Mavrakis, Zynosky battling in Monessen mayoral race
Lou Mavrakis is back in full campaign mode.
After routing Monessen's incumbent Mayor Mary Jo Smith in the Democratic primary in May, Mavrakis will face off with Republican nominee Robert Zynosky Jr. on Nov. 5 in a general election race rarely seen in city politics.
A lifelong Monessen resident, Mavrakis, 75, said he couldn't recall another time when the Democratic nominee faced a November challenge.
“I've ran more elections with the steelworkers union in one month than these people did in their entire lives, so I do not take anything for granted,” Mavrakis said Tuesday. “I have a rally coming up the night before the election and I'm expecting 250 to 300 people to show up. ... I've been meeting with people day and night, and I won't stop until the day after the election.”
Retired more than two decades, Mavrakis, 75, worked at the Pittsburgh Steel and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel coke plant in Monessen before becoming an international representative for the United Steelworkers of America labor union.
On Tuesday, Mavrakis showed a picture of his younger self testifying before Congress over union issues. He cited experience in negotiations, knowledge of history and industry, and valuable contacts as his qualifications for public office.
He vows to accept no salary as a “full-time” mayor and to be constantly accessible to the public.
If elected, Mavrakis promises to immediately eliminate the city administrator position, currently held by John Harhai, and look into cutting salaries and other expenditures.
“The easiest thing in the world is to spend other people's money,” Mavrakis said. “You can't do that if you want to be responsible. I have some people willing to step up and volunteer their time and help the city out.”
Mavrakis said his biggest concern is trying to calculate the city's accumulated debt.
“With this administration, nobody knows exactly the amount of debt we're in or any contracts they've entered into and they're going to be left for me to unravel,” Mavrakis said.
“I've negotiated contracts for a living and I know there's no way you can ever pay out more than you take in.”
Mavrakis' revitalization plan starts with eliminating blighted homes, which lower property values. As mayor, Mavrakis said he can convince Westmoreland County officials to release 275 insolvent city properties and give them to neighboring owners for free.
Those owners can then either rehabilitate the homes or replace with a garage, garden or other function, he said.
If individual property owners turn down the offer, Mavrakis said he wants residents, block by block, to take on those properties as a group project.
The third option, he said, is local contractors taking ownership of the properties.
“You can take it, rehabilitate and rent it out, but this way, we'll keep it within the community,” he explained. “If that doesn't work, then we put (those properties) on the docket to be tore down.”
Mavrakis claims all three county commissioners agree with his plan, adding: “The city has no business being in the real estate business.”
Mavrakis said solving the city's problem with drugs and speeding drivers is paramount. He also wants city police officers to meet personally with groups of Monessen students and “let them know police are their friends and not their enemies.”
Lastly, he wants to offer sports programs at the downtown Civic Center free of cost, instead of charging $40 per hour like this administration.” Mavrakis said he has the volunteers lined up to execute that plan.
In addition, Mavrakis has handpicked a 12-person advisory committee he said consists of a “cross-section” of city residents that varies in gender, race, age and political affiliation.
He said the committee will operate independently of the mayor's office, discussing local issues and offering suggestions.
Mavrakis also wants to form a local coalition of mayors to confront Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., and demand financial help for former industrial communities like Monessen.
“These are the very communities that built this country ... and what did they do? They abandoned us,” Mavrakis said of the federal government.
“You look at Monessen, Aliquippa, Ambridge, Duquesne, Donora – all blighted. Every morning we give foreign aid to other countries. You mean to say they can't help us out?
“I will do anything and negotiate with anybody, as long as it will benefit the people I represent. This is what I did for a living. This is what I do well.”
When asked about recent challenges from Zynosky, Mavrakis fired back, contrasting his primary vote count (1,224) with Zynosky's (90).
“Mary Jo (Smith) and I duked it out, and through the course of the campaign, nobody heard from him. He never opened his mouth and now he wants to shoot his mouth off,” Mavrakis said.
“The people of Monessen spoke loud and clear. They liked my ideas and my agenda.
“We brought the community together in that primary, and now we have (Zynosky) dividing the community again.”
Conversely, Zynosky said he's stepped up his critique after attending several city council meetings where Mavrakis and allies have lambasted Smith during public comment sessions.
“What I've noticed is there's a lot of bitterness and personal vendettas,” Zynosky said.
“At the meetings, we're talking about tall grass growing and building concession stands and meanwhile, we're staring down a financial barrel. ... A couple of bad moves and the state could take us over.”
Zynosky fears debt will force Monessen to turn to Act 47, or the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, where municipalities receive state assistance and possibly declare bankruptcy.
“You can't come in and say ‘Save our city!' without a plan,” Zynosky said, referring to Mavrakis' campaign slogan.
“You have to have a plan and a legitimate one. We have to get our spending in order as part of that plan.
“I didn't agree with many of (Smith's) decisions, but our budget is going to be the same whether we keep blaming her or not. ... The decline of Monessen did not just happen over the last four years.”
Zynosky, 49, is a registered nurse and marketing executive with Gallagher Home Care in Carnegie. He cited more than 20 years experience as an operations manager for News Group, a large regional wholesaler, as giving him a developed business sense and ability to evaluate and manage people.
“The city is in financial straits. With the last two bonds we floated, they were expecting this Monessen Rising project to go through and work,” Zynosky said.
“Well it didn't go through, so it can't work. We're at a crossroads.
“We have a constantly declining tax base and we're not replacing those people. At the rate we're going now, we're going to have to reduce our budget progressively.”
Zynosky said the key for increasing revenue is attracting new businesses and industry to the city, using Greenfield Energy and Douglas Education Center as “anchors.”
Both he and Mavrakis have promised not to raise property taxes.
“Our budget is approximately $5.5 million and our tax base is approximately $4.4 million,” he said. “The remaining $1.1 million is made up through CDBG and fuel money, but those are all earmarked for different projects. You can't use (grant) money that's earmarked for parks. You either use it for parks or you don't get it.”
Zynosky has repeatedly said he personally respects his opponent but questions the validity of his plans, such as Mavrakis forming an advisory committee and desire to hand blighted properties over to residents.
“My advisory committee will be the members of council: Josh (Retos), Patty (Bukowski), John (Nestor) and Lucille (D'Alfonso) — all of which the citizens of Monessen have chosen to represent them,” Zynosky said.
“Lou's been saying we'll give the houses away when they're in county repository and have to go out for bid. ... And where are these (residents) supposed to get the money to clean them up or tear them down?
“One-liners might please the crowd, but that does not make them feasible.”
From a historical perspective, Zynosky faces a daunting task: becoming Monessen's first Republican mayor since Carl Woodward in the late 1920s.
However, Zynosky said he's counting on voters who may have “buyer's remorse” after voting for Mavrakis — or against Smith — in the May primary.
“The upcoming election is not about being a Democrat or Republican, it's about who is best qualified to make sound decisions for Monessen's future,” Zynosky said.
“There are so many staunch Democrats I've talked to that can't fathom voting for a Republican. ... I keep telling them: ‘You actually have a choice in November and you haven't had this choice in 90 years.'”
Bukowski and Nestor, who defeated incumbents Dr. Martin Dudas and Bill Manus in May for the two city council seats, are running unopposed.
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.