Next Tuesday, Democratic and Republican voters in Elyria will head to the ballot box and narrow the pool of mayoral candidates from four to two - one Democrat and one Republican.
Democratic challenger Holly Brinda is trying for the second time to unseat Mayor Bill Grace while Republican David Ursi Jr. hopes to best Ray Noble, chairman of the Elyria Republican Party, to make it to the November ballot.
We asked readers what they wanted to know, and we posed those questions to the candidates.
Do you feel the concentration on beautification has paid off for Elyria?
BRINDA: The city's appearance matters, but the antiquated practice of relying on appearance as a means of pumping up commerce does not work. Aesthetics alone cannot create a human presence on the sidewalks of our downtown. The best use of the city's limited cash would be developing a business strategy (see brindaformayor.com) to create central masses of people, ideas, products, services and activities that promote growth and trade. The key element is activity. Take care of activity and aesthetics will take care of itself. A more lenient design review process will help create more business activity.
GRACE: Those of us who have lived in Elyria for many years become immune to the visual appearance of our city. People who visit Elyria infrequently can hardly help but notice our visual shortcomings. Impressions matter, and usually you can't get past that first impression. Beautification efforts while I have been mayor have largely been reflected in roadway landscaping, flower baskets and architectural design review. Our often poor visual appearance didn't go bad overnight and it will not be remedied overnight, but we are making steady progress toward being a more visually appealing and inviting community for families and businesses.
NOBLE: No. I see no benefit from it.
URSI: No, there are many things that make our city look bad in the eyes of others. We should know better because this is our city. Yet, there are things that need to be addressed and the No. 1 thing is crime. I don't think we need a fancy city to look good - just clean and well-maintained. This means simple things like picking up trash and filling potholes. Our infrastructure needs to be well-maintained, too. Preventative maintenance needs to be applied. Service people are giving us hours worth of work that we are paying for.
If you are elected mayor, what are your plans to bring new companies and businesses to Elyria to strengthen our local economy?
BRINDA: To compete, Elyria must better position itself in the region. We have assets the region needs: advanced manufacturing - including renewable solar, biomass and fuel cell energy manufacturing - vacant land, and green space. I will use these assets to reinforce relationships with economic development organizations; encourage a countywide economic development plan; nurture business clusters; use the city's website to link companies and entrepreneurs; create a one-stop shop for business to help with financing options, real estate opportunities, tax incentives, and workforce development; publicize market spillover opportunities to suppliers; provide technology infrastructure through a public/private partnership; foster more business districts; redefine the design review; and market Elyria.
GRACE: While serving as mayor, the city has been extremely successful at retaining existing companies as well as assisting others to locate here. We accomplish this by having a customer service attitude and we assist them in attaining city services as well as state and federal assistance. Elyria was largely built on industry that looked for access to transportation that included rail and highway. Growing businesses today are often more discerning and usually demand a high quality community that has a safe environment, good schools, roads and parks and is visually appealing. Attending to these details is my priority.
NOBLE: We are going to have to partner with other local mayors and form partnerships. We are going to have to go to these companies and talk to them, go to Columbus and maybe even go to Washington, D.C., and tell them why they should come here. You have to go out and ask people for what you want. It will not come to you.
URSI: We can't twist their arms. We can offer tax breaks to be here to hire citizens. We have the people they are looking for. People in Elyria are trained, skilled and just looking for an opportunity to earn a good income.
What plan do the candidates have to make sure that our children have places to go and activities to do that keep them out of trouble and off of the streets? How will funds be reallocated to allow recreation centers to stay open and community programs to be reinstated?
BRINDA: I will create a partnership for youth led by leaders from government, education, business, healthcare, nonprofits and the faith-based community. Their task will be to inventory current programming and pool collective resources to fill in gaps with new programming designed to meet the needs of Elyria's youth through the arts, recreation, summer jobs and combined youth and senior programming. Revenue to open recreation centers and pools may be realized through shared service agreements with partnership participants, a temporary shared service agreement with the Metro Parks, and cost-savings through city department audits, an energy audit, and by working with employee groups.
