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3 seek pair of Connellsville City Council seats

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 7:03 p.m.
Aaron Zolbrod
Tom Karpiak seeks city council position
Connellsville resident and businesswomen Johanna Harden is seeking a seat on Connellsville City Council.

Two Connellsville City Council seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 General Election.

Three candidates are vying for the two seats.

Incumbent Tom Karpiak, 57, is seeking his second term.

Newcomers Aaron Zolbrod, 42, and Johanna Harden, are also vying for the seats.

The three candidates responded to several questions presented by the Daily Courier involving the city's operations.

QUESTION: Connellsville has seen some financial difficulties over the past year or so. What avenues do you think council can take to improve the city's financial outlook?

• Karpiak: “To be honest, it hasn't been the past year or so. When I was first elected, we inherited a $350,000 debt and it had been going on some time before that. To make matters worse, a tax collection agency we were using shut down. When we get together for the budget meetings, I'm sure that all avenues will be on the table and examined. As for my budget with the public works department, I have come in at and below budget every year.”

• Zolbrod: “The problem is not just what actions council can take to improve the city's financial outlook. It is what it did not do in the past years to plan for the future. As more people are learning, the city is facing the possibility of not being able to meet payroll as soon as November or December of this year. In 2007 the city was warned in a Pennsylvania Early Intervention Program of this impending problem. That report stated that the city used strategies that ‘mask the core structural deficit and had only served to prolong dealing with the financial crisis facing the city.' It also stated these strategies were ‘unsustainable.' The last four years, the current council has voted to pass budgets that inflated revenues that were impossible to reach and that had never been reached in years past. Instead of facing the problem head-on and warning the citizens of Connellsville, they failed to plan and ignored it even when warned on numerous occasions by our city treasurer. In fact, they once again masked the problems by taking out a loan that was necessary to run day-to-day business of the city disguised as a Tax Anticipation Loan. For the record, tax anticipation loans are not used by any of our neighbors and are designed to get a city through until the majority of property tax revenue starts to come in around March. It should be paid off by May at the latest. The city has not paid one penny towards the principal of this loan yet. It may not have one penny to pay it when it becomes due on Dec. 31. Now we find ourselves in a true crisis that may not be averted without a dramatic increase in taxes, the borrowing of close to $1 million, or severe cuts in services, or possibly all three. This is unfortunate, but could have been avoided with better leadership and more responsible and realistic financial planning.

“As far as answering the question as it relates to what I will do if elected to council to try to avert the cash crisis the city faces, that has to be looked at both in the short and long term. Due to the cash problems we have to save money immediately. Because I believe it is not fair to raise taxes without first finding ways to cut spending, I would go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb. I would suggest all five members of council look at the budget independently and challenge them to find areas where the city is wasting money, to find what may be non-essential services, or to see where we could negotiate better deals or contracts. For example, the city leases its fire hydrants. The city currently pays right around $40,000 per year to the water company for that. I would immediately renegotiate that lease. The city spends over $100,000 per year paying for electricity for our street lights. This doesn't include what it costs for traffic lights. There has got to be a way to reduce that amount. Those are just two examples. I guarantee we can locate plenty of other areas to save money.

“Long-term, the city obviously has to increase revenue. The best way to do this without raising taxes is to bring in businesses that will pay gross receipts taxes like stores, restaurants, hotels, etc., as well as create more homeownership, which would increase our property tax revenue. In order to do that, first we need to make our city more attractive to the eye. I don't know of many potential business owners or corporations who want to open up shop in the middle of, or next to empty, abandoned, or crumbling buildings. The same holds true for potential families looking to relocate to our area. We have so many houses that are not being lived in or that are eyesores. It's common sense that people are not going to move their family into a neighborhood that has houses with broken or boarded windows. We also need to do a better job luring people off the bike trail and into our stores and restaurants. Again, this comes back to making the city more appealing to the eye. If a bicyclist has never been to Connellsville and the first few buildings he or she sees are empty, abandoned, or worse, how far do you think that person is going to wander off the trail? We must make our business district, especially Crawford Avenue, west of the bridge to 119, appealing to people from out of town using the trail. We need to get them to open their wallets in Connellsville, not somewhere else.”

