Westerville voters will choose from seven candidates for four Westerville City Council seats on their Nov. 7 ballots.
All four incumbents -- John Bokros, Kathy Cocuzzi, Michael Heyeck and Larry Jenkins -- are running for re-election. They are joined on the ballot by challengers Valerie Cumming, Alex Heckman and Lee Alan Peters.
ThisWeek Westerville News & Public Opinion asked each candidate questions about local issues and gave them an opportunity to share general thoughts.
Answers from three candidates appear here. Answers from the remaining four candidates will run in the Oct. 26 issue.
Many road construction projects in recent years have brought several headaches for city residents. What do you believe would be the most useful improvements to travel within Westerville, including pedestrian access, bicycle accommodation or other roadway improvements?
Bokros: The improvement and changes in the road infrastructure is an ongoing issue. A large amount of vehicle traffic originates from outside our city limits. We can only improve traffic flow within our city. Improvements to South State Street, Sunbury Road and the current project on South Cleveland Avenue are just some of the examples of improvements. Traffic improvements should not be limited to more efficient movements of automobiles. Public transportation should be encouraged and accessible. Use of bikes and other forms of transportation should be improved and expanded.
Cocuzzi: Road construction is always painful when in the midst of it, but these changes result in improvements to traffic flow and infrastructure as well. Recent construction has been taking care of major roads, and now we are improving Schrock/Cleveland Avenue. This will add additional lanes in both directions and is a joint project with Columbus and ODOT. Over $14 million in grants have been obtained for this project with minimal cost to our taxpayers. These projects are the most useful because they affect everyone who drives in the city. As to pedestrian access etc., we are always adding to our multi-use paths; the next priority for me would be an east/west route on College from Spring to Uptown. We also need to put more emphasis on our unique alley system throughout Uptown which would provide an alternative to using only State Street. We also have been working to upgrade the streets within neighborhoods, spending around $8 million each year to repair curbs, gutters, and reconstructing entire streets including sewer and water lines where necessary.
Cumming: As the city continues to grow, we must promote public transportation and other alternative transit options. Sixty percent of millennials say that access to public transportation is one of the most important factors in determining where they will live, but currently, only 20 percent of Westerville residents live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop. I would like to look at investing in a local circulator to move people around within the city and help alleviate traffic congestion issues. A trolley or shuttle to move throughout the Uptown district would enable people to park south of Uptown and then ride a short distance north to eat and shop, avoiding traffic and parking hassles. Improving walkability and bikeability is also a priority. I am in favor of adding sidewalks and recreational paths to neighborhoods that don't currently have them, such as on College between Spring and Otterbein Avenue, and I also support supplementing mass transit with private alternative transportation options, such as Bike2Go.
Westerville is considering changes to the streetscape of the busiest part of Uptown Westerville and has begun asking for input. Design is scheduled for 2018 with construction in 2019. The project intends to widen sidewalks by two feet, improve sewers and meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Some amenities could be added but at a loss of parking space. Do you have thoughts on what you would like to see take place in Uptown?
Bokros: State Street is scheduled to be paved in 2019 as part of the city's paving schedule. In the Uptown Plan and the Comprehensive Plan are ideas to make possible changes to the Uptown streetscape. The time to consider any possible changes is prior to the scheduled repaving in 2019. The city has reached out for public input from the community about possible changes in the streetscape. Those comments will be assembled and submitted to City Council for discussion and decision in 2018, with construction in 2019. There are many factors that need to be considered in this process. Safety, traffic flow, feelings of our community all must be evaluated and analyzed prior to start of the project.
Cocuzzi: State Street is scheduled to be repaved in 2019 and that is the reason why this discussion has arisen. As with any major project, our staff was asked to come up with some plans to see what, if anything, we could do to improve Uptown streetscape. And, as with any major project, the public is being asked for their input. And I am happy to say that they are involved. I still haven't seen the comments since the input time is not over. When it is, we will receive all the comments and only then will we begin discussion. My first priority however, would be to comply with ADA requirements and that may include adding ramps or widening the sidewalk. Safety of our pedestrians is of utmost importance. I would like to explore the addition of handicap spaces. I do not believe in wholesale elimination of spaces on State Street, but there may be some areas where it is advantageous to safety to remove some spaces. An example would be in front of Northstar which although it has a crosswalk, is not actually helpful to those trying to cross and pedestrians are hidden by the parked cars.