GRACE: There are many places where children can go for recreation including our recreation centers and parks, the Boys & Girls Club and our public and private schools. Some offerings are free while others have reasonable fees. The best way for the city to be able to maintain these programs is to continue to look for ways to provide them in more cost effective ways. Also, we need to reduce the cost of city programs in other departments so as to free up funds for these and other priorities that include street maintenance and police protection.
NOBLE: We will have to look for it in the budget to help nonprofit organizations and recreational centers. I think it can be in the budget.
URSI: This is where men and fathers can make a big difference in a child's life. There are a lot that do already but we need all fathers. There are men that spend quality time with kids that are not their own. This is good. I do. We have many churches that want to do good for these kids and reach out to the fathers and give them a place and opportunity to be with their kids. It does not take a lot of money to have a good time with kids. I will take a lead on this as mayor at the city level and do the things I am already doing with kids.
What do you plan to do with the firefighters who were just hired when the stimulus money is gone?
BRINDA: Elyria needs to provide the personnel, resources, equipment and training necessary to provide efficient and effective fire protection, medical emergency response care, and reduce fire hazards. I have read the McGrath fire audit from 2009. The number of personnel will be determined through additional discussions and negotiations. With the upcoming expiration of the SAFER Grant, we should be looking for ways to protect our investment in the 23 firefighters that are now on the job. I will examine different revenue-generating models and will continue to examine various options to provide the best and most affordable service to taxpayers.
GRACE: In 2009, the city conducted a management study of the Fire Department and among the findings was that 56 firefighters would appropriately staff the department for a city of our needs. In addition to the 23 firefighters that are paid from this grant, the city is funding 52 out of the general fund. It is our intention, when the grant expires next year, to trim the department staff level down to the 56 firefighters that the management study recommended.
NOBLE: By the time the stimulus money is gone, a few firefighters will retire and we can save a few newly hired firefighters with that. Also, there are several city programs that will end and that money can be devoted to the Fire Department.
URSI: This is more of an inside question. I would hate to see them go. I trust they were needed. I would try to keep them and make a real effort to do so. Talk to anyone who is laid off, the money is not there to keep them employed despite their willingness to work. Sometimes things are out of our reach at the present time. Yet, things will get better in the future.
Why do we need longevity pay for people elected to their jobs? Is it an expense we can do without?
BRINDA: Longevity for elected city officials in Elyria will be eliminated with the next election. The mayor, law director and auditor receive longevity, along with their staff members. This will end with the next term of office. City Council members do not receive longevity. In terms of employee longevity, there are fair ways to address it. An example is the contracts approved this week between the Elyria Board of Education and our teachers and support staff. A win-win situation was created when we agreed to freeze step increases (longevity) and bump base wages to be more competitive by 1.9 percent.
GRACE: Longevity pay has become a component of city employees' pay that has caused, through the years, their base wages to be proportionately reduced. In fact, Elyria employees' total wages, including their longevity pay, compared to their peers around Lorain County, make an average of $1,450 less per year. Longevity pay for elected officials is the same component of their overall compensation and it helps to maintain fair and proportionate pay that is commensurate to the demands and responsibilities of their position.
NOBLE: We don't. They campaigned for those jobs and it is an expense we can do without. I don't believe in longevity pay for elected officials.
URSI: If the city makes a deal, they need to keep their word. I would ask people receiving this pay to consider doing without some of this pay. Some have done so in good faith. Good for them. I will be doing without when I take office. I have already said I will take $20,000 less in salary and there will be other things I can do without. I know I will not need as much as the current mayor.
Can you cite one example of where you think the city has failed its people and what can be done about it?
