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 Heckman, Heyeck, Jenkins and Peters appear here. Answers from Bokros, Cocuzzi and Cumming ran in the Oct. 19 issue and can be found at ThisWeekNews.com.
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?
Heckman: Westerville needs to do a better planning and executing projects, so we can reduce the time and expense arising from having to do rework or paying exorbitant amounts for small pieces of land that are not truly necessary for the project or cutting down trees unnecessarily. The best example of this is the road to nowhere that was built near Starbucks on South State that just the city took way too long to correct. A key part of improving traffic is also engaging in better planning and zoning so that we can create more mixed use, walkable developments where residents can access home, work, retail, parks, etc. without having to drive. Such proactive planning can help avoid creating more traffic and road construction headaches. Finally, the city needs to do more to create mobility options for residents. All these steps are critical for creating a more affordable and livable community that will benefit young families and senior citizens.
Heyeck: On my watch, we spent well over $200 million on roads and infrastructure, with tripling the budget for street maintenance and curb replacement. We also built 44 miles of trails for pedestrians and bicycles. We had the foresight to build Polaris, North Cleveland, County Line West, and widen Sunbury, Worthington, and Africa roads, plus other improvements. This is bound to cause orange barrel fever, but the result is less congestion in the long run. The project many found most troubling (including me) was the South State Street project. It was complex due to burial of several overhead electrical lines with undocumented existing underground utilities, compounded by a contractor that did not do well with the complexity. For the future, projects include Cleveland Avenue widening, North State Street turn lanes, Westar area, Cooper Road area, Huber Village re-paving, McCorkle extended, and several other road improvements. More trails will be added, too. Every year, we update our five-year capital plan posted on our website.
Jenkins: Traffic is always an important issue for Westerville residents. On one hand, they value the strong business economy and local access to retail, amenities, and services but with that comes with the added burden of increased traffic. This situation is exacerbated by the high volume of traffic from neighborhoods to the north that must use Westerville roads to access our services and gain access to the greater Columbus area. The city must continue to expand and improve our roadways, even if that means some construction disruption, and invest in infrastructure so that we can continue to meet the needs of Westerville now and in the future. It is also important that we continue to invest in sidewalks, multi-use paths, bike lanes, and bus routes so that we can provide connections to all parts of the city, meet the desires for a more active lifestyle, and encourage other forms of transportation.
Peters: Construction projects cause frustration and are a drag on businesses and commuters. I believe in awarding incentive contracts so that a company is rewarded for finishing early and penalized for finishing late. We need more integrated bike paths on major corridors such as Dempsey Road and Cleveland Avenue. I also believe that a small public transit circulator might benefit Westerville which would give the citizens more transportation options.
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?
Heckman: Key factors for making this decision should be the impact on local businesses in Uptown and whether the project is beneficial overall to citizens and taxpayers. We should continue to upgrade the historic and distinctive Uptown area in ways that are sensible and that minimize the costs to taxpayers. The current Uptown road and sidewalks could be repaired and upgraded for several hundred thousand dollars, while other proposals would cost between $2 million and $3 million. The higher-end proposals would include features, such as bump-outs, that are not necessary and would eliminate many parking spaces. We should not remove parking from Uptown, particularly parking that is closest to local businesses. Also, the time frame for any construction should be as short as possible, to minimize the negative impact on local businesses. The city should not invest in costly projects that do not appear to have a significant benefit for businesses or residents. Instead, the funding saved could be used to improve or repair subpar infrastructure elsewhere in the community.
Heyeck: The Uptown streetscape investment should meet safety, long-term street performance, drainage, and ADA requirements to the extent practical (limited by road width). Over the last three years, we increased Uptown parking by 197 spaces, but parking losses and Uptown business impacts for this project should be absolutely kept to a minimum. Some sidewalks are now sloping toward the businesses and need replacement for proper drainage (including development of proper curb heights). Some sidewalks may need repairs or replacement to meet ADA. Slight extensions of sidewalks by one foot may help, but the total of 2-feet extensions on each side may not be needed, and we should not go further than two feet in my opinion. Travel lanes south of Park are 10 feet wide, and north of College are 12 feet wide. The minimum width is 10 feet, but that may be too tight north of College, with the higher pedestrian use. Ultimately, we want a properly designed road and pedestrian space without wholesale impacts.
Jenkins: Today's consumer wants to go to a place close to work and home, that is walkable, offers various options, and where they can socialize and dine out with friends and family. Uptown Westerville is such a place, not just for our residents but for the surrounding area. In order to meet the growing demand and stay competitive, the city must improve the accessibility and walkability of Uptown. We also must continue to add space for the growing number of visitors to sit, socialize and enjoy Uptown. In order to accommodate these changes we must address the size of our sidewalks, safety issues with regards to the traffic on State Street, and accessibility to those with disabilities. The growing need for parking and any loss of parking caused by changes must be addressed at the same time by continuing to create new parking options in Uptown through public/private partnerships or additional infrastructure.
