Westerville News & Public Opinion

Chamber of Commerce forum

Incumbents laud their City Council accomplishments

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

The four Westerville City Council incumbents cited the city's accomplishments as evidence they should be re-elected during a candidates' forum hosted by the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce Monday, Sept. 30.

Kathy Cocuzzi, Mike Heyeck, Jenifer French and Larry Jenkins touted the city's services, economic-development efforts, infrastructure improvements and fiscal responsibilities as reasons they should continue in their posts.

Meanwhile, challenger Doug Rankin said he offered an alternative, pledging to fight the "external units" that inhibit government from the local level up.

Asked what three things they would change about Westerville, all the candidates said Westerville already is a great place to live.

Cocuzzi said she would make people more cooperative when dealing with controversial issues and more respectful of others' opinions.

"Sometimes in the past, we've had people take things personally against people when they've disagreed with them," Cocuzzi said.

French she would make people more willing to contact the city when issues arise, because the city's staff is quick to resolve problems.

"Occasionally, you'll come across someone who is very displeased with something that has happened, but they haven't reached out to anyone to say that they are unhappy," French said.

Heyeck said he would like to see improvements and growth in Uptown and private reinvestment on South State Street.

"Uptown is fantastic. It is the center of our city; it is the heart of our city," Heyeck said. "But the Uptown is basically State Street, and there is a lot that can be done a block or two on both sides of State Street."

Jenkins said he's eager to see construction of a hotel and conference center that have been in city plans for more than a decade.

"If I could change on thing, that would have been built already so you have somewhere that you can send your guests in Westerville," Jenkins said.

In speaking with residents, Rankin said he's heard from many senior citizens who worry that they won't be able to stay in their Westerville homes because of rising costs and taxes, and he said he would like to remedy that problem.

"I don't want to see my neighbors leave," Rankin said.

When asked what metric they would use to gauge the success of their four-year terms, the candidates pointed to things they said the city does well and said they should focus on continuing to do those things, and on expanding them.

Heyeck pointed to Westerville's financial success: The city is about one of 10 in Ohio, out of more than 900, that have a AAA bond rating because of its low debt, adequate rainy-day funds and five-year balanced budget plan, he said.

Jenkins said the city provides a good balance of fiscal responsibility, economic development and quality services.

"Across the board, Westerville enjoys a high standard of living," Jenkins said.

Rankin said in a four-year term, he would see a new police facility built, consolidating the department from many buildings into one, parking and traffic flow in Uptown addressed and a balanced budget maintained.

"That's a standard," Rankin said of the city's balanced budget.

Cocuzzi said she believes it's important for council members to focus on economic development while maintaining the city's history.

"We need to find the right balance of development that fits within our city," she said.

French said she would work to maintain the city's parks and recreation department, something she said helps attract many to Westerville.

"Our parks and our services that our parks provide are one of the reasons that businesses locate here," French said. They draw people to Westerville, and it's so important to have them."

All of the candidates agreed that raising taxes wouldn't be on their agenda.

Jenkins said the city needs to focus on initiatives like the recent purchase of 67 acres in the Westar area to bring in more businesses.

Allowing more businesses in means growing the city's tax base and continuing to provide quality services without raising taxes, Jenkins said.

"We've had to turn away businesses who have gone to neighbors" because of a lack of office space in Westerville, Jenkins said. "There's businesses who want to be here who can't be, which means jobs lost here."

Rankin criticized Columbus and Franklin County for recent tax increases, saying the state and federal government must stop the "smoke and mirrors" that surround taxes.

"You have to live within your means, that's the bottom line," Rankin said.

The income-tax increase passed in 2009 was the first tax increase in 22 years and was necessary for reinvestment in city infrastructure, Cocuzzi said.

But by focusing on growing businesses in the city, the city won't need any more tax increases in the near future, she said.

French also touted the city's focus on business growth to boost tax revenue and said most residents seem to understand that the city does well with the money it has.

"I don't like to pay taxes any more than anyone else does, but I'm finding the vast majority of people in Westerville understand that the city goes to great lengths to be good stewards of your tax dollars," French said.

Heyeck said city leaders made the decision decades ago to not allow Westerville to become a bedroom community by focusing on business growth, which allowed for a solid tax base to support city services.

The city must continue to focus on that, he said.

Additionally, the city owns many of its own utilities, such as electric and water, and provides residents with lower rates for those utilities, providing more value to residents, Heyeck said.

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