BRINDA: Mayor Grace has demonstrated poor judgment and misplaced priorities. (1) He chooses to accept almost $700 a month in travel expenses; (2) spent $1,250 redesigning the city seal and creating a mayoral seal; (3) found a $2.5 million carry-over in the police budget in the middle of a police tax levy; (4) wasted almost $50,000 on bushes and flowers in ditches along Route 57; and bought garbage trucks before knowing they wouldn't fit in any city garages and then commissioned a $25,000 study to figure out where to put them - only to see the deal fall through. The only solution is new leadership.
GRACE: There is a failure of providing an appropriate level of communication between the city and its residents. This can be remedied by allocating additional resources to providing a better city website and using modern communication tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Providing a monthly or quarterly newsletter would be helpful as well. People get their information from many more sources than they did 10 or 20 years ago. As a city we must keep up with these varied sources in order to adequately keep our residents informed.
NOBLE: There is too much fat in the city. We have to trim the fat. If I was the mayor, I would go to Charter Commission and eliminate the job of Council person at large. This is $60,000 that we can save. I have spoken to several residents who have said they have never called a Council at-large person. They call their Council person.
URSI: My street is one of the last streets to be plowed of snow. I don't know why. Maybe, it is at the bottom of the list or money is short. I can't drive down my street sometimes, let alone make it in the driveway. That is why I plow the street myself. I also plow for some of my neighbors. As mayor, you will see me in my truck on my time plowing snow to help out with a heavy snow.
How about an example of where the citizens have failed the city and what they can do better?
BRINDA: Complaining that you are dissatisfied with city government, but failing to do anything about it doesn't serve citizens or our city well. If people want change, they have to be willing to become informed and involved and take action. That becomes difficult when you perceive that even when you do step forward you are being ignored. If I am fortunate enough to become your new mayor, I will provide opportunities for you to participate in setting our community's agenda.
GRACE: A failure of some of our property owners is poor maintenance of their properties. Throughout the city, there are property owners who go the extra mile to improve their property's appearance. This positive attention often spreads to neighboring properties and contributes to making our neighborhoods better. Likewise, when properties fall into a state of disrepair this also spreads to neighboring properties and contributes to making our neighborhoods worse. We need more to take pride in our own property's appearance and to volunteer time to spruce up visible areas in our own neighborhoods. Many do, but more needs to be done.
NOBLE: By not electing people who are good for the good. Voters elect people based on name recognition and party affiliation and must shoulder some of the blame for not looking for the best candidate.
URSI: VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! Attend City Council meetings and learn what is going on and where you can make a difference to hold our leaders accountable.
How would you improve the communication process between the mayor's office and the city employees?
BRINDA: Providing formal structures for communications will help improve communications. Currently, Elyria's managers do not meet regularly. If these leaders aren't meeting to align priorities and resources, then it is difficult for frontline employees to do so. I would start by creating monthly cabinet meetings for all department heads, holding bi-weekly department head meetings with set agendas, and providing employees at all levels with opportunities to share their ideas about how to make improvements to the city. I am a strong believer in management by walking, so it will not be unusual for employees to receive regular visits from me.
GRACE: Using similar communication tools as described previously as well as having the mayor and/or his or her staff meet with department personnel on a regular basis.
NOBLE: Host quarterly meetings between myself and the supervisors to find out what the problems and concerns are as well as hold the employees accountable for what is not getting done. The supervisors have to do more in their departments instead of relying on the assistant safety service directors. Once we get the supervisors more involved in the day-to-day operations, we can eliminate assistant safety service directors.
URSI: Have a meeting once a month - not just the leaders, but the employees, too. You might catch me riding alone with some employees to see how things work. Some employees can give insight for improvement.
Who is paying for the General Industries site cleanup? If it is the city, how much will it cost?
