Six candidates for Powell City Council -- including two incumbents -- are angling for three available seats in one of the most hotly contested races in Delaware County.
Heather Karr, Nicole Scott, Christopher Shear and Gary Yashko will challenge incumbents Jon Bennehoof and Dan Swartwout on the Nov. 5 ballot.
ThisWeek asked the candidates to share their thoughts on several issues facing Powell. Here are their responses:
What is the biggest issue facing Powell right now, and how would you resolve it?
Bennehoof: Powell has a couple significant challenges. The most pressing is the capital maintenance issue that the residents recognize; however, the city was unable to have a tax increase passed to fund those infrastructure needs.
Council missioned a diverse cross section of the community to study the issues with respect the city's revenue, budget management and possible sources of conservation and ways to generate the funds for those capital needs.
This problem began in 2005 with a reduction in tax dollars being constrained but was made critical when then-Gov. John Kasich began balancing the state budget by severely cutting back the Local Government Fund. Many municipalities rushed to the ballot with local income-tax increases; Powell did not.
I would reconvene the task force, have them review the options and make a recommendation that we could get behind as a community and address the issue of sustainably funding our community's safety.
In the meantime, we need to seek out smart economic development. My role and relationships on the Delaware County Finance Authority should be able to assist our community, as a member of the county system, to identify and attain this important development.
Karr: While our city faces a number of challenges, the biggest issue we must address is a growing distrust and lack of communication in local government. The actions of the Liberty Township trustees in relation to the city of Powell have left our community less safe, less united and less effective.
As your Powell City Council member, I will prioritize transparency and citizen engagement in our local government. We must collaborate with Liberty Township and Delaware County to enact carefully planned development strategies that maximize the benefit to Powell residents.
I'm not running for Powell City Council to satisfy political ambitions; I'm running because every Powell family deserves to live in a safe, prosperous and forward-thinking community. That's why I'll put politics aside and be a voice for the citizens of Powell.
With rapid growth, traffic and budgetary concerns, we need a Powell City Council that stands up for residents and their well-being. I hope to earn your support to serve our community with thoughtful decision-making and transparency.
Scott: Carrying out adequate maintenance of our capital infrastructure: streets, facilities, etc. As our city has grown, this is critical to our future.
This issue must be addressed with careful evaluation to ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely as we carefully evaluate our expenditures.
Shear: Our city is plagued by political infighting and "camps" of groups divided who constantly scheme, cut back-room deals and attack anyone and everyone in their path. They use their power and influence for personal benefit and to the detriment of the residents.
Liberty Township has recently blocked the city's growth plans north of Home Road with a massive apartment rental complex next to Liberty High School approved by all the trustees. The first thing City Council accomplished was to raise your taxes.
I am a man of my word. If elected when I say I won't raise your taxes, I won't. Operating with complete transparency, I will collaborate with township leaders on projects that benefit our one community.
I am for local fire/EMS, not outsourcing it, and maintaining a strong local police department. I will work on continuing to grow and improve Powell Fest and key efforts like DORA and promoting our wonderful downtown businesses.
Swartwout: In my view, the two biggest issues facing Powell are improving the relationship between Powell and Liberty Township and finding a fair and equitable funding solution for Powell's infrastructure needs.
Because these topics are specifically addressed in Questions 2 and 3, it is clear that many people recognize the importance of these issues. I will address these topics in greater deal in the questions below.
Yashko: The issues facing Powell are interrelated. Taxes, development, traffic and infrastructure needs do not exist behind separate firewalls.
However, I believe the first order of business should be fixing the income tax. The current income-tax structure does not generate the revenue necessary to maintain, let alone expand, our infrastructure. Our roads, sidewalks, paths, etc. are deteriorating. The longer we defer maintenance, the more expensive repairs will be.
Moreover, the current tax structure is inequitable. Powell boasts of having the lowest income-tax rate in the region, but when a resident employed in Columbus pays a total of 3.0% in local income tax, Powell's low rate is scant comfort.
My priority will be working with council and residents to develop an income-tax plan our residents will support.
We must also expand the income-tax "pie" by working to attract more businesses to Powell which create jobs but not residents. The city must also explore other avenues of funding, e.g., municipal bonds.
Lastly, the residents' trust is the foundation upon which all changes must be built. Seldom Seen Park is an example of lost trust. Promises made must be promises kept. I promise to work for all Powell residents.
Do you agree with the city's approach to traffic congestion at the Four Corners over the past two years? Why or why not?
Bennehoof: The Keep Powell Moving study leveraged multiple traffic studies and experts and again involved resident input and review. I agree with the approach the city has taken with respect to restricting turning movements at the Four Corners.
