosperity,” Gillen said. “What we did two years ago (large tax hike) was a reality check. We were in trouble, real big trouble. At this point in time I am proud to say we have gotten off the distressed list for cities. Our sales tax revenue has increased significantly, people are shopping locally. Our assessed value is up. Not because we raised taxes; because there is more value in our neighborhoods now.”
“The answer is to not only attract more people to shop … but to live in the city of Oswego,” Barlow said. “I believe in neighborhoods and neighborhood revitalization.”
Better code enforcement is needed to improve the neighborhoods, he said, adding that the city has a serious lack in code enforcement. As mayor, he would restore the code enforcement department.
What would the candidates do to keep the taxes below five percent without any layoffs of lose of services?
Barlow said he is “perfectly comfortable” with the process of putting it to a public vote if the increase is above five percent.
“I would sit down with department heads and talk about ways to cut waste,” Tresidder said. “The people that do the work in this city can identify the waste. That has to be done. Streamlining is crucial.”
“We go through the budget line by line. It is open to the public, very few people show up – those of you who do, thanks for coming,” the mayor said. “We put our department heads through a lot of stress cutting and cutting. While you do that you also have to be responsible; provide the best service.”
The five percent cap may sound great, he said, but it’s also a hindrance.
“The problem with this is that we have to have the budget in place in the summer time because if we do have to ask the voters … we’d have to go to a public referendum. So basically we are trying to anticipate what our expenses are going to be, what our revenues are going to be when we really don’t know,” he explained.
Should the city eliminate its ambulance service and allow a private service to take over?
“The city of Oswego generates net revenue from its ambulance,” Gillen said. “If we get out of the ambulance business we could lose upwards of a half million dollars a year in revenue.”
The ambulance is a scapegoat to the real underlying problem, Barlow said.
“My stance is identify the overtime the city can live without because overtime typically goes to the more senior members of the fire department. When they retire, that’s a legacy cost we pay them for years and years.”
“It’s hard to put a cost on public safety,” Tresidder said. “I would look at the cost of the ambulance service, whatever those costs consist of, but you cannot jeopardize the city residents to make a stand. Look at the numbers and then you make a decision. I would not jeopardize public safety. That’s the bottom line.”
All three said they’d work to entice new businesses to locate in the Port City
Promoting small business is something the city needs to do better, Tresidder said.
“Value what we have. We have a lot to offer,” she said.
“Our downtown is a gem. It’s a walking downtown, that’s what people like,” Gillen said. “That’s what makes a city a community.”
Some people want to invest but are hesitant to do so because of the red tape, Barlow noted. “We need to make it a welcoming process,” he said.
Barlow’s idea for code enforcement would be to “identify and attack that one or two properties on the block that plummet property values.”
“I would definitely hold landlords accountable. When you live in a city that is almost 50 percent rentals that’s not the recipe for growth,” Tresidder said. “It invites crime and it does not provide for pride in our community. We owe our taxpayers better.”
“We have been attempting to do that. It’s not a simple matter of blighted buildings or homes,” Gillen said. “We have to look at the reality of we do have a diminished population. We have a real problem with quality housing in this community. It’s going to take a while to clear this up.”
The candidates also explained how they would go about reducing overtime in city departments, how they’d improve code enforcement and how they’d improve the roads.
All three agreed that the winter alternate parking plan didn’t work. The overnight parking ban seems to be the favored method to allow the DPW to snowplow the roads without such a hardship on residents.
“We need to take advantage of all our assets. We need to grow our community into a place that people want to stay,” Tresidder said. “It’s a great community. We have a lot of things that we can do.”
People deserve something in return for their taxes, she added.
“In the last four years we’ve seen a lot of change. We’ve seen dramatic change,” the mayor said. “We’re getting better all the time.”
“I wouldn’t run for mayor if I didn’t think that I could be the mayor that this city needs at this time,” Barlow said. “I feel like I’ve been effective (as a councilor) and I hope to be even more effective for the residents of the city should I be given the chance to be the mayor.”