BRINDA: The General Industries site cleanup is currently being directed by the U.S. EPA. The City Law Director, Terry Shilling, worked aggressively with federal authorities to secure cleanup funding. It is my understanding that the property owner will be responsible for repayment directly to federal authorities. This entire process has been long and tedious but will be completed under the very strict requirements of the U.S. EPA. Once completed, we will need to leverage this site, located on a major transportation hub, to industry.
GRACE: In the early hours that followed the fire, it was determined that the owner was not going to maintain the site. The city, in order to maintain public safety, cleared the debris from the public right-of-way and installed a fence to protect the public. This cost was approximately $40,000 and a lien was placed on the property for future collection. The U.S. EPA, at their expense, removed all of the loose debris that remained and also placed a lien on the property totaling over $600,000. Recently, the owner began removing structures that remained but are deemed beyond repair.
NOBLE: The federal EPA and I really don't know what the cost is.
URSI: (Did not provide an answer.)
We are given unfunded mandates, which we must follow and this uses up the available funds needed for other items such as road repair. How can we pass an income tax to make up for the funds we have lost from the county, the state and the federal governments?
BRINDA: Elyria uses federal stimulus funds, Issue II loans and grants and license plate fees to pay for road improvements. We have some discretion in how we use some of these funds, so before we proposed an income tax, I would want to be sure that we have our priorities right. For example, should your license plate fees be used as matching money for other projects, or should they be used for street maintenance - like filling potholes? No tax increases will be proposed until every department is audited and there is a re-engagement of the Financial Review Board and an Operations Efficiency Task Force.
GRACE: Additional local revenue requests may be accepted if the city provided better communication between its residents to help the city better understand community priorities and for the community to better understand the city's efforts to accomplish those priorities.
NOBLE: Right now, I am not in favor of a tax. I am not saying the city won't need one, but how can you tax people who don't have a job? We need to focus more on job creation first before we can actually go and ask people for taxes.
URSI: I hate to see more taxes. Voters have turned this down before. Hopefully, we get things straight at the city level and show citizens what has been done. Trust needs to be rebuilt with the voters. If we have their trust again and we need to ask for a tax increase, I would hope they would pass one.
Speaking of road repair, I would like to see more money spent on stopping the roads from deteriorating so fast. We need to do more preventive maintenance rather than just spending what little money we have every year on repaving a very few streets. Are you willing to make a stitch in time to save nine?
BRINDA: Streets and infrastructure are vital to Elyria's livability, economic prosperity, and outward appearance. With changes to technology and paving materials, it may be wise for Elyria to seek new options and techniques for patching and paving our city streets. Many cities do support a preventive crack program as well as the use of materials that do not pollute waterways from street and highway run-off. I believe we have some in-house employee experts that can help us make good future decisions and save money in the long term.
GRACE: For a number of years, until two years ago, the city had one or two road crews working during the summer, weather permitting, to do pavement crack sealing. With limited resources and personnel, we relied on part-time employees and prisoners to supplement our full-time workers in order to perform this task. Because of city employee layoffs in early 2009, contract provisions have prevented the city from using these individuals for the past two years. The period prohibiting the use of these individuals has expired and this summer the pavement crack sealing program will resume.
NOBLE: People think their license plate fees should go for roads, but right now the mayor and his administration are taking that money to pay for bigger projects like state Route 57. Instead of using it for road repairs, the money is being used to leverage other monies that we have to pay back.
We need a preventive maintenance program that coincides with the monies we are taking in.
URSI: Yes. Being proactive with preventive maintenance goes a long way, not just with roads only.
The crime in this city has increased. People are afraid to go downtown during the day and evening. What would be your plan to decrease crime?
BRINDA: The most effective way to decrease crime is to develop and execute a business strategy to create masses of people, ideas, products, services and activities to bring people downtown. I propose creating a Broad Street Business Incentive Program and make other improvements through public-private partnerships. I know it won't happen overnight, so current efforts to control the downtown's liquor licenses, and enforcement efforts by the Elyria Police Department, the Law Department, City Council and businesses should be applauded and supported. Their efforts will open the door to developing the mixed-use development (retail, housing, entertainment, office space) that is needed.