First, all of the evidence and observations demonstrate that the left-hand turning movements back up the through traffic during peak traffic times, causing congestion. Second, personal review of research points out the need for change and how the community grows to embrace it. There is a thorough study on Stockholm bridge traffic management that is available in a TED Talk that goes into this in depth.
Powell does have a network for navigation around the Four Corners that improved signage will address. With improved awareness and signage, the traffic flow will improve.
Karr: Traffic in Powell continues to arise as a key concern for local businesses and residents. As with any growing community, we must find ways to streamline transportation and minimize delays.
I appreciate the efforts of the Powell City Council to alleviate traffic congestion at the Four Corners. However, I believe this is a short-term solution to a bigger issue. We need to strategically develop and implement an infrastructure plan that encourages walkability, attracts consumers to local businesses and decreases traffic. This must be a joint venture with comprehensive citizen input and collaboration with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
As your Powell City Council member, I will work with residents and experts to develop a long-term plan for traffic alleviation and efficiency.
Scott: Absolutely! As a member of council's development committee, I remain firmly committed to the Keep Powell Moving program.
This plan has set a strong foundation with respect to traffic mitigation in and around the Four Corners. The recent decision to increase the no-turn restriction from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. complemented with increased signage will help to alleviate congestion, especially with a commitment to an enhanced enforcement protocol.
Shear: I agree with City Council's traffic measures implemented at the Four Corners. Specifically agree with no left turns. I drive through there daily and frequent our downtown businesses and the flow seems to be better. I can get in and out without delay.
Swartwout: In June 2017, City Council initiated turn restrictions at the Four Corners in response to the closure of state Route 315. Feedback from Powell's 2018 Community Attitudes Survey suggests that the turn restrictions were well-received.
Based on the tremendous work of the operations committee, City Council recently passed greater turn restrictions at the Four Corners. The operations committee studied traffic patterns, invited feedback from residents and businesses, and held a public forum to discuss possible changes. It was a long, deliberate process that put the concerns of the public first.
I understand the changes won't please everybody, but again, the initial feedback has been very positive.
Yashko: I agree with the city's approach of banning left-hand turns as a means of keeping traffic moving through the Four Corners. However, I disagree with the ordinance's execution.
A ban without active enforcement will not achieve the desired effect. Further, I believe that the left-turn ban is only part of the solution. Powell must do more to divert traffic away from the Four Corners. The traffic lights at either end of Grace Drive have made it a viable bypass. The same should be done with Bennett and Murphy parkways.
For example, when driving west on Powell Road to go home, ideally, I would take Bennett Parkway to South Liberty. But because it's difficult to turn left on to South Liberty, I go through the Four Corners where I invariably am held up by someone making an illegal left turn.
Powell should also invest in technology such as cameras/ sensors at traffic lights. In 2019, there is no reason why traffic on Powell Road should be stopped, and backed up, in both directions at the traffic light at Village Point Drive when there are no cars waiting on Village Point Drive to cross or turn left onto Powell Road.
How can the city effectively raise money for its infrastructure needs?
Bennehoof: I would reiterate my responses to the first question. Our budget is one of the tightest in the state. The city of Powell has the lowest income tax in the state. There are 51 municipalities that have 0% to 0.05%; 14, like Powell, have 0.75%; all the rest are north of that and as high as 3%.
Powell has a history of fiscal conservatism, which I support. As elected officials for the city, council is missioned to assure the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the community. Our primary charge is to set policy and strategy for the community.
Through smart development, we can attract good, solid employers, such as the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, which will be bringing hundreds of good-paying jobs that will assist in our revenue growth.
But we need to do more in the arena of economic development. Infill development is about the only avenue for Powell to pursue until there are alternate growth avenues for the city. Our tax base must expand to support the infrastructure that development has funded over the past decade or so.
Karr: As a working mother of two, I understand the importance of fiscal responsibility and a low tax burden. The reality is that we need to seriously reevaluate our city budget and ensure that our roads and bridges are maintained.
Every year that we delay maintenance increases, the eventual cost of upkeep. I believe we must look at the annual municipal budget and identify possible expenditure cuts before raising income. I do not believe that residents should bear the brunt of infrastructure costs alone.
That's why I'll work with citizen committees and experts in financial analytics to develop a plan for infrastructure improvements. I believe that developers who increase the traffic in our community must also be expected to chip in to the improvements we require.
The city of Powell is an amazing place to live, work and do business. It's incumbent upon all of us to work together to keep it that way.
Scott: Increase its economic base by actively attracting more businesses, generating revenue into our city.