• Harden: “Connellsville needs to have realistic budgets based on past revenues. Costs such as pension funding, salaries, utilities, vehicle maintenance must be assessed, and then realistic viable funding sources must be found. Since the city has been amassing an ever-growing amount of debt, new revenue sources must be found.

“If new taxes are imposed on business, the tax may have an adverse effect on getting businesses to relocate to Connellsville, so I would be opposed to any new business tax.

“Many Connellsville citizens are retired, so raising property taxes would have an adverse effect on many property owners. However, many of Connellsville properties are income-generating rental properties, so I would look into a tiered tax system, such as the one in Parkersburg, W.Va., where multiple housing units are taxed at a higher level than single-family homes. An alternate idea would be to mandate rental property inspections.

“Connellsville must make certain that all revenue that can be collected is collected. Every department must look at productivity, not just hours worked.”

QUESTION: What steps do you think city council can take to help improve the downtown district?

• Karpiak: “Being that the downtown district is privately owned, there are only a few things we can do. One, stay out of their way. Two, maybe lighten the cost of doing business in this town. Maybe look into the elimination of the mercantile tax. We do so much to attract new business. Maybe we should look into helping businesses that are already here.”

• Zolbrod: “To expound, there is an empty building ordinance that was introduced by our health board over a year ago. It has never come up for a vote. It is modeled after and has some of the very same components as empty building ordinances that other cities in Western Pennsylvania are utilizing. Why in the world hasn't council addressed that? Empty buildings become dilapidated very quickly, decrease property value of not only the empty building and property, but also neighboring properties. They also can become a danger to the public and actually cause decreases in tax revenues for the city. We have excellent business locations in this city within a block of the bike trail that are sitting empty or being used for storage. We have to attempt to encourage the owners to either lease or sell those properties to others who want to take advantage of those great locations and open viable businesses.”

• Harden: “City council must enforce the current ordinances to keep properties maintained and clean. My time served on the health board has taught me that once a property slides into blight, it can take years to make a recalcitrant owner fix his property. The city needs to encourage investment in the city by assuring new or current owners an investment in a business will not result in declining property values. I have a particular peeve that many of our street lights are continually burnt out. I would advocate we work with West Penn Power to correct the situation of burnt-out city street lights. I would also make fixing the exterior lighting at city hall a priority.

QUESTION: During a recent council meeting, a debate occurred on the city's allocation of CDBG funds. What is your opinion? Where do you think CDBG monies should be used and how?

• Karpiak: “There are those who are happy with putting a $60,000 line item in the budget for New Haven. So now, instead of taking a legal CBDG expenditure and funding New Haven, it will come from the taxpayers (again). Remember CBDG money is our tax dollars also. I was glad Chief (Bob) Topper came and set the inaccurate information straight on how other communities deal with their fire equipment and CBDG money. If I would have known the truth about that before, I would not have voted to move the money. To ensure public safety, that can be and must be rectified again.”

• Zolbrod: “Let's be honest here, I was the one who started the debate about CDBG funds and the lack of what I felt was prioritizing how these funds have been spent this year and in the past. The bottom line is that this money is limited. It will be cut dramatically in the years to come and in all likelihood will not even be available to Third Class cities like Connellsville in as few as five years. This makes it even more important that it is spent as wisely as possible going forward. When it is time to make a decision on what CDBG money gets spent on, all five council members should make a list of what they deem to be the CDBG qualified projects they feel are most imperative to the city and list them in priority, one being most important and so on. The final decision needs to be based on what is best for the majority of our residents. The council should announce their list to the public and let the community have more input into what they feel are the most vital projects. After that has been done, CDBG should only be spent on projects deemed to be absolutely most important and necessary. I don't feel the current council until this year has even come close to taking the community's input into account. It was only after I pressed them and presented many facts and research that they reconsidered giving the majority of the available funds to one single entity. In my opinion, the city's number one problem after our financial instability is our unsightly empty buildings and houses. That is where the majority of money needs to be spent, in my opinion.”