GRACE: Overall crime in the city has gone down in each of the last two years however there is more to be done. Our Police Department has been successful recently at making a case in Columbus to not renew the liquor licenses of some downtown establishments that are fostering an environment conducive to criminal behavior. This lack of tolerance we hope will encourage downtown establishments to act more responsibly. Additionally, the city was recently awarded a federal grant to pay to have a beat police officer in the downtown area for the next two years, which should provide an effective presence.
NOBLE: We need more in the safety forces. I have a plan to hire two to three new police officers in my first few months of office. I would get rid of the mayor's personal attorney and use that money to hire a police officer. I would eliminate the assistant safety service directors and let the department supervisors do their jobs. That would be two more police officers. Then, if we could eliminate the Council at large positions, we could hire another police officer. We need to do away with what we don't need and focus on what we do need.
URSI: We need to work together on this, police and citizens. This is going on now, but we need more citizens to help out. Our Police Department has needs that must be met. As mayor, I will push hard for police and their needs.
I know with the federal budget being tight, you will need a master plan and a vision that will convince our senators in Washington to approve said monies, if available, in the budget. If elected, would you have any qualms about going after any federal monies available for our city?
BRINDA: Competition will be fierce as federal stimulus funds dry up. Elyria should position itself for success by having a clearly defined vision and updated strategic plan to cover the next three years. This will help us decide which grant opportunities are best suited for our community. Federal grants come with lots of red tape, strings and required matching dollars. These required matching dollars have to come from somewhere and can sometimes siphon off needed money from other areas without careful planning. Yes, we need to be aggressive, but careful that we leverage the opportunities that are right for Elyria.
GRACE: While I have been mayor, the city has received over $43 million in grants, most of which have been federal, and we continue to apply for more. Currently the city is preparing an updated master plan for Cascade Park and we are about to begin preparing a major thoroughfare plan for the entire city. Both plans are being funded by 80 percent federal grants. We expect that these plans will help the city to succeed at acquiring additional federal grants for implementation. Our next sizeable project for which we expect to secure federal funding is the Broad Street improvement project.
NOBLE: Definitely not. I would try to get every grant and every dime I could to put this city on the right track. We are paying taxes and we should bring as much of that money back to Elyria as we can.
URSI: Not at all. As things are streamlined at the city level and we give an account for good stewardships with the money we have, then we have just cause to ask for more, if needed.
How do you think your administration can convince the people in the Senate and the House to listen to the city of Elyria's need?
BRINDA: Regions that align their assets to compete globally are better positioned to grow jobs, increase incomes and attract investments. If Elyria wants to be heard, it must better position itself in the region to become a driving force in the economy. A mayor can do that by having an economic development plan that uses our assets to reinforce relationships with our lawmakers and economic development organizations. My knowledge of how government works and my relationships with area legislators led to a rules change that qualified Elyria Schools for a $23 million state match for the new Elyria High School.
GRACE: Priorities in Washington usually are the result of appeals from the masses. That is why I have been extremely active in participating in Greater Cleveland-area organizations such as the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA). The latter distributes nearly all federal transportation money in our region and I served as its president in 2009. By being active in these organizations, I am able to help ensure that the needs of Elyria are reflected in their respective priorities and that our collective advocacy will be successful in Washington as well as in Columbus.
NOBLE: Yes, I do. I am very good friends with Senator Rob Portman and Senator Sherrod Brown. I can talk to them and others to tell them personally the needs of Elyria.
URSI: Refer to previous answer.
Will you have a special task force in place to develop programs and explain these programs in depth to Washington?
BRINDA: Among the strategies in the plan I am proposing is to create an Elyria Business Ambassadors Program. We have current and past industry leaders right here in our community who are national leaders in their respective fields and have connections at state, national and international levels. In my conversations with some of them, they have expressed a desire to help. They will be recruited, trained and equipped as ambassadors to promote Elyria and enhance the perception of Elyria for executives to grow their businesses and to leverage federal support for programs that meet the needs of our community.