The city also must revisit the income-tax credit situation and make city residents whole.
Shear: I am committed to finding ways to fund critical infrastructure projects like roads, parks and trails without increasing the tax burden on our residents and businesses.
If elected to City Council, I will get resident input and work with other members of council on an income-tax reimbursement plan that would recoup the monies our residents are already paying other municipalities back to Powell -- level the playing field with other municipalities so that the money comes back to Powell. I would not vote for any plan that is not a win-win for residents and businesses.
Swartwout: We must find a fair and equitable funding solution that is acceptable to the voters.
Many Powell residents already pay some of the highest local taxes in Ohio. I will continue working with residents and other council members to find a fair solution that is more in line with other central Ohio cities.
Additionally, we must continue to expand our commercial tax base, which in turn, lightens the tax burden for Powell families. For example, I played a key role in bringing the Wexner Medical Center to Powell, which will have a tremendous impact on Powell's commercial tax base.
Yashko: The city must revamp its income tax to make it more consistent with the rest of central Ohio and more equitable for all its residents.
Powell and Liberty Township should reconsider a Joint Economic Development Zone whereby employees in designated areas of Liberty Township would pay an income tax which would be shared by the city and the township. It's ridiculous that the Columbus Zoo pays no real-estate taxes, its employees pay no income taxes and the residents of Powell and Liberty Township provide its fire and EMS service with their property taxes.
Lastly, the city should take a closer look at issuing more municipal bonds once the repayment sources are in place.
What can the city do to improve its relationship with Liberty Township?
Bennehoof: I founded and chaired the ONECommunity Committee a few years ago. We were working on the relationship, but other events led to the relationship having issues. When those legal and relationship issues emerged, ONECommunity was suspended.
It is my desire to reengage that construct to address, repair and manage the city-township relationship. Early next year or as this year winds down, I would meet with the new leadership of the township and discuss the reengagement of the ONECommunity concept. I have had preliminary, casual conversations with a couple of the township candidates who are receptive to that prospect.
Karr: The collaboration of Liberty Township and the city of Powell is essential for our community, as a whole, to be proactive in anticipating patterns of growth, securing the necessary infrastructure and preservation of important areas regarding safety.
As of September 2019, the two entities have not met in a public meeting format in over six years -- that is unacceptable. Residents rightfully expect our Powell City Council and Liberty Township board of trustees to work together for the betterment of the community as a whole. That's why, in conjunction with Melanie Farkas -- a candidate for Liberty Township trustee -- I am proposing a comprehensive collaboration plan for Powell.
Our Community Unity Plan proposes a joint public meeting of the Liberty Township trustees and Powell City Council members as soon as January 2020, implementation of expectations for Powell city manager and Liberty Township administrator collaboration, and the exploration of additional mechanisms to encourage joint strategic development.
This isn't just lip service -- I have a clear plan to end disunity and move our community towards joint collaboration for the good of every resident. I hope to earn your support for a better future for our community.
Scott: The township and the city must foundationally align to common goals. As new leaders are elected, there is an opportunity to integrate and partner on challenges shared by residents, such as safety, development, zoning, and revenue stream generation.
Shear: The relationship between the city and township has been absolutely awful for years and years. It is an embarrassment for city residents.
Has the current council, including the outgoing mayor, made the relationship with the township better or worse? Is our partnership with the township mutually beneficial these days?
The people want better leadership. The constant in-fighting, scheming, back-room dealings and old-school political wrangling has to end. A total lack of transparency has been a huge detriment as well.
It's time for new members on council. Voters need to elect new people who can communicate effectively in the modern era.
One of my strengths is my ability to work with people in the community. Improving the relationship with the township to benefit our residents is one of the main reasons why I decided to run.
Swartwout: The entire community will benefit from a more unified approach to our shared goals.
I have a deep understanding of the legal relationship between the city and the township. As a result, I have been a leader in the city's effort to save our local EMS service.
I will continue to use my extensive knowledge of the Cooperative Economic Development Agreement and my relationship-building skills to advocate for more cooperation between Powell and Liberty Township.
Yashko: The responsibility for improving the relationship between Powell and Liberty Township does not rest solely on Powell. Liberty Township must also want an improved relationship.
The city's and the township's residents must elect officials who will serve the residents' interests rather than special interests and their political careers.
To begin with, I believe the city and township should regularly hold joint meetings to address common issues, e.g., the fire department and EMS. I would like to see the city and township work together on a comprehensive plan to guide development in the coming decades.
It would behoove us to decide what we want to be 15, 30 and 45 years from now. We are in this together.