Peters: Let's solve the parking problem. Building a parking deck, while expensive, would do the most to help alleviate the parking issue in Uptown. I also believe the alleyways could be better aligned to provide better parking and better lighting. Having safe and attractive walkways from the parking areas to State Street is important if we want to attract visitors to Uptown. I believe that we can upgrade the street and sidewalks for the minimal prices and use the remainder on the other improvements mentioned above.
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?
Heckman: The primary purpose of a tax increment financing deal or TIF is to ensure that the city will provide the necessary infrastructure -- roads, sewers, etc. -- to meet the increased traffic and service demands resulting from a developed property. For example, land that was green space that is developed into a shopping center has much greater need for infrastructure as the new development will attract more traffic. If the infrastructure around the development is not improved this exacerbates congestion and other problems in the area. Therefore, it is critical to do an accurate estimate of what the additional infrastructure needs will be for the developed property. The value of the TIF should be based on what the cost of these actual additional infrastructure needs. We should not abate more taxes than are really needed. Also, TIFs should only be considered when truly needed to attract a major business with good-paying jobs.
Heyeck: Tax increment financing (TIF) provides directed cash flows for needed road and infrastructure improvements to avoid impacts such as traffic congestion from specific commercial development that is designated by the TIF. Property taxes for the undeveloped property are unaffected. Property taxes for the specific incremental development are paid, but directed to an account for limited periods to fund infrastructure. TIFs are not forever, and we typically use non-school TIFs so that school funding is not impacted. If TIFs are not allowed, development (jobs) will not occur (commercial development being highly competitive), and income tax revenue growth to fund police, roads improvements and city services will stagnate. This places upward pressure to raise income tax rates as others (e.g., Upper Arlington) have done. Westerville uses TIFs in limited ways so we do not need to raise income tax rates. And I will not advocate raising income tax rates.
Jenkins: TIFs are an effective and efficient way to finance the needed new infrastructure required to support and attract new development and investment to Westerville. Without the use of TIFs the city of Westerville would not be able to be competitive and we would lose economic opportunities to our neighbors. By using TIFs, the city can capture the value of new development and focus it back into infrastructure needs without having to raise taxes on our residents or impacting the ability to deliver the city services they cherish. The city of Westerville has successfully used our economic development tools, like TIFs, for the past four decades and should continue to do so in the appropriate areas and for the appropriate projects.
Peters: TIFs are one way to improve infrastructure in an area that will be impacted by new business development. As long as TIFs benefit the public good and not be a benefit directly to the company, I believe they are one tool to attract business. We do need to make sure that any economic incentives make fiscal sense in that the net gain to Westerville is positive.
What else would you like to say to voters?
Heckman: I am a lifelong resident of Westerville who wants to make sure Westerville is affordable for young people, families and seniors. One key goal I will have while serving on City Council is to help make Westerville a leader in sustainability and going green.
The city should undertake projects to reduce energy usage, increase use of renewables, give citizens renewable energy options, and move toward zero-waste in our parks. Done intelligently, these initiatives will save the city and residents money and make our community more affordable for everyone. It will also make a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Heyeck: My family moved to Westerville in 1980, and we remain in the same home in the Annehurst subdivision. I have volunteered for numerous city commissions and civic boards since 1984. I have three college degrees in business, finance and engineering. I retired as AEP senior executive after 37 years and started a small business for the electric industry in 2013. On my watch on council, we increased safety forces by over 50 percent, we added our third fire station, we spent well over $200 million on roads and infrastructure, we added thousands of jobs, and we achieved one of the best financial (fiscal management) ratings in Ohio as established by independent rating agencies (S&P and Moody's). For 33 years, we received awards from the Auditor of State. Let's continue to preserve our safe, family-friendly, small-town atmosphere for Westerville, a "City Within A Park." See my Facebook page for more information.
Jenkins: We are experiencing a time of great success within the city of Westerville. Through careful planning, long-range budgeting and conservative financial management, the city has seen tremendous private investment within the city. This year alone we will see two new hotels and multiple corporate headquarters move to or stay in the city. This success allows us to continue to have the best parks and rec system in the area, extraordinary city services and a strong finance position. Our five-year plan and fiscal policy guarantees that there will be no need to raise taxes and that we are living within our means. As a member of City Council, I would continue to support our economic development efforts and investments in infrastructure, parks, and city services, while maintaining our strong fiscal planning and AAA bond rating.
Peters: Sustainable energy is an opportunity we need to pursue.
I would like to see Westerville set a date where where we consume 100 percent sustainable energy. I also want to spend our taxpayer dollars wisely. It is great to live in an attractive city -- but at what cost? Perhaps we can do projects for $250,000 instead of $1,000,000 and use the difference to fund some of the sewer and water projects on the unfunded capital improvement list.