GRACE: Late last year, the federal government awarded a $4.5 million federal grant to conduct a three-year sustainable development study of the 12 counties that comprise Northeast Ohio. This initiative formally began early this year and it is called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. Due to my leadership in the region, I was selected to serve as one of approximately 24 board members. This planning effort will be the most comprehensive study ever conducted in Northeast Ohio and my participation will ensure that Elyria and Lorain County's needs are addressed and future federal assistance more likely.
NOBLE: Yes. I would have knowledgeable people that would go with me and explain our plight and what we are going through. I am not against going across party lines. I am not obligated to any department. I am obligated to the citizens of Elyria.
URSI: Yes, this will take time to see what we have to explore and what is available to us. Then, we can make a plan and present it to Washington. This should not take a long time, though.
What can be done about numerous city-owned properties that are a blighting influence in Ward 2 on the west side and near downtown?
BRINDA: Elyrians can't be expected to maintain their properties if the city does not. I will work with city department heads, businesses, organizations and community groups to establish a plan of action. Much of Elyria's downtown is maintained by the Parks and Recreation Department - which has been cut to the bone. Working with the Community Development and Building departments, all structures, not just city-owned, can eventually be brought into compliance and community standards. Updating the city land use plan may help us to leverage funds that can be used to create clean land banks for future development.
GRACE: Two years ago the city was awarded $2.4 million of federal money to acquire dilapidated property for either rehabilitation or demolition. In the city's 2nd Ward, 15 properties have been acquired and demolished and three more are scheduled for demolition. Five properties have been rehabbed and are for sale and five additional properties are in the process of being rehabbed. The properties that are rehabbed will be sold to income-qualified individuals and the vacant lots will be sold for new construction to a non-profit organization, offered to eligible adjoining property owners or held by the city for future development.
NOBLE: It's going to need a community effort to revitalize that ward. With no monies, that is what is needed. But - with the city-owned properties - I would sell because the city should not be in real estate. We are not getting anything for the properties we own. They are just sitting there dormant, draining city resources and they are an eyesore.
URSI: I would guess some of these properties could be sold, even with a little work needed. I would also guess there are others that need to be torn down. I know of a company that does this kind of work a lot cheaper than others. I would call them to save money.
The construction of new homes in Elyria is about dead. It is evident that the state and federal government are not going to fix the problem. As an administration, what would you propose to City Council to stimulate new home construction?
BRINDA: The construction of new homes is dependent on demand, availability of land, affordability, quality of life amenities, the quality of the school system and the availability and commutability to jobs. Having a well-defined plan is the best way to re-create Elyria and make it attractive to builders and potential home owners. In addition, we need to market Elyria. As an older community, we have limited buildable property. The more we can do to help free up clean land, ensure a high quality infrastructure (roads, sewers, lighting, etc.) and provide incentives to investors, tradesmen and contractors, the more building will occur.
GRACE: Due to the national economy, new housing construction has nearly stopped in the entire country and experts predict this will continue for the next three to five years. Elyria, aside from the national market conditions and with the exception of our far west side, is a built-out community. The need is for Elyria to create an environment that attracts families to invest in acquiring and improving our existing housing. In order to attract this private investment, we must improve the overall quality of our community, such as providing exceptional schools, parks, streets and safe neighborhoods.
NOBLE: You cannot have new home construction without jobs. If no one has a job, they will not build or buy a new home. We need businesses. If you don't have businesses, we won't have jobs. When people have jobs they will start investing in their communities.
URSI: When new businesses come, people can go back to work and will buy new homes. We need a local bank to work with us to free up money - a bank with a local vision, run by people that are local citizens. I work in new construction and at this time there is very little work. I share with my fellow Elyrians in these hard times.