Connellsville's financial troubles dominate forum
Three mayoral candidates and two city council candidates shared their opinions with the public on issues facing Connellsville with the primary election 30 days away.
Held Monday at the Carnegie Free Library, the Connellsville City Candidates Forum, sponsored by the Daily Courier, showcased the candidates for mayor including incumbent Charles Matthews, Greg Lincoln and Joshua DeWitt, all Democrats. Joining them were the candidates for an open seat on city council — incumbent Democrat Tom Karpiak and Republican Aaron Zolbrod.
Bob Burke, editor at the Valley Independent in Monessen, provided the five candidates eight questions gathered from Daily Courier readers.
Each candidate had 90 seconds to answer each question, many of which were related to the city's recent financial troubles.
“The city has faced some financial setbacks in past years, including only being able to pay off the interest last year on a tax-anticipation loan as well as issues involving earned income tax,” Burke said. “Do you have ideas on how this can be avoided in the future?”
“First of all, we have paid off that tax anticipation loan,” said Matthews, adding that there's a new tax-anticipation loan this year, which is higher than last year's loan.
Matthews said the main reason they needed the loan was because of the state mandating the city's taxes go to one collector and they weren't receiving money from the previous tax collector.
He added that he really couldn't say how the situation will be avoided, that the city will look for revenue other than raising taxes.
Lincoln said the way to avoid financial setbacks is to pass a realistic budget, noting the last four years of the budget had over-inflated revenues. For example, earned income tax was budgeted for $550,000; the city actually received approximately $445,000, he said.
Lincoln added that no other municipalities surrounding Connellsville have taken out a tax-anticipation loan and those who have had the money to pay it back and not had to take out a second loan to pay off the first loan.
DeWitt said debt is nothing new to a municipality or individuals, that it's not an issue of the city controlling debt, but handling debt.
He said he, as a businessman, has been associated with his uncle, Rodney Allen, who has had citations against him for many dilapidated buildings in the city. DeWitt used several occasions to separate himself from Allen.
“I tried to work with him, but we had a falling-out,” DeWitt said. “We can't pick who our relatives are.”
Karpiak said the situation with the changing of tax collectors was an unforeseen circumstance that could not be avoided. He added that he has done his part by coming in under budget with the street department every year.
“I have not spent money that people have clamored for me to spend,” Karpiak said. “I have spent man-hours and not overtime.”
Zolbrod said the city is in debt and it cannot keep borrowing money every year to balance the budget.
“I don't know where that money is going to come from, but we have to figure it out,” Zolbrod said. “If the bank tells us they're not going to loan us this money, we're going to end up in Act 47, folks.”
He added that if the city ends up in Act 47, while no council has raised taxes, the council will have no say in what the tax rate will be and what services will be trimmed, that it will be up to the state.
“How could you, as a city official, support ongoing efforts to bring a hotel / motel into the city?” Burke asked.
Matthews said he was in favor of a hotel / motel in the area before he and the rest of council started attending hotel-study meetings. He believes that placing a hotel at a Widewaters-owned, 3.4-acre property along Route 119 is an ideal place for a hotel in the city.
Lincoln said Cobblestone Inn and Suites of Wisconsin specializes in placing hotels into downtown areas, which would benefit Connellsville, and they visited three times with interest in building a hotel in the downtown area.
“It would be a game-changing thing for our city that we desperately need,” Lincoln said of the company's proposal of a 40-room hotel in downtown, adding that he didn't think the mayor or council met with the company and showed them what the city had to offer.
DeWitt said he would love to see a hotel in Connellsville, but preferred something along Route 119 where it can be seen.
Karpiak said he supports a hotel in the city, but said he has met with Cobblestone and saw drawbacks to putting a hotel in downtown, primarily the lack of parking for guests and the added costs of such a building if it would have to put an underground garage below the hotel, and getting PennDOT approval for it.
“That could take years and years and years,” Karpiak said, noting that the added costs to the project would be $7 million and Cobblestone also wants the city to pay $350,000 for the hotel. “Where are we going to get that?”
Zolbrod said it doesn't matter where the hotel goes, it needs to be in Connellsville.
He added that the city needs to roll out the red carpet for not only hotels, but all businesses and show them around for them to see what Connellsville has to offer.
Other questions asked by Burke included: Visions of the growth of the city's downtown and the city as a whole; thoughts on what can be done about dilapidated and abandoned properties; the future of the Connellsville Community Center; if they think there's a need to cut positions in the city and would they support a real estate tax increase; what are some positive things that can be said of the city; if they believe the city has a sufficient police presence and if a neighborhood watch group would ever be considered for the city.
To watch Monday's candidates forum in its entirety, tune into local Armstrong Cable channel at 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. April 29, May 1 and May 3.
Mark Hofmann is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3539 or email@example.com.