• Harden: “The CDBG program has specific guidelines on how and where the money should be allocated. One of the mandates of CDBG funds is to benefit low to moderate income citizens of the community and public hearings must be held so that citizens can voice their opinions on how to spend the funds. So it is not up to one individual to determine where CDBG monies are to be spent, but the community should decide how to spend the funds. Community involvement has been lacking in determination of CDBG spending in the past and I would like to make public hearings more timely and encourage citizen involvement. It is the community that should decide where those funds are spent.”

QUESTION: Do you have any ideas on how the city can control blight?

• Karpiak: “Stay the course, keep doing what we are doing. Safety and code enforcement officers have responded to 387 calls have 97 active violation files and have done six demolitions that is all this year. There is still work to be done. You don't clean up 30 years of neglect overnight but we are getting the upper hand on it. Marilyn Weaver, the health board and Tom Curry is to be commended. And let's not forget about the responsible citizens who have stepped up, bought properties, fixed them up, put them back on the tax rolls and made them viable again.”

• Zolbrod: “I think I have talked about the blight quite a bit. Again to elaborate, as a city we need to send the following message to absentee property owners and deadbeat landlords. When you ignore your property and leave our residents and kids to look at your trashy buildings it is a slap in the face to all who live here. It is disrespectful and it will no longer be tolerated. I would make sure our current codes are being enforced to the letter of the law for those who are disrespecting Connellsville. I would suggest the city research how we could create stronger codes that would discourage anyone from attempting to keep our city from moving in a positive direction by not keeping up a respectable building or home. I would suggest the city do this by any legal means necessary.”

• Harden: “I would urge Connellsville to adopt a blight ordinance similar to what exists in other cities that are facing similar issues. Properties that are not being maintained, attract illegal activity, pose a risk of serious fire hazard, or have a detrimental effect on properties values would be considered blighted. Serious daily fines would be imposed on recurring properties. Another good tool for controlling blight is to establish a land bank and take control of abandoned properties, and facilitate redevelopment of said properties.”

QUESTION: What ideas do you have that could help the city move forward to bring more people, money and businesses into the town?

• Karpiak: “We have needed a hotel in this town forever; now, we may be getting two. This will aid us greatly in our recreational promotions. Remember we have two million visitors 18 miles away connected by our beautiful bike trail in Ohiopyle. Also for sporting events such as baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling tournaments that go on all the time, but not here because we did not have a place for people to stay. If you get people coming here, that's a start to getting some of their money. In a bad economy, everybody needs a inexpensive date. We can be that. And as for business, we have been a business-friendly council from day one. We enacted LERTA, sold properties and buildings for new business here in town, not to mention all the small businesses we have attracted to the community center. If re-elected, I will continue to work in this fashion. As corny as it may sound, I know I do not work for the City of Connellsville but for the citizens of Connellsville.”

• Zolbrod: “Everything comes back to repairing our city's image by approving its appearance. It's that simple. You can read all my previous answers again to see what is necessary to bring more businesses and homeowners into town. Nearly all the city's problems begin and end with our blight and empty properties. Let's again be honest. Let's say for example a family were transferred to the area from out of state for work and possibly looking to open a business. Let's assume for sake of argument they have never been here before. If they drove through the main streets of Scottdale, Mt. Pleasant, and Connellsville, where do you think that family would decide to raise their family and move their business if it was simply based on appearance of the town? We have to get to the place where the answer would be easy, Connellsville. Let's remember that we have what those towns don't, one of the cleanest and most beautiful rivers in Pennsylvania and one of the greatest bike trails in the country. It can be done but only with the right leadership and vision.”

• Harden: “Connellsville has great potential to become a desirable retirement town. The city boasts beautiful homes in quiet neighborhoods and is very accessible to Pittsburgh for entertainment or specialized health care. The recreational attributes of the Laurel Highlands are in our backyard. We have the Youghiogheny River and the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail. We need to market our town to upper- and middle-income retirees that can afford to invest in housing, and have disposable income to support restaurants, shops, and service businesses.”

Marilyn Forbes is a contributing writer.

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