By Mike Mortensen
LACONIA – Candidates for mayor and City Council stressed the importance of controlling spending and encouraging economic development at a candidates' forum in Weirs Beach last night.
About 20 people turned out for the two-hour event held just 12 days before the Nov. 5 city election. The forum was hosted by Weirs Action Committee and moderated by Niel Young.
Mayoral candidates Edward Engler and Kaileif Mitchell emphasized the importance of economic opportunity – an issue which has been a key theme of both men's campaigns.
Engler said that Laconia needs to have the kind of jobs that will attract people to the area.
Mitchell said helping the city become a more popular tourist destination was his top priority.
"I'm more concerned about tourism, concerned about the Weirs and downtown," he said
Both Engler and Mitchell are seeking to succeed Mayor Mike Seymour, who is not running for re-election.
Others participating in the forum held at Weirs Community Center were Ward 2 council candidate Richard Beaudoin, who is running against David Bownes, who did not attend; Ward 3 Councilor Henry Lipman, who is unopposed; Ward 5 Councilor Bob Hamel and his challenger Tom Tardif; and Ward 6 Councilor Armand Bolduc and his opponent Anthony Felch. Ward 1 Councilor Ava Doyle and Ward 4 Councilor Brenda Baer, who are both running unopposed, did not attend.
Mitchell said one way to give the city's tourist-based economy a boost would be to put a casino in Weirs Beach, which he said would bring 500 jobs. He said he did not believe that a casino would cause the kind of crime problems that opponents of expanded gambling claim.
Engler said that Laconia's future depends on demographics and economic vitality.
"We have an aging and graying population. Here in New Hampshire we have an internal conflict between economic vitality and keeping the state the way it's always been. Part of the way it's always been is that we have a lot of poor people. That means we need better paying jobs, and more white-collar jobs," Engler said.
While acknowledging that Laconia has lost manufacturing jobs during the last 20 to 30 years, Lipman noted signs of a rebound in that sector of the city's economy, pointing to Aavid Thermalloy's decision to move its corporate headquarters back to Laconia and to New Hampshire Ballbearing adding to its workforce.
"There's a lot that is positive going on here in Laconia," Lipman said.
Both mayoral candidates, along with candidates for council, talked about the need to keep city spending under control in order to keep tax increases to a minimum.
Both Hamel and Lipman said the council has been able to keep increases in city spending to less than what is allowed under the city's tax cap. But Tardif said that the council needed to be more frugal and said that if elected he would fight to level-fund the budget.
All candidates said they supported the tax cap.
One issue all candidates said would have serious impact on city taxes is the proposal to build a new $43 million county jail. And all said the next mayor and council needed to press county officials and the County Delegation to come up with a less expensive alternative.
Mitchell called the $43 million price tag "astronomically high" and said space could be added for much less by building a second floor to the current facility.
Engler said as mayor he would take a lead in getting the county to come up with a less expensive proposal.
"The tax cap includes the county tax which we have no control over, he said. "Laconia pays 20 percent of the county tax bill. We cannot allow a break in the tax cap because of the county budget." He said that Laconia would have to pay $500,000 a year just for the debt service on the bond for $43 million corrections facility.
Hamel said the cost of the new jail building was not his only concern. He also objected to plans to add staff at a cost of $2.2 million to $2.3 million a year.
"That is something that is going to stick there after the bond (on a new jail) is paid," he said.
Most candidates said they would support efforts that would encourage the revitalization of downtown, Lakeport and Weirs Beach.
They lamented the condition of the Colonial Theater building, but said the city should not get involved in any major way to redevelop the property.
The City Council has approved the establishment of Tax Increment Financing – or TIF – districts in the downtown and Lakeport and is considering whether to establish a third district in Weirs Beach. Most support the concept under which a portion of the additional revenue that comes from property improvements in the district can only be used for infrastructure improvements in that district. But Tardif said he was opposed to the TIF mechanism, which he considered another form of urban renewal.
Engler said initiatives to revitalize the downtown or other parts of the city needed to have broad popular consensus and should not be undertaken just because of special interests.
"If we want to make an effort to improve a certain area of town for all our benefit, that's appropriate," he said.
Lipman said that while it is important for the city to do everything it can to save money it also needs to do things to invest in the city's future.
The issue of mandatory recycling versus pay-as-you-throw as a way to reduce the city trash collection costs dominated the first part of the forum. All the candidates said they now support the mandatory recycling program which went into effect this summer. But Felch said he would push for another look at pay-as-you throw if the recycling program was not meeting its goals.
The city election is Tuesday, Nov. 5.