Cumming: While I am in favor of bringing our Uptown sidewalks up to ADA compliance, I am against the extra amenities the city has proposed. We all want to live in a pretty town; however, our city currently spends far too much on beautification projects which are expensive and unnecessary. I am also concerned about the impact such a project could have on Uptown business owners. Already, Westerville residents complain about traffic congestion and lack of parking in Uptown and many take pains to avoid the area as a result. Adding another lengthy construction project will cause even more residents to take their business elsewhere. Once the project is completed, the loss of street parking, which is already limited, could be devastating to local businesses. Other suggestions, such as adding bump-outs to corners, would make Uptown even more difficult for large trucks to navigate than it already is. In my opinion, this proposed project is unnecessary at best and detrimental to local business at worst.
At the beginning of this year, council had some intense debates on the use of tax-increment financing deals in the development of Westerville. Some council members voiced opposition, others were solidly in favor. What are your thoughts on the use of TIFs and how they affect Westerville?
Bokros: The use of tax-increment financing is a legal way to promote development and the creation of jobs and infrastructure. To stay competitive in creating jobs, they are an effective tool in the economic development tool box. We have to compete with not only other cities in our region, but with Ohio as well as the United States. TIFs should not be the first thing that is offered, and should be used for commercial projects only.
Cocuzzi: Tax-increment financing has been a useful economic tool for Westerville. Without it there would be no infrastructure in the northern part of our city, nor would we have the many businesses that contribute to our income tax base. The city has used TIFs to spur development in areas of undeveloped land and to stay competitive in today's fierce development market. We are fortunate to live in central Ohio, an area that businesses want to come to. An incentive may mean the difference between a business locating in Westerville, or choosing Dublin or New Albany for example. Thousands of jobs have located here and millions of dollars have not only increased our tax revenues, but brought other businesses as well. For example, new corporate headquarters and a new hotel bring restaurants and coffee shops, and a new medical facility brings doctors' offices.
Cumming: Bringing business to Westerville is crucial, but the question is whether or not TIFs and tax abatements are always the best way to do it. TIFs and tax abatements were originally designed as a way to bring businesses to rural areas. But businesses are drawn to Westerville because it is a growing, thriving community with a high average income. My concern is that the city is making the mistake of giving out abatements to businesses which would have come here anyway. Furthermore, the city has no way to independently confirm how many jobs these new businesses are creating, or how many of these jobs are going to Westerville residents. Currently, the city requires a payment to the school district of about 33 percent of abated taxes. This doesn't make the school district whole. While we all want to see strong businesses choosing Westerville, we also need to ensure that TIFs and tax abatements are used sparingly, and that businesses are paying their fair share to our community.
What else would you like to say to voters?
Bokros: As a 50-year resident of our community, I am proud of our heritage and believe that it's important to preserve the values that make our city such a great place for families, business and education. At the same time, we need to look ahead at how we can continue to meet the needs of our residents in a world that's changing fast. We're fortunate in that we've had great leadership in Westerville, so part of our job is to maintain that level of excellence. Yet, we can always improve. At age 18, and for reasons I may not clearly understand, I was drawn to a life of service and a dream was fulfilled in 1978 when I was hired by the Westerville Fire Division, where I would spend 38 years. In that career, I was privileged to see life at its best, and, unfortunately, also, at its worst. But one thing was always clear -- that Westerville is a special community, with residents who want to make their community better, for the sake of their families, friends and fellow residents. It's been the greatest honor in my life over the past three years to serve this community on City Council, and what I've learned through my decades of service is that we need leaders who know what it means to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and get involved in the day-to-day activities of living here -- the traffic, the relationship with the schools, the families, the businesses, the service and charitable causes. And, as your council person, I have loved every aspect of that responsibility and am asking that you give me the privilege of serving you four more years.
Cocuzzi: I would like to take this opportunity to thank the voters for their support of me. It is an honor to represent them and I am grateful for the trust they continue to put in me. I have worked hard to make Westerville the best place to be, for work or for play and the best place to call home. I am ready to work for them for the next for years and I would appreciate the opportunity to do so. I am asking voters to re-elect me to City Council on Nov. 7. Thank you.
Cumming: As the mother of four young daughters, my main goal is to build a strong Westerville for the future. I want to remain committed to our schools and parks, while refocusing our city's vision from beautifying Uptown to prioritizing the needs of our residents. I would rather invest in people than in pet projects. Affordable housing, public transportation, sustainable energy, providing strong services for seniors, and promoting diversity and inclusivity initiatives so that all of our residents feel safe and welcome are all keys to creating a community that will remain strong for generations to come.