Turnaround focus of Jeannette race
Richard Jacobelli said he can save the city of Jeannette if he's elected mayor by keeping tight fiscal control and taking small, steady steps forward.
Mayor Robert Carter maintains the city is just “one break away” from a financial turnaround.
Jacobelli and Carter are vying for the Democratic nomination in the May 21 primary in a race that will help to determine what happens in the beleaguered city during the next four years. No Republicans are on the ballot.
City officials are trying to avoid being declared financially distressed under Act 47, the Pennsylvania Municipal Recovery Act, and having the state take control. Unable to meet its $350,000 pension obligation due last year, the city began the year $500,000 in the red. In addition, the city must pay a court-ordered award of more than $235,000 in damages and legal fees to a businessman.
Council cut costs by laying off five employees, instituting rolling layoffs for police officers and cutting city administrators' pay by 10 percent. Officials will raise revenue by refinancing a $2.9 million bond issue and selling a firetruck and two street sweepers.
Jacobelli contends city officials have done little to stem the tide of decline in the city of 9,600 residents.
“It was a devastating turnaround,” he said of the closing of several glass factories of national importance that employed a workforce of thousands. “The reason I'm so optimistic is that people forget Jeannette was once known as the ‘Glass City.' All people see now is a broken-down city.”
Both candidates grew up in the city and graduated from Jeannette High School.
Jacobelli graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics and moved to California to work for Western Airlines, which later merged with Delta. He retired in 2005 and returned to Jeannette, where he bought the home he grew up in.
Carter was elected mayor in 2010. He served on council from 2000-08.
He believes an economic recovery is in the near future.
“It's not a dying town,” Carter said. “Everybody wants to say that and beat me up in the social media.”
But more problems are on the horizon.
Pay cuts and layoffs for city workers and rolling layoffs for police officers haven't resulted in a major savings. The city is paying police officers more in overtime, and changes in property tax collection procedures have stalled the tax revenue flow.
“Overtime is killing us,” Jacobelli said.
He said he doesn't understand council's reluctance to hire a private trash contractor or why the city needs a paid fire department. He believes the city could staff an all-volunteer force.
He said the city needs a professional manager, which the state has recommended but council ignored.
“If we can get the budget under control with a city manager, the recommendations will have to be swift and fast. They need a good dose of tough love, a wake-up call,” Jacobelli said. “No one's made an effort to at least try.”
Carter, a paid fireman for years, opposes abolishing the fire department.
“We're just one act away from improving,” he said. “We've come a long way.”
He points to the expansion of the Elliott Co., which produces turbomachinery, and the growth of OMNOVA, which makes polymers and specialty chemicals, as signs that businesses have not lost faith in the city.
Jeannette's problems aren't unique among the state's Third Class Cities — a declining tax base and no space for commercial or residential development. Only 3.3 square miles and landlocked, Jeannette has to work with the space it has, Carter said.
That makes the development of the former Jeannette District Memorial Hospital and Monsour Medical Center crucial to improving the city's tax base, he said.
If Excela Health demolishes the former Jeannette hospital, the 14-acre property could be redeveloped, city and county officials have said. The condemned Monsour Medical Center, the gateway property into Jeannette from Route 30, also is targeted for redevelopment.
“Development means tax dollars,” Carter said. “We're working on a tough budget this past four years. I've worked hard to improve the quality of life in our city.”
Jacobelli said he respects Carter for running for a position that few wanted to take on.
“There is no silver bullet to fix our financial situation,” Jacobelli said. “But with diligent oversight of city business, I honestly believe steady improvements will be made. All that's necessary is making the right choices.”
Carter contends the city is making the right choices by working to develop the former Jeannette Glass property, raze the Monsour Medical Center and find a use for the former Jeannette hospital. All are critical to the city's future, he said.
“We're just a break away from something huge happening,” he said.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.